A Pensacola Refugee

It may be easy to forget sometimes that there was no hard border between the North and South during the Civil War. Citizens of both sides could find ways to migrate for the purpose of evading a war zone. Those traveling by land may have had to cross battle lines, while others may be able to gain passage aboard ships – especially ones that flew the American flag. Mary Elizabeth Caro, a Unionist from Pensacola, Florida, was one such refugee who left her state to seek a calmer environment in the North, but found that there truly was no place like home.

Pensacola depicted in Harper’s Weekly, June 22, 1861

Born to Philip Anthony Caro and Mary Ann Weaver on August 21, 1840, Mary began a diary that spanned the wartime years and mapped out her journey from Northwest Florida to her husband’s home state of Pennsylvania. A sporadic and less-than-devoted writer, Mary’s journal entries articulate the particular challenges to Pensacolians during the Civil War. She began on March 13th, 1861 by providing a synopsis of her state.

“We have in Florida one of the finest climates for its mildness and salubrity, on the face of the globe; our skies are bright and clear, our atmosphere pure, our winters are what northerners would call Indian Summer, our summers though longer are not so oppressive as in the North, our seasons are uniform, our land rich, cheap and available, our forests abound in timber of the most valuable kinds, our woods are full of game for the sportsman, our bay contains unlimited quantities and kinds of fish for the angler. The largest and finest flavoured oysters are to be found. Pensacola is a very pleasant city, the streets are shaded by a double row of Chinaberry and Magnolia trees whose long and stately branches bend protectingly over the houses. The principal hotels are the Florida House, Collina Hotel, and the Bedell House. The surrounding States have found out the attractions of this quiet watering place and during the summer months Pensacola is gay with unaccustomed visitors.”[1]

As a Floridian and frequent visitor to Pensacola, I agree with all of Mary’s narrative except her descriptions of the summer season. I think many would agree that the summer months of the South can be much harsher than those of the New England States – though her definition of the “North” is also not specified. By 1860, Mary was still a young lady living with her family of eight siblings near Bayou Chico, her father recorded as a “Mariner” in the census records, shuttling passengers from Mobile and Pensacola to New Orleans.[2] Her older brother, George, is also recorded as a Mariner at the age of 19, likely working alongside his father, and her younger brother, James, boasted the title of Merchant. The rest of the children were in school, implying that all were in the process of gaining an education by the time the war broke out. It may be safely said that Mary came from an average middle class family, who had deep roots in the Pensacola community.

Though her timeline seems a little off, Mary recorded the events of the spring of 1861 as they received news of the firing on Fort Sumter, the secession of Southern states, and the election of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy. On April 26, she defends her family’s position as Unionists by writing, “There were, of course, some loyal men in Pensacola. I say of course, because there are Union men everywhere throughout the South and they were obliged to be cautious how they expressed their opinions for fear of being arrested.”[3]

Confederate soldiers at Fort Barrancas (archives.org)

She expressed her anxieties as the Confederates and Federals pounded away at one another from across Pensacola Bay (Confederates at Fort Barrancas, Fort McRae, and the Navy Yard, Federals at Fort Pickens), as her entry in May recorded, “There has been fighting all day, it was begun by the confederate by firing from the Navy Yard every time those large guns, mortars they were called were fired it would shake every window in Pensacola.”[4]

Her fears, however, were not alleviated when General Braxton Bragg made the call to evacuate Pensacola and relinquish control to the Federals still at Fort Pickens. To begin with, her brother James – whom she called Jimmy – was a private with the Pensacola Guards and was ordered out with the rest of the Confederate troops during the early stages of evacuation. The Pensacola Guards were later incorporated into the 1st Florida Infantry, Company K, and saw action in many major battles in the Western Theater.[5] Secondly, the Federal occupation was less than smooth in the eyes of many of its citizens. One regiment among them, the 6th New York Infantry, better known as “Wilson’s Zouaves” had a reputation that preceded them. Mary described them as “a very rough set of men,” and was unsure of what to expect from the Union troops.[6]

General Neal Dow (Maine, An Encyclopedia)

She witnessed or heard of numerous unsavory events regarding Federal soldiers and generals taking possession of homes and valuables of Confederate sympathizers and Unionists alike. In one instance a chaplain from a Maine regiment and his wife took over the home of a neighbor and gutted it of all her furniture except the rugs. When Mary paid a call on the wife of the chaplain, she “felt sad when I saw Miss Nisbet’s carpets on the floor knowing that she was so much in need of them.”[7] The unscrupulous acts of General Neal Dow of Maine – nicknamed the “Napoleon of Temperance” for his prohibitionist activism – led her to lump him in the same category of “generals such as Butler, Banks, Curtis, Washburn, Prentiss, Schurz, Burnside, Hurlburt, and others of that class of patriots, who fought in the rear.”[8]

The shining light in this early stage of the war was her marriage to John B. Gormly of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Six years her senior, John came from a modest family, his father being a clerk, and one of several siblings.[9] What brought him to Pensacola prior to the outbreak of the war is uncertain, but the two became smitten before secession and on March 13, 1862, they “were married by Dr. Scott an Episcopal Minister our paster being absent.”[10] The wedding was attended by several of their close friends, a quiet ceremony. They were deprived of a honeymoon due to the war, and soon they would be forced to relocate.

After a fire that destroyed many buildings on Tarragona Street in March of 1863, Mary and her family received news of the evacuation to the Navy Yard where other Unionists had taken refuge.[11] She wrote of the condition of the home in which they were to stay:

“The next day Rosa and I went to the house the furniture was nearly all out and ours was being brought in, we went to work and cleaned up as best we could, we found that the house had been damaged by the bombardment as well as others for a shell [had] come through one of the windows and went through the second story floor then through the first story floor and had buried itself into the ground. The house we occupied had been built for an Old Fellows Hall, there was one large room on the first floor and another in the second story with a small room off at one end that room we occupied with the three children. I was almost afraid to go to sleep as there was no shutters or glass to the windows and also no doors. But I was so tired that I went to sleep.”[12]

Mary and John would only stay at the Navy Yard until mid-July when he procured passage on the USS Schmidt, bound for New York. From there, they would travel south to Allegheny City, Pennsylvania where they intended to stay with his family. On July 19, Mary bid farewell to her family and the city she knew so well, which was now a casualty of war.[13] The journey was less than ideal, as they sailed through a hurricane along the Carolina coast. Mary wrote after they passed through safely that, “I have often desired to witness a storm at sea but I would not like to again for a fortune.”[14]

View of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania from Mount Washington (loc)

After taking a few days in New York – where they also visited P.T. Barnum’s museum – they made their way to Pennsylvania by rail and then by omnibus. Visiting Pittsburgh, she was less than doting on the city as she was upon her hometown:

“Pittsburgh lies between two rivers the Monogahela[sic] and the Allegheny, there are fine bridges that cross the rivers. The population of Pittsburgh is nearly two hundred thousand. The City is not to one visiting if for the first time, a very attractive looking place. The dense volumes of black smoke pouring from the hundreds of furnaces, the copious showers of soot, the constant rumbling of ponderous machinery, the clatter of wags laden with iron, are experiences that are not calculated to make a favorable impression at first. In a very brief time, however, the visitor learns that the black canopy is the pillar of cloud to Pittsburgh, assuring them that the vast industries are still prospering. The rugged looking hills bounding the horizon are full of riches in the shape of bituminous coal. The public buildings, churches, halls, etc., compare favorable with any in the land, in spite of the awful smoke.”[15]

Despite her reservations, Allegheny City, just across the river from Pittsburgh, proved to be a refuge from the war. John worked as a clerk at a bank, a stable occupation that allowed them to at least find independence at several boarding houses until they purchased their own home after the war, where they took care of his retired father and kept a domestic servant.[16] However, when John passed in the winter of 1871, Mary did not waste much time returning home to Pensacola. There, she lived with her elderly mother, supported by her brothers who continued the family trade as bar pilots and bridge keepers.[17]

Mary’s journey from Pensacola to Pennsylvania and back again illustrates the upheaval experienced by civilians during the Civil War and the various ways in which they coped with a constantly changing situation. Her descriptions of the places she lived also provide a look into her worldview, idealizing Florida as a beautiful safe haven, and halfway maligning Pittsburgh for its industry – a common comparison made by Southerners at the time. Her story, told intermittently over four years, reveals the struggles of finding a peaceful home in a world torn by war, which can help us understand the consequences of the battling armies.



[1] Diary of Mary E. Caro, Pensacola, FL, Transcript, March 13, 1861, University of West Florida Historic Trust Archives, Accession 00.190.0283, (hereafter referred to as “Diary of Mary”), p. 1

[2]  1860 U.S. census, population schedule. NARA microfilm publication M653, 1,438 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Roll: M653_106; Page: 371; Family History Library Film: 803106; Forsyth Caro (family biography), St. John’s Cemetery Individual Record, https://www.stjohnsdb.com/burial_records/print.php?more=1419

[3] Diary of Mary, April 26, 1861, p. 2

[4] Ibid, May 28, 1861, p. 3

[5] Julien C. Yonge, “Pensacola In The War For Southern Independence,” Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol XXXVII, 1959, p. 370

[6] Diary of Mary, April 30, 1862, p. 5

[7] Ibid, May 30, 1862.

[8] Ibid, August 1, 1863 p. 6

[9] Seventh Census of the United States, 1850; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M432, 1009 rolls); Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29; National Archives, Washington, D.C. Census Place: Allegheny Ward 1, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: 744; Page: 39a

[10] Diary of Mary, March 13, 1862, p. 4

[11] Ibid, March 19, 1863, p. 7; George F. Pearce, The U.S. Navy in Pensacola: From Sailing Ships to Naval Aviation, 1825-1930, Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1980, p. 82

[12] Diary of Mary, March 22, 1863, p. 8

[13] Ibid, July 19, 1863, p. 9

[14] Ibid, August 7, 1863, p. 11

[15] Ibid, September 11, 1863, p. 14

[16] 1870 U.S. census, population schedules. NARA microfilm publication M593, 1,761 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Minnesota census schedules for 1870. NARA microfilm publication T132, 13 rolls. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. Census Place: Allegheny Ward 3, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; Roll: M593_1290; Page: 310A

[17] Tenth Census of the United States, 1880. (NARA microfilm publication T9, 1,454 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C. Census Place: Pensacola, Escambia, Florida; Roll: 127; Page: 37C; Enumeration District: 042

9 Responses to A Pensacola Refugee

  1. Excellent research and narrative! Please consider extending the story and publishing your work.

  2. Another well researched and wonderfully condensed story about Pensacola–THANK YOU, Sheritta. My family is the Pfeiffer family from Pensacola. The 3 brothers immigrated in 1852 from Bavaria only to find themselves joining the Pensacola Rifles (this is our documentation) i the Civil War, yet did not leave Pensacola. They became merchants and bakers in Pensacola with one of their buildings being across from what is now Seville Quarter entertainment complex. This leads me to my question, could the Caro family you cite be part of the family that owned the building which is at Palafox and Gimble Street (just down from fmr.Trader Jon’s) on the Baylen St slip? That’s a question for me, not for you. This type of speculation adds to the value of your writing. Thank you.

    1. Hey Woody,
      That’s so cool that you’re part of the Pfeiffer family! I work for the UWF Historic Trust in Pensacola which maintains one of their homes, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t personally know much about them, but it’s worth looking into. Glad you liked the article and that it gave you something extra to think about!

  3. I enjoyed reading your article. I always appreciate someone taking an interest in the Florida Panhandle’s total experience of the war. Having written the book The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War, I am familiar with the challenge that providing the history of Unionists in the panhandle and south Alabama can present. Please keep up with your research and consider a longer piece.

  4. Great piece! The Gulf Coast was the home of many transplanted Yankees before the War, including Leonard Destin, after whom the Gulf Coast town was eventually named. Her description of Pittsburgh as an industrial Mordor is really spot on, and jives with many descriptions, northern and southern.

    1. Not meaning to get too far off topic… Arguably the most important “transplanted Yankee” in Northwest Florida was Jeremiah H. Gilman, 2nd Lieutenant U.S. Army, who had been born and raised in Maine. Assigned to duty at Fort Barrancas in 1858, Lieutenant Gilman was one of three Army officers (along with about fifty enlisted men) responsible for maintaining readiness of the four Pensacola Bay forts, useful for preserving the trading port of Pensacola, and critical for providing security to the ever-expanding U.S. Navy Yard. During the early stages of the Secession Crisis, the two officers senior to Gilman (Captain John Winder and 1st Lieutenant A.R. Eddy) departed on leave of absence, leaving 2nd Lieutenant Gilman in acting command of Army operations in Pensacola… and setting the stage for what happened next.

  5. Enjoyed your article. My Great Great Grandfather Joseph Estevan Caro and Felipe Antonio Caro were brothers. Joseph fathered Alvaretto V Albert Caro, my Great Grandfather. So, Mary would be my Grandmother Kate Caro’s cousin. I was born and raised in Pensacola and retired as the Historic Preservationist for NASP. Discovering our history is my passion!

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