On The Eve of War: Florida

Florida Capitol Building, 1845

Euphoria gripped the capital of Tallahassee, Florida on the afternoon of January 10, 1861. Inside the state capital, sixty-nine delegates, in convention for a week, had voted sixty-two to seven in favor of removing their state from the United States of America.

“The cannon opened their fiery mouths in honor of the fifteen slaveholding States and announced that Florida had become an independent republic” one reporter jotted down when the announcement was made.

Inside the convention the delegates were witnesses to inflammatory oratory outlining the reasons for removing Florida from a Union that could not protect their rights and property.

Two days into the week long deliberations the convention president of t, John C. McGehee, informed his fellow delegates; “As we stand our doom is decreed” and remaining loyal to their Northern counterparts would usher in rule that was, “sectional, irresponsible to us, and driven on by an infuriated fanatical madness that defies all opposition.” He left his most dire warning for last, simply reminding his fellow delegates, that Lincoln and the Republican Party would, “destroy every vestige of right growing out of property in slaves.” McGehee himself owned over 100 slaves.

Adding emphasis to McGehee’s rhetoric on the ‘peculiar institution’ the delegates were entertained by Leonidas W. Spratt, who had been part of South Carolina’s secession convention when that state declared itself out of the Union on December 20, 1860.

“The one is the society of one race, the other of two races. The one is based on free labor, the other slave labor. The one is braced together by but the two great relations of life—the relations of husband and wife, and parent and child; the other by the three relations of husband and wife, parent and child, and master and slave. The one embodies the social principle that equality is the right of man; the other, the social principle that equality is not the right of man, but the right of equals only.”

With a pre-war population that numbered 140,424 in 1860, with 44% of that being not African American slaves.[i] With only 61,475, the population of Florida consisted of many transplants from the states of Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. “Most of them were Democrats and remained loyal to the party and concepts of their patron saint, John C. Calhoun.” Comprising the sixty-nine delegates, sixty-three or 91% held slaves, which gave impetus to why McGehee made that the central theme of his speech in favor of secession.

Besides the gravity of the situation, seceding from a country that the state has only officially joined slightly over fifteen years prior was the timing of secession. At that juncture, only two other states had officially seceded; South Carolina in December and Mississippi on January 9, 1861. The other temporary hold-up was whether to have the entire electorate of Florida, meaning all white males over the age of 21, decide secession. Two of the seven dissenting votes would later write a commentary to a local Tallahassee newspaper explaining they were not against secession forthright but wanted the people of the state to be the measure of ratification.

However, the voice of one delegate, General G.W. Parker struck the right chord and captured the spirit of most of the convention, “why delay another moment?” In his mind, “are not the dogs of war loosed upon us from the North, and will we sit here in long debate which to choose, submission, degradation and ruin, or a Southern Confederacy, with a bright and peaceful future?”[ii] Momentum was on the side of the secessionists.

When the vote was tallied and the outcome announced, there “was heard from the people who thronged the hall one simultaneous shout declaratory of the dawn of liberty.” When the ordinance was signed, sixty-five signatures graced the bottom of the page.

What had these sixty-five men severed from the United States? What had caused the euphoria in the streets of Tallahassee and sent hundreds of Florida’s native sons and transplanted citizens to rush to recruitment centers? Understanding the uniqueness of the wildness and frontier feeling of Florida is needed to comprehend its role in the Confederate States of America and provide a necessary backdrop to rounding out the soldiers that would fight at Gettysburg thirty months later.

A vast peninsula with a majority of the interior still unknown. Just a few years prior the last of three Seminole Wars had concluded. These Native Americans still occupied the southcentral part of the state, the Everglades of Florida. The population was centered across the western panhandle, from the old colonial city of Pensacola to the state capital of Tallahassee. On the eastern seaboard, the oldest town in the United States, St. Augustine, founded in 1565, sat down the Atlantic Coast from Jacksonville, which was already starting to grow into a major economic and port location. Just a tad below the Georgia border sat the town of Fernandina. On the other side of the peninsula, the town of Tampa was just starting to grow into the city that would become more prominent in the following century. A small, recently abandoned military fort sat in what is now the city of Fort Myers, besides the Florida Keys, which boasted Fort Zachery Taylor, Key West, and Fort Jefferson sixty-five miles off the coast, was about as far south as map locations went. The area from Tampa to Key West was deemed “the most remote area in the Eastern United States.”

Less than sixty people graced the census as living around Fort Dallas, which would lose its name in the years after the American Civil War to become the city of Miami. With it remoteness and lack of major urban areas, Pensacola had 2,876 souls in the 1860 census, the largest metropolitan area in the state, “everything consumed [by its citizens] except vegetables, forage, and cornmeal was imported.” Florida also boasted the most shoreline of any of the Confederate states which would play into the strategic picture outlined by the Confederate government in far-off Richmond, Virginia.

With a limited population came a limited manpower pool to choose from. Although Florida would eventually fit out ten infantry regiments, only 15,000 white males wore the butternut and gray and fought under the Confederate banner. An impressive number since the entire free population of the state numbered only 78,679.

Sources:

[i] https://www.nps.gov/articles/florida-secession.htm (accessed October 30, 2020), https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1900/bulletins/demographic/16-population-fl.pdf (accessed October 30, 2020)

[ii] https://www.gainesville.com/article/LK/20110109/News/604129210/GS (accessed October 31, 2020)

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4 Responses to On The Eve of War: Florida

  1. Dan Hurley says:

    Great article. Wonder how many of the delegates who voted to secede served in uniform during the war?

    • Phill Greenwalt says:

      Hey Dan,

      Thanks for reading the article. I will have to do some digging to find out for sure. But I do know that one of the delegates, George T. Ward, did serve. He was the first commander of the 2nd Florida Regiment and was killed in action at the Battle of Williamsburg on May 5, 1862. He is buried in Colonial Williamsburg.

  2. Mike Maxwell says:

    Excellent summary and talking points…
    Here are a few “items of interest” to add to the story of Florida’s pre-war preparations:
    – The State Militia, which had been allowed to wane, was reconstituted end of 1850s in response to Bleeding Kansas and Harper’s Ferry;
    – In a Letter dated 9 NOV 1860 from Gov. Madison S. Perry of Florida to Gov. Gist of South Carolina, Perry promised, “Florida will follow any cotton state out of the Union”
    – Apalachicola Arsenal was seized by Florida militia 6 JAN 1861
    – Fort Marion (St. Augustine) was surrendered to Florida forces 7 JAN 1861
    – Florida Militia failed to take possession of Fort Pickens, the strongest fort at Pensacola, while it was EMPTY of soldiers in early January; and on Thursday 10 JAN 1861, just after 10 a.m. the USS Wyandotte ferried First Lieutenant Adam Slemmer and fewer than 80 U.S. soldiers and sailors across Pensacola Bay to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa barrier island. Less than two hours later, the delegates at Tallahassee voted to secede.
    – By the end of January 1861, the U.S. Government had solid control of Florida forts Taylor (Key West), Jefferson (Dry Tortugas) and Pickens (Pensacola). None of these three fortifications would be seriously threatened by rebels during the course of the war.

  3. grandadpookers says:

    I like this article because I knew so little of Florida’s reasons for joining the Confederacy. The article mentions slave-holding. I never appreciated that fact. Also, I learned from the portion of the story about the Florida participation in the Army, impressive in terms of% of population. I know that a Florida regiment participated in the afternoon of July 2 in the attack against Sickles 3rd Corps @ the Peach Orchard. That was a tough fight, and I believe the Floridians suffered significantly.

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