“The Smallest Tadpole”

Text by David J. Coles and Richard J. Ferry

In many respects, Florida remains the forgotten state of the Confederacy. Although the third state to secede, Florida’s small population (ranking last among the Confederate states with some 140,000 people) and meager industrial resources made the state of little strategic importance to either side. Indeed, one contemporary referred to the state as the “smallest tadpole in the dirty pool of secession.” Despite this neglect, 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 did provide some 15,000 troops for the Confederacy, organized into twelve infantry regiments, two cavalry regiments, a handful of artillery batteries, and a variety of smaller organizations. Florida units fought in most of the major battles of the war, with the exception of 1st Manassas and Fort Donelson. The Florida Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, for example, earned a solid reputation despite suffering from a serious shortage of replacements for most of the war. One source claims that Florida’s percentage of enlistments to population was the highest of any Confederate state.

In January, 1861, Florida’s Secession Convention took the state out of the Union it had joined only fifteen years before. The final vote was 62-7, but more Unionism existed in the state than this margin indicated. A large minority of Floridians harbored pro-Union or anti-confederate sentiments, a number that grew as the war progressed.

Following secession and the outbreak of fighting, Florida officials were immediately faced with the daunting task of organizing a new military force to defend the state. The peninsula’s long coastline, coupled with the fact that Federal forces remained in control of Key West and Fort Zachary Taylor, as well as Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas and Fort Pickens near Pensacola, made Florida particularly vulnerable.

Even before the firing on Fort Sumter, volunteer companies organized throughout the state. Many of these “minute man” units became the nucleus for companies that later entered Confederate service. During his last months in office Governor Madison Starke Perry, whose single term was to expire in the fall of 1861 and who would later command the 7th Florida Infantry, strove to organize and equip Florida’s troops. During this period he made several trips out of state to obtain weapons and accoutrements. Perry was criticized, however, for his decision to allow state militiamen to volunteer into Confederate service as individuals rather than by units. John Milton, who won election in the fall of 1860, became governor the following October. Described by one biographer as “a loyal Confederate,” Milton labored to rebuild the state militia and also worked to improve the defenses of the Apalachicola River and of Fort Clinch on Amelia Island.

Disaster struck Florida in early 1862. Following the defeats at Forts Henry and Donelson, the bulk of the Confederate troops then in Florida were withdrawn to more important theaters. Braxton Bragg’s small army at Pensacola was pulled out, effectively leaving control of that region to the Union troops at Fort Pickens. The town of Apalachicola was also evacuated, although the Confederates maintained some defenses along the Apalachicola River. Additionally, in March of 1862 the Federals occupied Fernandina and St. Augustine, which remained in their hands until the end of the war. At the same time Jacksonville suffered through the first of its four occupations.

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, 1862 the confederates 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.

The largest battle in Florida during the war took place February 20, 1864 at Olustee. The battle followed the fourth and final Union occupation of Jacksonville, which had occurred on February 7. Launched primarily to reinstitute a loyal state government under the terms of President Lincoln’s Reconstruction Proclamation, the Federal troops also hoped to interdict Confederate supply operations in the state, to open the port of Jacksonville for northern commerce, and to recruit troops for union black regiments.

Union Major General Quincy Gillmore, commanding the Department of the South, accompanied the expedition but Brigadier General Truman Seymour was in actual command. After the occupation of Jacksonville and the surrounding area, Gillmore returned to Hilton Head, leaving Seymour and some 7,000 troops in northeast Florida. On the morning of February 20, unbeknownst to Gillmore, Seymour led a force of some 5,000 men westward from Barber’s toward Lake City. About twelve miles east of Lake City they met a Confederate force of similar size, commanded by Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, situated near the railroad depot of Olustee and a body of water known as Ocean Pond. In the days following the original Union landing, Finegan had consolidated the few troops still in Florida and had obtained additional manpower from Georgia and South Carolina. After sharp fighting lasting four to six hours the Federals retreated. Union losses totaled more that 1,800 killed, wounded, and missing. Confederate losses were roughly half that number. For the Federals, the casualty percentage at Olustee was one of the highest of the entire war.

After Olustee, Union troops retreated to their fortifications around Jacksonville. Both Federal and Confederate reinforcements came to Florida, and for a time it appeared another battle would occur. Gradually, however, both sides withdrew the bulk of their men and the war in Florida reverted to a series of minor raids and skirmishes. The 2nd Florida Cavalry, and particularly the company of Captain John Dickinson, won fame for their series of small-scale victories over Union raiding parties in 1864 and 1865.

Anti-war sentiment grew in Florida during the latter stages of the war. The state became a haven for Confederate deserters and draft evaders and by late 1864 Confederate control over the state was effectively reduced to portions of northern and central Florida. In October, 1864, a Federal expedition from Pensacola attacked the panhandle town of Marianna. The Confederate defenders, primarily home guards, put up a stout resistance but the town was occupied and partially burned. The last fight of consequence in Florida took place in early March, 1865, when a naval armada landed 1,000 Federals on the coast south of Tallahassee. The Union troops, commanded by Brigadier General John Newton, were soundly defeated at the Battle of Natural Bridge. This confederate victory assured that Florida would stay in southern hands until the end of the war.

April, 1865 began with the shocking news that governor Milton, ill and depressed over the deteriorating military and political situation, had committed suicide at his home near Marianna. Within weeks Floridians learned of the surrender of Lee’s and Johnson’s armies. Because of the remoteness of the region, it took some time for the Federals to occupy the areas of the state still held by southern forces. Edward McCook occupied Tallahassee, the last state capitol east of the Mississippi still under Confederate control, on May 10. In a formal ceremony ten days later the stars and stripes rose over the capitol building. By early June the last organized resistance in the southern half of the peninsula collapsed as well.