Distant Storm: Florida's Role in the Civil War

A Sesquicentennial Exhibit

Florida’s Role in the Civil War
Florida’s Role in the Civil War, 1861-1862

A Call to Arms

Secessionists were euphoric amidst the rapid departure of seven Southern states from the Union by February 1, 1861: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

One week later, those states created the Confederate States of America in Montgomery, Alabama.

This initial period of revolutionary enthusiasm reached a climax on February 18, when thousands who had gathered to celebrate the birth of the Southern republic witnessed the inauguration of former U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president of the Confederate States in front of the Alabama Capitol. Optimism continued to prevail across the South in the weeks that followed, although it would soon be challenged by another emotion. Uncertainty increasingly vied for a permanent place in the Southern psyche as secessionists, moderates and unionists looked to the future.

Would the North allow the seceding states to leave the Union peacefully, or would it require war to gain Southern independence?

How was the South to compete with the North’s far superior resources in manpower and manufacturing? What strategies should the South adopt to meet and defeat a Northern invasion?

In no other Confederate state were these questions more unsettling than in Florida, where the state’s small population, few industrial resources, and incredibly long coastline made it an easy target for any potential Union invading force.

The uncertainty of Southern emotions is reflected in the following petition to Governor Madison Starke Perry from citizens of Volusia County who ask for means of defending their exposed coastal communities:

Petitioners to Madison S. Perry, February 20, 1861

(Series 887, Florida Legislature Records, 1845-1911)

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Petitioners to Madison S. Perry, February 20, 1861

Volusia County
Florida Febry 20th 1861

To His Excellency Madison S Perry
Governor of the State of Florida


We the undersigned resident Citizens of Volusia County would respectfully represent to your Excellency that in the imperiling and critical state of our present National affairs, the Sea Coast of our County and of the other Counties bordering and lying on the Atlantic, are liable at any moment to be invaded by a hostile force or Band of Marauders, who from the sparsely populated state of most of these Counties near the Coast, would at any time be able to land, and commit such acts of hostility and depredation as would in a short time, drive them from their homes and render the inhabitants thereof utterly destitute, or cause them to lose all the fruits of many years labor, toil and industry.

Under these apparent circumstances your Petitioners would respectfully request your Excellency to urge upon the General Assembly the necessity of providing some means of defense for our common safety; and at the same time would beg leave to suggest to your consideration, that a Steamer of proper Draft of water to enter the different Bars and Inlets on the Atlantic portion of our State, well manned and properly manned ^armed, under a skillful commander—well acquainted with our Coast, would prevent our enemies from landing, and would protect our lives and property.

Your petitioners would also further suggest that this Coast Guard, whilst in the line of its duties, could also be made a Medium of transporting the mails from one Port on our Atlantic Coast to another.

With due Respect we submit our Petition for your favorable consideration

Page Two (Signatures)

John D. Sheldon
G. W. Collins
D. T. Jones
B Pacetti
A Sheldon
J. A. Russell
J. C. Murray
E. K. Lord
W. M. Sharpe
Wm Sharpe
Geo. Shelton
E. Sufman
? Carpenter
Jacob Branch?
Rich. N. Jeffreys
J. A. Jeffreys

Volusia’s plight was the rule rather than exception. All of the seceding states were desperately short of weapons at the beginning of the war. Since Florida followed South Carolina’s lead in secession, and many of the secessionist leaders in Florida had close ties to the Palmetto State, Governor Madison Starke Perry (a South Carolinian by birth) called on South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens to provide Florida with muskets.

In the same letter, Perry explains the situation in Pensacola, where Florida militia had failed to occupy Fort Pickens, the key to the defense and operation of Pensacola Harbor.

M. S. Perry to F. W. Pickens, January 12, 1861

(Series 577, State Governors’ Incoming Correspondence, 1857-1888)

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M. S. Perry to F. W. Pickens, January 12, 1861 (Series 577, State Governors’ Incoming Correspondence, 1857-1888)

Executive Department
January 12th 1861
His Excellency
Gov. F. W. Pickens

I arranged with the Secretary of War for the purchase of five thousand U.S. muskets to be delivered in Charleston and appointed Col. McKay [D. L. McKay] Prest of the People’s Bank (with whom the payment was deposited) my agent to receive and forward the same. The failure to carry out consummate the arrangement was caused by the delay in making the application as the enclosed communication  will explain. It is due that I should inform your Excellency that when in Charleston on my way to Washington I consulted several prominent citizens of that city as to the propriety [end Page 1] of my purchasing a portion of the arms of the U.S. in the arsenal at Charleston, giving as a reason the known difficulty in procuring arms by the time my State would need them. It was the opinion of the gentlemen consulted that no objections would be urged against the proposition. Without this favorable opinion (unauthorized of course) I would not have made the application. I do not in any wise consider that I have any claim whatever upon the State of So. Col. for the fulfillment of a contract entered in by an others?, nor would I withdraw the arms from the State if fully authorized so to do, if Carolina needed them more than Florida. We are almost without arms, and no immediate prospect of furnishing the State, and if you can spare the muskets consistent with the safety of your citizens, you would enable me to confer a great favor

[end Page 2]

upon the citizens of Florida.

Fort Pickens at Pensacola has been put in a State of defense. Fort Barrancas abandoned and the munitions shot, shell etc. conveyed to Fort Pickens. Her United States store ship “Supply” and Steamer Wyandotte are in port and actively cooperating in the movement. Fort Barrancas and the Navy Yard could be taken but could not be held subject in its unoccupied condition is useless. The Navy Yard may be taken but could not be held subject as it is to fire from Ft. Pickens and the ships. I made an effort to reoccupy the efforts at Pensacola but failed to organize the means in time—Mr. Spratt will explain all. I have taken possession of the Chattahoochee Arsenal and Ft. Marion at St. Augustine.

It is impossible to over estimate [end Page 3] the importance of our possessing the fortifications at Pensacola. A strong naval force situated there may control the commerce of the Gulf. It is in fact a key position. Georgia and Alabama will cooperate with Florida. I have requested the Hon. L. W. Spratt [South Carolina’s secession commissioner to Florida] to explain the condition of affairs to your excellency fully, and to inform me of your decision as to the muskets. I had deposited the money with the Peoples Bank for the payment to the United States, but have been compelled to use six thousand dollars in the movement attempt to occupy by stratagem the Forts at Pensacola. I will pay the price agreed on with the Sec. of War (two dollars and a half a piece) as soon as Bonds can be sold to raise the sum. I write in great haste not as fully as I would desire.

                                                                                                                                       Very Respectfully
M. S. Perry