General Thomas Sidney Jesup commanded military operations against the Seminoles in Florida during the early stages of the conflict now known as the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). The Second Seminole War was the longest and costliest Indian War in American history. Jesup’s field diary, available on Florida Memory, contains his perspective on the war from October 1, 1836, to May 30, 1837. This series of blog posts places significant entries from the Jesup diary in the context of the Seminole Wars and the history of Anglo-American Indian-African relations in the American South. Below is the fourth post in the series.
When Thomas Sidney Jesup arrived in Florida he had already formed alliances with Creek Indians in Alabama and Georgia. These Creeks were friendly to the United States, and some had been party to treaties with the Americans. When the Second Creek War broke out, Indian leaders loyal to the United States joined American troops in punitive raids against rebel Creeks; some also served in Florida against the Seminoles.
In this entry from the diary, Jesup wrote to friendly Creek leader Echo Harjo, who was already operating in Florida against the Seminoles, to request he bring 100 warriors to Tampa Bay. At this point in the campaign, Jesup was planning an incursion into the Seminole territory. The Creeks under Echo Harjo’s command served as valuable guides and interpreters, as they spoke the same language as the Seminoles (Muscogee) and were familiar with the territory.
Fighting against Seminoles and their African allies was nothing new to Creeks friendly to the United States. During the First Seminole War (1816-1818), Creeks under the leadership of William McIntosh participated in attacks on the Negro Fort, the Suwannee Old Towns, and other villages in Florida. Nearly 800 Creeks joined American forces fighting Seminoles in Florida during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842).
The warriors under Echo Harjo’s command did not necessarily come to Florida by choice. They were told that loyal service in Florida guaranteed the welfare of their families in Alabama and Georgia. News of the troubles stemming from the Second Creek War caused great discontent among Echo Harjo’s warriors. Some defected to the Seminoles rather than continue to fight as allies with the Americans (see Jesup diary, March 11, 1837). Echo Harjo and other friendly Creek leaders reported on several occasions that they heard rumors of abuses suffered by their families. Jesup reassured them that their families would not suffer unduly from the fighting in the Creek Country.
After the conclusion of the Second Seminole War, most of the friendly Creeks returned to their homes. Despite their military service to the United States against the Seminoles, within a few years most were forced to emigrate to the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River.
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.
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).
The currently mild winter makes it easy to forget the frigid days that strike Florida from time to time. The winter of 1894-1895, perhaps the most memorable in Florida history, left a lasting impact on one of the state’s most recognizable industries.
In late December 1894, and then again in early February 1895, temperatures plummeted throughout the state. Orlando recorded 18 degrees on December 29; West Palm Beach reached only 27 on February 9.
Many citrus growers saw their investments crumble as frozen limbs snapped and fruit fell to the ground. Before the Great Freeze, Florida growers produced five million boxes of citrus per year. The industry did not reach this figure again for almost two decades.
The citrus industry moved southward after the 1894-95 freezes. Groves that survived the Great Freeze gained widespread notoriety. For example, the town of Keystone City was renamed Frostproof after its trees weathered the freeze. The great freeze forever changed the citrus industry, confining its reach to the southern half of the peninsula.
Visit Florida Memory to learn more about the history of Florida’s citrus industry and the lasting impact of the Great Freeze.
Doyle Conner passed away on Sunday, December 16. Elected to the House of Representatives when he was only 21, Conner became the youngest House Speaker in Florida history at age 25. He served in the Florida Legislature for 10 years and as Commissioner of Agriculture from 1961 to 1991.