Florida: The Forgotten State of the Confederacy

This entry is part 5 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South
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Florida in the Civil WarFlorida is sometimes forgotten by Civil War historians because its role in the war was more as a supplier of goods rather than soldiers to the Confederacy. With its small total population of 154,494 Florida only sent 15,000 into the fight.

Instead Governor John Milton stressed the importance of Florida as a supplier of goods, rather than personnel. Florida was a large provider of food (particularly beef cattle) and salt for the Confederate Army.

Florida’s cattle ranges provided much-needed beef to the south’s main armies, particularly during the latter stages of the war. The peninsula’s 13000 mile coastline also proved invaluable for the production of salt, made by boiling sea water in large kettles or evaporating it in man-made tidal pools.

Florida’s long 8,436-mile coastline and 11,000 miles of rivers, streams, and waterways proved a haven for blockade runners and a daunting task for patrols by Federal warships. But its location, scant industry and small population made the state strategically unimportant.

Overall, the state raised some 15,000 troops for the Confederacy, which were organized into twelve regiments of infantry and two of cavalry, as well as several artillery batteries and supporting units. Since neither army aggressively sought control of Florida, many of Florida’s troops were sent to serve in Virginia in the Army of Northern Virginia under Brig. Gen. Edward A. Perry and Col. David Lang. The “Florida Brigade” fought in many of Robert E. Lee‘s campaigns, and twice charged Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg, including supporting Pickett’s Charge.

By the summer of 1862 Florida had raised, equipped, and sent out of state the 1st through 8th regiments of infantry, the 1st Florida Calvary Regiment, and various smaller commands. The only forces remaining in the state were a variety of independent companies, several infantry battalions, and the newly-organized 2nd Florida Cavalry Regiment.

Over the next year and a half, these units fended off a series of minor raids along the coast, as well as the temporary Union reoccupations of Jacksonville in the fall of 1862 and the spring of 1863. At St. Johns bluff in September of 1862 Confederate forces experienced a humiliating reverse when a strong position of the St. Johns River near Jacksonville was abandoned to a Union naval and land force without a fight.

Early in the war the Union Navy set up a blockade around the entire state. Union forces eventually seized and occupied major ports such as Cedar KeyJacksonvilleKey West, and Pensacola. In March 1862 Commodore Samuel DuPont led a force of 28 ships that captured Fort Clinch on Amelia Island. They used the fort as the base of Union operations in the area throughout the Civil War and allowed them to control the adjacent Florida and Georgia coasts.

In early 1862, the Confederate government withdrew General Braxton Bragg‘s small army from Pensacola following successive Confederate defeats in Tennessee at Fort Donelson and Fort Henry and the fall of New Orleans. They were  sent them to the Western Theater for the remainder of the war. The only Confederate forces remaining in Florida at that time were a variety of independent companies, several infantry battalions, and the 2nd Florida Cavalry

The largest battle of the war in Florida took place on February 20, 1864 at Olustee in Baker County on the Florida-Georgia border. Brigadier General Truman Seymour, in command of the expedition, landed troops at Jacksonville, in an area already seized by the Union in March 1862.

Seymour’s forces then made several raids into northeast and north-central Florida. During these raids he met little resistance, seized several Confederate camps, captured small bands of troops and artillery pieces and liberated slaves. However, Seymour was under orders from Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore not to advance deep into the state.

Despite his orders Seymour moved across northern Florida with the intention of capturing Tallahassee, the capital. Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan who was reinforced by Georgian troops met the Union force at Olustee. Seymour assumed that he was facing Florida militia and committed his troops piecemeal. The Union forces attacked but were savagely repulsed by withering barrages of rifle and cannon fire.

Seymour was forced to order a retreat after suffering about 34% casualties to his 5,500-man force: 203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing. Confederate losses to their 5,000-man force were lower: 93 killed, 847 wounded, and 6 missing. The Union defeat caused Northern authorities to question the necessity of further Union involvement in the militarily insignificant state of Florida.

As the war in Florida went on, Unionists began to come forward to fight against their neighbors. Floridians who supported the Union sometimes were forced to leave their homes and flee as refugees to coastal towns in Florida that were occupied by federal troops. 

Virtually all Unionists that left their home lost much of the belongings. Many had their home destroyed, usually robbed and set on fire by their Secessionist and Rebel enemy. When the Unionists left their home, many packed what they could into wagons while others basically escaped with their lives.

In December 1863, the 2nd Florida Calvary (Union) was formed at Cedar Key and Key West. They served in southern Florida and the Keys until the end of the war. Initially, the Florida Unionists formed a company-size unit named the Florida Rangers who mounted raids against Confederate positions along the Gulf Coast and against Confederate cattle operations. This unit later became the 1st Florida Cavalry which was formally was organized at Fort Barrancas near Pensacola in December of 1863 and served in northern Florida for the balance of the war.

The Confederates responded by organizing local citizens, herdsmen and cowmen into the “1st Battalion Florida Special Cavalry” known as the “Cow Cavalry.” The 1st and 2nd Cavalry (Union) regiments were the only units formally recognized by the Union government.

 

 

 

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