Florida and the Civil War (December 1862)

Fredericksburg: Federal Fiasco that Floridians Fought to Forget

The Battle of Fredericksburg, fought on December 11-13, 1862, along the banks of the Rappahannock River in Virginia, was one of the low points for the Union during the war. A stunning Confederate victory, which saw General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia decimate the blue-clad columns of Major General Ambrose Burnside’s Army of the Potomac, the Battle of Fredericksburg was, however, a battle that Florida’s troops would sooner forget. As George C. Rable, the battle’s foremost historian, observed, the Floridians at Fredericksburg “proved utterly worthless.” What were the circumstances that led to this devastating indictment?

On the morning of December 11, Union engineers began construction on pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River south of Fredericksburg. General Burnside planned to have his divisions on the south bank of the river as early as mid-November, before Lee could position enough troops to oppose the crossing. Unfortunately for the Union, logistical failures delayed the arrival of most of the bridges until the end of the month. By early December, General Lee had shifted his army to Fredericksburg, where his troops enjoyed prime defensive terrain on Marye’s Heights overlooking the city. The Confederates also placed Brigadier General William E. Barksdale’s Mississippi brigade, supported by the Eighth Florida Infantry Regiment, inside Fredericksburg where they could disrupt the Federal crossing from the cover of riverside buildings.

While the Eighth Florida was the most engaged of the Florida units at Fredericksburg, it entered the battle as part of the recently created Florida Brigade within the Army of Northern Virginia. Brigadier General E. A. Perry commanded the brigade, which consisted of the Second, Fifth and Eighth regiments. The men of the Fifth and the Eighth had their first intense fighting at Antietam in September. Along with the Second regiment, the Fifth and Eighth experienced heavy casualties at Antietam, where they fought along the Sunken Road. Casualties among officers led to the appointment of new regimental commanders. Captain David Lang of Suwannee County, Florida, assumed command of the Eighth Florida, which he would lead at Fredericksburg.

Colonel David Lang (between 1861 and 1865)

Colonel David Lang (between 1861 and 1865)

General Barksdale divided the Eighth Florida into two groups. The larger force under Captain Lang took up positions within Fredericksburg on the left wing of the Seventeenth Mississippi Infantry Regiment, which along with the Eighteenth Mississippi would be the first Confederate forces to oppose the Federal crossing. Barksdale ordered Captain William Baya (commander of Company D, Eighth Florida, from St. Johns County) to take command of three of the regiment’s companies on the right of the Seventeenth Mississippi. While Lang’s companies and the Mississippians took up positions within buildings or behind walls, a Mississippi officer ordered Baya’s men to place themselves along the riverbank without the benefit of cover.

The Confederate sharpshooters in Fredericksburg were in an excellent position to pick off Union engineers as the latter began construction on pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock. The Federals responded with a tremendous bombardment against Fredericksburg, which became the first town in the war to be devastated by artillery fire. While the Mississippians maintained fire on the engineers during the bombardment, Captain Baya refused, despite orders, to allow his companies to fire on the Federals out of fear that Union guns would be turned on his exposed force. When the bombardment failed to subdue the Confederate fire, General Burnside ordered several regiments to cross the river in boats to dislodge Barksdale’s men. Despite horrendous casualties, the Union men established a bridgehead and pushed into the city. Fredericksburg, in addition to being the first city to fall victim to massed artillery fire, gained the notoriety of being the first city during the Civil War to witness urban fighting and subsequent plunder by Union troops.

The Union forces quickly overran Baya’s exposed companies, capturing dozens of the Floridians. Meanwhile, Captain Lang’s men endured Union artillery and rifle fire on the left of the Mississippians. The Floridians fought bravely, but when Captain Lang was wounded and had to be carried from the field, his companies lost focus, and returned only desultory fire against the Union advance. After twelve hours of some of the most intense fighting of the war, Lang’s companies withdrew along with the rest of Barksdale’s command to the shelter of the massed Confederate formations on Marye’s Heights.

Lee’s forces made sure the Union advance ended outside of Fredericksburg. The Confederates laid down massive fire on the advancing Federals, who tried to take Marye’s Heights in assault after bloody assault on December 13. When Burnside finally called off the attack, over 12,000 Union soldiers were casualties of war.

Although Fredericksburg was an impressive Confederate victory, it was a low point for the Florida Brigade. History has not been kind to the Eighth Florida’s performance, which was anything but distinguished. The Eighth could take heart, however. It was hardly the only Civil War unit (Southern or Northern) to perform poorly in a particular battle. Command decisions, circumstances, and the terrors of war all played a part in the actions of the Eighth at Fredericksburg. The unit, along with the rest of the Florida Brigade, would have plenty of opportunities to redeem itself in the campaigns that awaited them in 1863.

For more on the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Floridians’ role in it see the following studies: George C. Rable, Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) and Zack C. Waters and James C. Edmonds, A Small but Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010).

Florida and the Civil War (November 1862)

Three Heads are Better than One

Historians have long pointed to lack of cooperation between state governors and the central government in Richmond as one of the principal reasons for the defeat of the Confederacy. Added to that problem was contention between many of the governors about how best to wage the war. Since bad news sells better than good news, instances of cooperation between Confederate governors or between the governors and Richmond are less well known. One such episode occurred in Florida in November 1862, when the Confederate government agreed to support the creation of a new military department to strengthen the defense of the tri-state region bordered by Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Florida Governor John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

Florida Governor John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

Florida Governor John Milton conceived the idea of the tri-state military district. In doing so, Milton acted on his long-held belief that the Apalachicola River was the most promising avenue for a Union invasion of Florida. He feared that Union capture of the port of Apalachicola and an advance up the river would allow the Yankees to capture and destroy the rich cotton fields of Gadsden and Jackson counties—Jackson was also Milton’s home county—before proceeding to the tri-state border, where the Apalachicola meets the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers flowing down from Georgia and Alabama, respectively. Union forces could then push on to Columbus, Georgia, the Chattahoochee’s most important port and one of the Confederacy’s few industrial centers. Milton hoped that a tri-state military department providing for the defense of portions of West and Middle Florida, southeast Alabama, and southwest Georgia would enable him to call on the bordering states for troops to help defend Florida, where only a small number of Confederate troops remained after the spring of 1862.

Junction of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers to form the Apalachicola (1926)

Junction of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers to form the Apalachicola (1926)

Milton first proposed the tri-state defense department in a letter to Jefferson Davis as early as October 29, 1861, barely more than three weeks after becoming governor. At the same time, he wrote to Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia and Governor A. B. Moore of Alabama requesting their support for the idea. At that time, his fellow governors were not enthusiastic—they did not see the need for such a department—and Davis passed on Milton’s proposal to the Confederate War Department, which ignored Milton’s request. A year later, however, Brown and Alabama’s governor John Gill Shorter were more receptive. They realized that with Florida’s denuded defenses their states were more vulnerable to attack from the south. In addition, both states had invested heavily in salt production along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Thousands of Georgians and Alabamians were producing salt in Florida and their citizens, along with the rest of the Confederacy, depended on the vital supply of salt from Milton’s state.

In October 1862, Milton again asked President Davis to support the tri-state department. This time he agreed. Davis may have changed his mind due to Milton’s loyal support for the unpopular conscription law, which Davis had pushed the Confederate Congress to pass in April 1862. Assured of Davis’ backing, Milton, Brown and Shorter submitted a formal request for the creation of the department to Davis on November 11, 1862. The governors’ proposal placed the following counties within the department: Henry, Dale, Barbour, Russell, Covington, Coffee, and Pike in Alabama; Decatur, Thomas, Miller, Early, Baker, Clay, Calhoun, Randolph, Quitman, Stewart, Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Mitchell, and Dougherty in Georgia; and Leon, Gadsden, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Liberty, Washington, Jackson, Calhoun, and Franklin in Florida.

Map of the Tri-State Area-Florida, Georgia and Alabama (ca. 1865)

Map of the Tri-State Area-Florida, Georgia and Alabama (ca. 1865)

Despite Davis’ initial support, Milton again ran into difficulties with the Confederate War Department. They did, however, split the Department of Middle and East Florida into two districts: the District of Middle Florida, covering the area between the Choctawhatchee and Suwannee rivers; and the District of East Florida, which consisted of the rest of Florida east of the Suwannee River. Milton also failed to get Richmond’s approval to incorporate the Alabama counties into the new defensive arrangement. The Confederate army’s adjutant and inspector general, General Samuel Cooper, informed Milton that since the Alabama counties fell outside the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, those counties could not be part of the new Florida district. Fortunately for Milton, Cooper agreed that the Georgia counties could be under the new District of Middle Florida. Milton had finally gotten Richmond to take notice of the Apalachicola region, even though Florida would remain at the bottom of the Confederate government’s defensive priorities.

For information on relations between Florida and its neighboring states during the war see Ridgeway Boyd Murphree, “Rebel Sovereigns: The Civil War Leadership of Governors John Milton of Florida and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, 1861-1865,” Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 2006.

Florida and the Civil War (October 1862)

Bluff Naked

Florida faced three avenues of invasion during the Civil War: the Apalachicola River, the St. Marks River, and the St. Johns River. Although the state obviously comprised much more land than the territory along those three waterways, geographic, economic, and political factors made the rest of the state, with the exception of the naval bases at Key West and Pensacola, largely irrelevant to Union strategy. The vast majority of Florida’s population (slave and free), agricultural production, and political power resided in North Florida, which was the only section of the state contiguous to the Confederacy. Of the three strategic rivers, only the St. Johns River played a central role in the Union’s campaign in the state: Federal forces never tried to drive up the Apalachicola, and when they finally marched up the St. Marks in March 1865, in a campaign that ended in a Confederate victory at Natural Bridge, the war was nearly over.

The St. Johns was vital to the Union’s Florida strategy. If the Federals controlled the river, they could raid at will into the Confederate interior and use the river as a protective barrier for control of the land to the east. Behind this barrier, they could potentially begin the political reconstruction of Florida by securing and organizing the large number of Unionists in the area. A secure Northeast Florida would also serve as a magnet for escaped slaves, many of whom would eventually enlist in the Union army.

Preventing these possibilities made control of the St. Johns equally important for its Confederate defenders. One key to preventing a Union march up the River—the St. Johns is one of the few rivers in North America that flows north—was control of St. John’s Bluff. The bluff was located on the approach to Jacksonville, six miles from the mouth of the St. Johns, and was the highest point along the river.  Artillery on the bluff would make it extremely difficult for ships to pass upstream. However, with Confederate defenses in disarray following the Union’s first occupation of Jacksonville in March 1862, Union gunboats stationed at Mayport operated up and down the St. Johns. The gunboats were magnets for escaped slaves, who flocked to the river in search of the vessels and passage to freedom. Slave owners along the St. Johns demanded the Confederate government take immediate action to stop the exodus.

St. Johns Bluff

St. Johns Bluff

Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, the Confederate commander in east Florida, was determined to fortify St. Johns Bluff and end the Union raids. He had few resources at his disposal, however. When he assumed command in April 1862, most Confederate forces were removed from Florida to meet the crisis brought on by Federal victories in Tennessee. With only a handful of troops, Finegan set out to strengthen his forces with local volunteers and launched a wide-ranging campaign to find arms, especially artillery, for his units. By September 1862 he had found enough artillery to fortify St. Johns Bluff, where Confederate troops used slave labor to construct their defenses.

Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finegan

Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finegan

The Confederates opened fire on the first Union gunboat to approach the fortified bluff on September 11. Taken by surprise, the U.S.S. Uncas, soon joined by the U.S.S. Patroon, bombarded the Rebels but failed to destroy the position. On September 17, three more Union gunboats arrived to reinforce the two vessels and launch a renewed bombardment. It soon became apparent that naval force alone would not drive the Confederates off the bluff. The Union dispatched over 800 troops to Florida from its units along the South Carolina coast. These troops arrived at Mayport on October 1. The next day, the Union troops landed and began a march around towards the rear of the Confederate position.

Meanwhile, the Confederate commander on the bluff, Colonel Charles F. Hopkins, was in a panic. He believed that 5,000, not 800, Yankees were preparing to assault his defenses. Faced with continued bombardment from the Union gunboats and the prospect of an overwhelming Union force attacking from the rear, Hopkins decided he must abandon the position.  Disgusted with the prospect of retreat before he had even encountered the enemy, Captain Winston Stephens, one of the Confederate officers at the bluff, believed the position was strong enough to withstand any Yankee assault and reckoned his men “could kill four to one in these woods.” Colonel Hopkins was not so optimistic. He ordered his men to retreat from the bluff on the night of October 2-3. The Federals then occupied the position and captured all the Rebel cannon in the process—Hopkins had failed to ensure that the guns were spiked or blown up.

Winston Stephens: Welaka, Florida

Winston Stephens: Welaka, Florida

The Confederate retreat from St. Johns Bluff was a humiliating defeat. The Federals reoccupied Jacksonville on October 3, and their gunboats once again steamed unmolested up the river. General Finegan called Hopkins’ retreat a “gross military blunder” but Hopkins, who demanded a court martial to defend his actions, argued that the position was indefensible due to the lack of men and material available to his command. The court martial exonerated Hopkins, who, although excoriated in the Confederate press, was less to blame for Florida‘s weakness than the Confederate government, which had removed the men and material necessary for the state’s defense.

The Stephens quote is found in Daniel L. Schafer’s Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida, University Press of Florida (2005). Most of Stephens’ extensive wartime correspondence with his wife, Octavia, is published in Rose Cottage Chronicles: Civil War Letters of the Bryant-Stephens Families of North Florida (University Press of Florida, 1998).


Florida and the Civil War (September 1862)

Saint Mary

The slaughter in Virginia during the summer of 1862 overwhelmed the South’s meager medical resources. Although Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia seemed invincible as it marched into Maryland in September 1862, a ferocious battle at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17 led to the bloodiest day’s fighting of the entire war. The opposing armies had combined losses (killed, wounded and missing) of 23,000 men. Over 10,000 of these unfortunates were Confederates.

While wounds, disease and sickness, not to mention the terrible toll of battle deaths, haunted both sides, the much smaller population of the South made it more difficult for the Confederacy to recover from the enormous battlefield bloodlettings. It was only the willingness of Southern civilians to work and sacrifice for the Confederate cause that allowed the Rebel armies to remain in the field for over four years of war. One of the most prominent of these citizens was Mary Martha Reid of Florida, whose work caring for Confederate wounded in Richmond, Virginia, made her one of the most famous Confederate heroines of the war.

Usually known as “Martha Reid,” Mary was born Mary Martha Smith at St. Mary’s, Georgia, on September 12, 1812. In 1836, she married Robert Raymond Reid in St. Augustine, Florida. President Martin Van Buren appointed her husband, who was serving as a federal judge in Florida, territorial governor in 1839. Governor Reid presided over the convention that forged Florida’s first constitution. He died in 1841 during a yellow fever epidemic in Tallahassee. The Reids’s only surviving child, Raymond Jenks Reid, lived to serve as a lieutenant in the Second Florida Infantry, part of the Florida Brigade in Lee’s army, during the war. In fact, it was Mary’s wish to be near her son that led her to Richmond, where she became involved in the establishment and administration of the Florida Hospital.

As the casualties poured into Richmond during 1861-1862, the municipal government, private entities, and eventually the Confederate government organized hospitals in the city. Individual states also stepped in to provide hospitals for their own wounded soldiers. A result of state pride and medical concern—it was believed hospitalized men would be more comfortable surrounded by comrades from their own units—the state hospitals were popular with the troops. Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida were among the states that created hospitals in Richmond.

The Florida Hospital officially opened on September 26, 1862. It was located in the building of the former Globe Hospital on 19th Street in Richmond. Governor John Milton supervised the financing of the hospital from Tallahassee. He appointed Dr. Thomas M. Palmer, former surgeon of the Second Florida Infantry and doctor from Jefferson County, superintendent and recognized Mary Martha Reid as the hospital matron. However, due to the ever-increasing casualties and sickness among the troops, the Confederate government decided to consolidate the number of hospitals in Richmond and focus on larger institutions. The government ended the use of state hospitals in late 1863; however, a small Florida ward continued to exist in the large Howard’s Grove hospital into 1865.

Mrs. Reid continued her work for Florida’s sick and wounded until the Confederate government fled Richmond on April 2, 1865. During her time in the city, she acquired a reputation as a tireless advocate for Florida’s soldiers and devoted herself to their care and the administration of the Florida Hospital. She remained in Richmond despite the fact that her original reason for moving to the Confederate capital, concern for her son, ended in tragedy on May 6, 1864, when Raymond Jenks was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness.

Headstone for Raymond J. Reid: Richmond, Virginia (March 2008)

Headstone for Raymond J. Reid: Richmond, Virginia (March 2008)

Mary Martha Reid died in Fernandina, Florida, on June 24, 1894. In 1866, only a year after the war’s end, the Florida legislature recognized her sacrifices by providing her with an annual pension of six hundred dollars for life. She also became one of the most prominent female symbols of the “Lost Cause.” Florida’s first chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy took Mary’s name as their own in 1897, becoming the “Martha Reid Chapter” that year.

For further reading on the Florida Hospital and the role of Florida women in the Civil War see David Coles, “Richmond, the Confederate Hospital City,” in Virginia at War 1862, William C. Davis and James I Robertson Jr. editors (University Press of Kentucky, 2007) and Tracy J. Revels, Grander in Her Daughters: Florida’s Women During the Civil War (University of South Carolina Press, 2004).

Florida and the Civil War (August 1862)

Mourning in America

Death was the real victor of the Civil War. Most families, especially in the South, lost a father, brother, son, or knew relatives and neighbors who lost a loved one. By the summer of 1862, the death toll was so overwhelming that whole communities were constantly draped in black. The Tallahassee Florida Sentinel was concerned that continual public mourning was weakening the Confederate economy:

“When so many households throughout the South are called upon to mourn the loss of Dear ones, the custom of wearing mourning clothes adds greatly to our expenditure and detracts to that extent from our ability to maintain this unequal struggle. It is unnecessary to remark that such goods are now very scarce, and costly, and many are compelled, in obedience to custom, to make sacrifices which they cannot well afford.”

Although the pervasiveness of death made all Americans citizens of what historian Drew Gilpin Faust has called “the Republic of Suffering,” shared grief could not relieve the pain of surviving family members, especially parents who lost a son.

Martha Pittman of Marianna, Florida, lost her only surviving son, John D. Pittman, on August 31, 1862, when he died of wounds received in the previous day’s fighting during the Battle of Second Manassas (Second Bull Run). John, a student at the University of Virginia when the war began, remained in school until March 1862, when he wrote to his mother that he had decided to leave the university and join the army “now that the South is in her greatest danger.” (The Confederacy had recently lost the battles of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee.)

Portrait of John D. Pittman (on left) and a young man identified as "Johnson."

Portrait of John D. Pittman (on left) and a young man identified as “Johnson.”

John returned to Florida and enlisted in Marianna, joining the newly formed Eighth Florida Infantry Regiment in May 1862. His unit joined the Florida Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, which in August moved against the Army of the Potomac occupying positions near the old Bull Run battlefield. The only casualties suffered by the Florida Brigade, which was part of the Confederate reserve, came as a result of Union artillery fire on August 30. Unfortunately, Pittman, who had not even reached his 20th birthday, was among those few Florida wounded. He died in a field hospital the next day.

Upon John’s enlistment, Martha already mourned losing her son to war. She composed a poem “To Her Son,” writing it on a blank page in the student autograph book that John had brought with him from Virginia:

“Mother sorrowing over her son

But give him up to defend his Country

Whose dear heart is made sad,

By the Dear Son bravely gone

Mother praying for her Son

Who was all her pride and story?

Sister mourns a dear one gone

A Brother called to take up arms

Mother weeping? Over thy Son

Dearer than thyself to thee;

Will (all) by death left desolated

Tell me is it well with you

Yes tis well with the loved and lost

And not lost to us forever;

They have but before us crossed

Over the deep and shadowy river”

May 27 1862               M P

Martha Pittman

Martha Pittman

The editorial from the Florida Sentinel was first quoted in Florida A Hundred Years Ago (Samuel Procter, ed. 1963). The Pittman letter and poem are part of the Blackshear, Pittman, White, and Drew Families Papers.

Unheralded Emancipation (May, 1862)

On May 9, 1862, Union Major General David Hunter declared freedom for all slaves living in the states of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Although his declaration was not the first emancipation measure during the war (Major General John C. Frémont had previously ordered the freeing of Rebel-owned slaves in Missouri), Hunter’s action shocked both the Confederate and Union governments.

Receipts for the sale of slaves: Tallahassee (September 19, 1862)

Receipts for the sale of slaves: Tallahassee (September 19, 1862)

The seceded states had long portrayed the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln as a government of radical abolitionists. Lincoln, however, pursued a conservative approach to emancipation, which he did not officially endorse until September 1862 with the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

While he personally abhorred slavery and hoped for its eventual extinction, Lincoln argued that secession, not the existence of slavery in the South, was the reason for the war. He believed that a crusade for emancipation would lose the slave-owning Border States (Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland) to the Confederacy. This concern led him to revoke Frémont’s order and remove the general from command.

Unlike Frémont’s order, which only applied to slaves owned by persons actively supporting secession, Hunter’s order called for the liberation of all slaves, whether owned by Confederates or Unionists, within the area of his command (South Carolina, Georgia and Florida).

It did not differentiate between slaves actively employed in Confederate war work and those engaged in civilian labor such as agriculture, which was the previous requirement for releasing slaves under the Union’s Confiscation Act of 1861. Hunter then used his order to enlist freed slaves into the Union Army.

Contrabands (runaway slaves) escaping to the Unites States bark Kingfisher off the coast of Florida (1862)

Contrabands (runaway slaves) escaping to the Unites States bark Kingfisher off the coast of Florida (1862)

Lincoln insisted that only the President as commander-in-chief could issue an emancipation order. He announced that his government had no prior knowledge of Hunter’s intent to issue such a proclamation and declared the order void.

The War Department ignored Hunter’s effort to create a black regiment. While Hunter’s policies made him popular with abolitionists, most Northerners in the spring of 1862 were not ready for emancipation or the arming of freed blacks.

The South’s view of Hunter’s policies was obviously even less enthusiastic. Emancipation and arms for blacks fed the long-held Southern fear of confronting an insurrectionary slave population.

The Confederate government viewed Hunter’s actions as a call for slave rebellion and a racial outrage. It proclaimed General Hunter an outlaw. If captured, he would not be entitled to the rights of a prisoner of war but liable for execution at the discretion of the President of the Confederate States.

Ironically, Jefferson Davis, the president who would have signed Hunter’s death warrant, had known Hunter for over 30 years; they had been friends since first meeting as young army officers in 1829.

For a complete picture of Hunter’s fascinating and controversial career—he also served as president of the military commission that tried the suspects in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy—see Edward A. Miller, Jr., The Biography of David Hunter: Lincoln’s Abolitionist General (University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

Drawing of African-American soldiers during the Civil War (ca. 1863)

Drawing of African-American soldiers during the Civil War (ca. 1863)

Of course the biggest potential impact of Hunter’s emancipation order and recruitment of blacks was on slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Only a month before Hunter’s proclamation, several escaped slaves who had flocked to Union gunboats off of Jacksonville, which the Federals had captured in March, were forcibly returned to their Confederate masters after the Union evacuated the city in April 1862.

A year later, however, when the Union occupied Jacksonville for a third time, it was black soldiers of the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry regiments who greeted the escaped slaves. No longer unheralded, the black soldiers’ expedition filled the columns of newspapers across North and South.

April 1862: Carnage and Conscription

Florida and the Civil War

This is the third in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

On the morning of April 6, 1862, the men of the 1st Florida Infantry Battalion crossed Shiloh Branch stream to engage the enemy in what turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. In two days of fighting, over 23,000 men died in the Battle of Shiloh, which saw two massive Union and Confederate armies clash in the fields and woods surrounding Shiloh Meeting House, a Methodist Church near the banks of the Tennessee River in southwest Tennessee.

Major General James Patton Anderson (ca. 1862)

Major General James Patton Anderson (ca. 1862)

The 1st Florida Battalion was a unit in the brigade of Brigadier General James Patton Anderson, a part of General Albert Sydney Johnson’s Army of Mississippi. Anderson, a member of Florida’s secession convention and delegate to the Provisional Confederate Congress in Montgomery, had commanded Florida troops at Pensacola before being ordered to move his men to Corinth Mississippi to reinforce the faltering Confederate front in the west.

At Shiloh, Patton’s Floridians became the first Florida soldiers to see action outside of their state. In one of the most terrifying engagements of a battle that was full of horrible episodes, the Floridians were among the Confederate forces that charged the Union troops defending the Sunken Road. After only a few minutes of fighting, the Florida Battalion lost several officers and men but continued to attack the Union position. The battalion survived to fight on April 7, the second day of the battle, and ended the fight with over a quarter of its strength of 250 men either dead or wounded. Although the Union army under Major General Ulysses S. Grant lost more men than the Confederates, the Confederates failed in their mission of destroying Grant’s army and withdrew back into Mississippi.

Confederate soldier Lawrence “Laurie” M. Anderson of Tallahassee

Confederate soldier Lawrence “Laurie” M. Anderson of Tallahassee, killed at the Battle of Shiloh on April 7, 1862

The carnage at Shiloh—the Confederates suffered over 10,000 casualties—combined with the toll of the battles waged across the South since secession resulted in the Confederate government’s decision to pass the Conscription Act on April 16, 1862. The Conscript Act, as it was usually called in the press of the day, was the first national draft in American history (the Union would begin drafting men in 1863). Although President Jefferson Davis and a majority of the Confederate Congress supported the act, conscription was probably the most divisive and unpopular Confederate law passed during the war. The Conscript Act authorized the Confederate president to draft all able bodied white male residents of the Confederate States between the ages of 18 and 35 for three years of military service and extended the service of all men of draft age already in the Confederate forces.

In order to avoid the stigma attached to conscription, which many Southern men saw as an affront to their honor because it seemed to question their willingness to fight, most men volunteered before the draft took effect. Men and women across the South also hated the Act because it allowed a man who could afford it to pay a substitute to serve in his place. Politically, the draft was unpopular because it seemed a direct threat to states’ rights, the doctrine that the South had used to justify secession. Up to 1862, only states could draft men (usually for emergency militia service). Now the national government was demanding that states turn over their men for military service rather than allowing states to organize volunteers and offer them for service as had been done in all of America’s previous wars.

Many state governors denounced the Conscript Act as unconstitutional and resisted compliance. This was especially the case for Florida’s neighbor Georgia, where Governor Joseph E. Brown became the South’s principal opponent of the draft and the policies of Jefferson Davis. Brown made every effort to resist and delay the implementation of conscription in Georgia.

Portrait of Florida’s 5th Governor, John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

Portrait of Florida’s 5th Governor, John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

In Florida, Governor John Milton was also philosophically opposed to the draft as an infringement on states’ rights; however, he was willing to put off the question of the constitutionality of the draft until after the war was won. Milton reasoned that the constitutionality of the Conscript Act would be irrelevant if the South lost the war. He believed it was more important for the states to support President Davis and the Confederate government to enroll the manpower necessary to fight the Union: “Impending clouds of destruction hover over, and threaten the destruction of our liberties, of all rights of property, and the dishonor of our wives and children. The threatened evils can only be prevented by concert of action between the State Governments and the Confederate Government, and the indomitable and invincible courage and unfaltering patriotism of our entire population.”

Milton never retreated from these words contained in his 1862 annual message to the state legislature. He became one of the staunchest defenders of conscription and the leadership of Jefferson Davis, even naming a son born in 1863 after the Confederate president. This son, Jefferson Davis Milton or “Jeff Davis,” became one of the West’s most famous law enforcement officers, serving the U.S. government as a legendary immigration officer along the Mexican border, defending the sovereignty of the nation his father had tried to defeat.

March 1862: Invasion!

Florida and the Civil War

This is the second in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

March 1862: Invasion!

The arrival of a Union invasion fleet off Amelia Island on March 3, 1862, was a startling but not unexpected event. As early as October 1861, Governor John Milton notified neighboring Confederate governors that a Union invasion fleet was steaming southward for a possible landing in Florida. Although the fleet’s target at that time was Port Royal, South Carolina, not Florida, ships from the flotilla eventually transported the Union expeditionary force that descended on Amelia Island in March.

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

For months, east coast Confederate and Unionist Floridians had expected Federal troops to land in Florida. Although a Federal raiding party occupied the Gulf port of Cedar Key in January 1862, under orders from General Robert E. Lee, General James H. Trapier, the commander of Confederate forces in the Department of Middle and East Florida (the area from the Atlantic to the Choctawhatchee River in the west), concentrated the bulk of his forces for the defense of Amelia Island. Meanwhile in Jacksonville, a city with a strong Unionist element, pro-Union men and women awaited the liberation of their city, where many of them were threatened by secessionist vigilance committees.

By March 1862, however, the Unionists had more cause for optimism than the secessionists. Confederate defeats in Tennessee during February resulted in the Richmond government’s decision to withdraw its troops from Florida to reinforce Tennessee. As the Union fleet approached, General Trapier ordered the withdrawal of his troops from Amelia Island. On March 4, the Federals occupied Fernandina after the last train carrying troops and fleeing civilians crossed the bridge to the mainland under the fire of the USS Ottawa, a Union gunboat. Fernandina remained under Union control for the rest of the war and became a place of refuge for hundreds of escaped slaves from Florida and southeast Georgia.

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February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida and the Civil War

This is the first in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida’s precarious position on the periphery of the Confederacy became even more exposed in February 1862, when the Confederate government ordered the withdrawal of all but a handful of the Confederate forces in Florida.

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

This decision came in the wake of a series of Union victories during the first half of the month. Federal troops in Tennessee under the command of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson on February 6 and 16 respectively. In between those victories, on February 8, a Union naval force captured Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast.

These victories resulted in the surrender of thousands of Confederate troops and opened the way for Union thrusts into the Confederate interior, especially in the West, where Grant advanced south towards Mississippi. A shocked and dispirited Confederate government rushed to reinforce the West by withdrawing Confederate troops from Florida.

On February 18, Richmond ordered General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate army at Pensacola, to withdraw his units and send them to Tennessee as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, on Florida’s east coast, General Robert E. Lee began preparations to remove most of the forces under his command. At this stage of the war, Lee was responsible for the defense of the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and East Florida. On February 24, the Confederate War Department ordered Lee to transfer units under his command in Florida to Tennessee. He was only to keep enough troops in Florida to block Union entry into the St. Johns River and for the defense of Apalachicola: the Confederate government feared Union capture of Apalachicola could result in an invasion of Georgia from the south.

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

By the end of the month, Florida was virtually defenseless as a Union flotilla carrying an invasion force approached the coast.