Reviewed by Patrick Kelly-Fischer
Zack C. Waters’ latest work, A Wilderness of Destruction: Confederate Guerrillas in East and South Florida, 1861-1865, is a detailed addition to the relatively narrow body of work that has addressed Civil War Florida.
While the book’s main focus is around the state’s guerrilla war, particularly outside the Panhandle, Waters frames that discussion within an argument that Florida was more significant to the war than is traditionally recognized. He highlights the importance of blockade runners utilizing Florida’s many small ports and rivers, the thousands of Union troops tied down by relatively small Confederate forces, and the critical role the state played in supplying cattle and salt to the Armies of Tennessee and Northern Virginia, especially after mid-1863.
Structured chronologically, the book begins several days before the state had even seceded, when a company of militia received orders to seize military stores from the federal arsenal in Chattahoochee. It continues through the removal of most Confederate troops to reinforce the armies in Tennessee and Virginia, and the resulting focus by state authorities on irregular warfare with the few means still at their disposal.
Waters’ work continues the narrative through to mid-1865. While civil authority had largely broken down even in Confederate-held territory by the end of the war, fighting continued into late April of 1865. As late as that spring, standing Union orders were that no detachment under 1,000 men was to venture outside of occupied St. Augustine for fear of guerrilla attacks.
The book contains plenty of that kind of typical guerrilla warfare: ambushing small Federal patrols, or individual soldiers who strayed outside of the lines, and the resulting reprisals by Union troops. Waters provides a close-up, granular look at the more brutal realities of partisan warfare: night raids, hit lists of civilians, homes destroyed and families torn apart.
All of this is framed within the context of the wider war in Florida, allowing Waters to delve into everything from the smallest ambush to guerrilla participation in the full-scale Battle of Olustee, and everything in between.
Waters carefully highlights the complicated dynamics of this kind of irregular warfare, as regular soldiers on both sides received support from partisan units, militia and home guards, and armed bands of deserters. He also weaves in the complicated dynamics of race in a state that was, as of the 1860 census, just barely majority White.
The importance of the blockade to the war effort in Florida, the number of small ports, and the narrow navigable rivers through the interior of the state mean that there’s plenty for naval enthusiasts to enjoy here.
In order to go into this level of depth on a relatively understudied topic, Waters has had to dig deep in his research efforts. Traditional sources like the Official Records are layered on top of the work other Florida Civil War scholars have published, and woven together with much more obscure primary source documents and unpublished manuscripts.
With a couple of small exceptions, Waters largely avoids the trap of overstating the importance of an understudied theater. He convincingly makes the case that Florida mattered without trying to sell the reader on the idea that these events singularly defined the course of the war, or that they were as significant to the outcome as better-known theaters.
In short, Waters has succeeded in writing a book that, while an in-depth study of a niche subject in a relatively obscure theater of the war, is also highly readable and a valuable resource.