Florida and the Civil War (March 1863)

“Vindictive, Unrelenting War”: The Burning of Jacksonville

One of the most enduring scenes from a movie depicting the Civil War remains the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind (1939). Chaos, terror, and destruction surround Rhett and Scarlett as they flee the inferno. The scene’s fire portrays the actual fire set by retreating Confederates on September 1, 1864, as they pulled out of the city. On November 14, 1864, Union forces marching out of Atlanta set fire to hundreds of buildings. Atlanta remains the most famous example of the burning of a city during the Civil War; however, it was only one of many towns set to the torch during the struggle. Jacksonville, Florida, has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first.

Excerpt from “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865: General Topographical Map, Sheet XII” (ca. 1865), showing northeast Florida

Excerpt from “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865: General Topographical Map, Sheet XII” (ca. 1865), showing northeast Florida

The initial war-related fire in Jacksonville occurred on March 11, 1862. That day, Federal gunboats approached the city in preparation for what would be the first of four Union occupations. The imminent arrival of Federal troops created panic. Loyal Confederates rushed to evacuate the city, and Confederate soldiers prepared to set fire to supplies they could not take away. Local mobs, angered by the presence of the city’s sizable pro-Union population, torched Northern-owned businesses and homes. Otis and Abby Keane watched as the mobs ransacked their hotel, the Judson House, before setting the building aflame. That night, those who had fled Jacksonville watched from across the St. Johns River as large sections of their city burned.

Advertisement for the Judson House, Jacksonville

Advertisement for the Judson House, Jacksonville

A year after the first fire, Jacksonville endured another inferno. This time the Federals were responsible for the destruction. On March 10, 1863, Union troops, spearheaded by two black regiments, the 1st and 2nd South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, arrived for what became the third Union occupation of Jacksonville. Facing little resistance, the regiments quickly gained control of the city. Signs of growing Confederate strength to the west, however, encouraged the Union to reinforce their position in Jacksonville with two additional infantry regiments, the 6th Connecticut and the 8th Maine, both all-white units.

Although the Federals were able to raid along the St. Johns River as far south as Palatka and maintain control of Jacksonville, Union preparations for renewed operations in South Carolina led to the decision to end the Jacksonville operation. On March 28, 1863, as Union troops prepared to leave the city by sea, fires broke out in the wake of the columns of the 6th Connecticut, whose soldiers had taken the opportunity to set fire to the city. As the Yankees left, rain and the quick arrival of Confederate troops combined to contain the fires; however, much of the city lay in ruins. One witness detailed the smoldering structures:

“The Episcopal and Catholic churches, the jail, Parkhurst Store, Miller’s Bar Room, Bisbee’s Store, and dwelling house, Dr. Baldwin’s house and that whole block. Mrs Foster’s house, Washington Hotel, one of Hoeg’s stores—nearest Millers—and every house from the Judson House above the Railroad to Mrs. Collins old house, (Lydia Foster’s House, Sadlers, etc. are among them).”

Unidentified Union Soldier

Unidentified Union Soldier

While the Union’s responsibility for the fire was clear enough, Confederate newspapers as well as Northern newspapers critical of the use of black troops denounced the black regiments as the agents of destruction. The majority of Northern papers placed the entire blame on the white soldiers of the 6th Connecticut and 8th Maine. As with most controversial historical incidents, however, the answer is not black or white. There seems little doubt that the two white regiments started the fires, but when it became clear that they were free to join in the torching, some black soldiers, according to witnesses, set fires as well. One Northern reporter who saw the burning city despaired that the war had taken a new and uglier turn from which there was no turning back, “Is this not war, vindictive, unrelenting war?”

The best history of the Union occupations of Jacksonville is Daniel L. Schafer, Thunder on the River: the Civil War in Northeast Florida (University Press of Florida, 2010). All quotations come from pages 159 and 161-162 of Schafer’s book.

Florida and the Civil War (February 1863)

Corn, not Cotton

Even though the North produced more agricultural goods than the South during the Civil War, at the beginning of the war in 1861, few observers would have predicted that the South, with its overwhelmingly agricultural economy and seemingly endless supply of slave labor, would find it difficult to provide adequate food supplies to its soldiers and citizens.

However, a number of factors produced food shortages early on in the war and especially by 1863. By then, the continuing and growing absence of men from their farms due to military service, the impressment of food and slaves for the use of the Confederate Army, a tightening Union naval blockade, and a poor transportation system combined to spark bread riots in many Southern cities and led to increased misery on the Confederate home front, where poor families struggled to feed themselves.

Steamship docked at Apalachicola (ca. 1860)

Steamship docked at Apalachicola (ca. 1860)

Florida was not immune from these conditions. Although the state’s location far away from the main fighting fronts meant that the vast majority of its agricultural land was untouched by the enemy, most of Florida’s white men of military age were serving in the Confederate Army outside of the state by the summer of 1862. This meant that they could not be at home working to feed their families. In addition, by 1863, most of Florida’s ports were either occupied or blockaded by the U.S. Navy, so few outside supplies reached the state. Of course, blockade-runners succeeded in bringing goods to Florida’s shores, but most of these items were either luxury goods or weapons, not provisions that could feed Florida’s poor farm families.

Given the swift decline in value of Confederate currency during the war, planters found they had to rely on the one crop that was still valuable enough in itself to be used to purchase needed supplies and the specialty goods that the blockade-runners provided. That crop was cotton.
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Detour to Liberty: Black Troops in Florida during the Civil War

In his annual message to the Florida General Assembly on November 17, 1862, Governor John Milton pointed to Abraham Lincoln’s Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed freedom for all slaves living in areas of the country still in rebellion by January 1863, as a plot to “subjugate Florida . . . and to colonize the State with negroes . . . .”

The proclamation was, Milton argued, nothing less than “the means the most terrific which could be devised to alarm the people of the South . . . .” As Milton feared, the Emancipation Proclamation came to pass on January 1, 1863, but the alarm that sounded across the South was soon compounded by the Union’s deployment of black troops against the Confederacy.

Beginning in March 1863, Florida was the site of some of the earliest operations of black regiments, which became an essential part of Union operations in the state until the end of the war.

Drawing of a black Union infantryman

Drawing of a black Union infantryman

As early as November 1862, black companies conducted raids against salt works and saw mills along both sides of the coastal border between Georgia and Florida. These attacks were the outgrowth of the U.S. War Department’s order of August 25, 1862. That order allowed the creation of a limited number of black units within the U.S. Army’s Department of the South, which was responsible for military operations along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
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Florida and the Civil War (January 1863)

Florida’s Most Famous General Never Fought in Florida

On January 14, 1863, the Confederate War Department assigned Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith command of Confederate forces in Texas and the area of Louisiana west of the Mississippi River. Within a month, Confederate president Jefferson Davis expanded Kirby’s command to include all of the territory within the Department of the Trans-Mississippi: Arkansas, Missouri, West Louisiana, Texas, the Indian Territory (today’s Oklahoma), and the Arizona Territory. For the next two-and-a-half years, Smith directed Confederate military, administrative, and economic affairs in the Trans-Mississippi, which had to become self-sufficient after the fall of Vicksburg in July 1863 cut off Smith’s command from the rest of the Confederacy. Smith’s position as commander of the Trans-Mississippi or “Kirby Smithdom” as the area became known, made him one of the most important and powerful Confederate generals of the Civil War; however, his name is relatively unknown today compared to the pantheon of generals in gray that includes such names as Robert E. Lee, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Joseph E. Johnston. Smith’s responsibilities in the West and his earlier exploits during the war make him the most significant of Florida’s Civil War generals.

Confederate General Kirby Smith, between 1861 and 1865

Confederate General Kirby Smith, between 1861 and 1865

Edmund Kirby Smith was born in St. Augustine, Florida, on May 16, 1824. Smith’s father, Joseph Lee Smith, served as a federal judge in the newly acquired U.S. territory. He installed his family in the Segui House on Aviles Street in St. Augustine, renting the house from the descendants of Bernardo Segui. Due to General Smith’s fame from the Civil War, the house is now known as the Segui-Smith House and contains St. Augustine’s historical library. Edmund left St. Augustine in 1836 to attend Benjamin Hollowell’s school in Alexandria, Virginia, in preparation for an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He obtained the appointment and attended West Point from 1841-1845. Upon graduation, Edmund entered the Fifth Infantry Regiment as a second lieutenant and was serving in that unit when the United States went to war against Mexico. Edmund was part of the victorious army that captured Mexico City and participated in the celebrations that followed Mexico’s surrender in February 1848. Unfortunately, Edmund’s brother, Captain Ephraim Kirby Smith, did not survive the war; he was killed leading his men during the Battle of Chapultepec on September 8, 1847. In order to distinguish himself from his brother, Edmund went by his middle name “Kirby” and signed all of his future correspondence as “E. Kirby Smith,” the name that he came to be known by during the Civil War.

Segui-Smith House, home of the St. Augustine Historical Society library

Segui-Smith House, home of the St. Augustine Historical Society library

Kirby Smith was stationed with the Second U.S. Cavalry Regiment in West Texas in February 1861, when Texas joined six other Southern states to form the Confederate States of America. After returning to Florida for a brief visit, the Confederate Army assigned the now Lieutenant-Colonel Smith to Virginia, where he served under the command of General Joseph E. Johnston. By the time of the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861, Smith commanded a brigade as a brigadier general and rushed to support General Stonewall Jackson’s men at the height of the battle. Smith’s brigade helped counter the Union attack and enabled the Confederates to turn a likely defeat into victory. Wounded during the fighting, Smith was reported as killed in action. His family began to mourn his death before receiving news that he had survived and was recovering in Lynchburg, Virginia.

After his recovery, the Confederate War Department assigned Smith to take command of forces in all of Florida east of Pensacola. Before he could begin his move, however, the department decided he could be of more use if he remained in Virginia. Smith stayed in Virginia until March 1862, when he was reassigned to command the Department of East Tennessee. Centered at Knoxville, the Department of East Tennessee became the right-wing of the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in September 1862. Although the invasion achieved some early success, poor coordination between Smith’s army and Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee failed to defeat the larger Union armies that contested the invasion. By October 24, Smith was back in Knoxville, where his disillusionment with the war almost led him to resign his command. It was during this time that Smith received news of his promotion to lieutenant general. Within two months, Jefferson Davis, upon the recommendation of Robert E. Lee, decided Smith was the general he needed to take command of Confederate forces in the West. Smith took up his appointment as commander of the Trans-Mississippi on February 9, 1863.

The headquarters for his new department was located in Alexandria, Louisiana. With forces that never exceeded about 70,000 men, Smith was entrusted with the defense of the entire Trans-Mississippi. He was also expected to relieve the Union threat to Vicksburg by conducting offensive operations along the Mississippi River. Smith directed his forces to invade Missouri and attack Union strongholds in Arkansas, but these efforts failed to dislodge the Federals or save Vicksburg, which surrendered to the Union on July 4, 1863. Vicksburg’s fall forced the Trans-Mississippi to rely on its own resources. Smith devoted much of his time addressing the department’s economic and administrative problems. Jefferson Davis gave him full authority to govern the region as he saw fit. Due to his efforts and the incompetence of Union general Nathaniel P. Banks, Smith’s forces were able to turn back a Union invasion of East Texas in 1864. By 1865, however, large scale desertions brought on by the increasing likelihood that the Confederacy would lose the war, depleted resources, and ongoing Indian raids severely weakened Smith’s department. Although he would be the last Confederate commander to surrender to the Union (June 2, 1865), the Confederate hold on the Trans-Mississippi became increasingly untenable in the last months of the war. There was little Smith could do to resist the inevitable defeat.

Statue of General Kirby Smith, located at the National Statuary Hall Collection, Washington, D.C.

Statue of General Kirby Smith, located at the National Statuary Hall Collection, Washington, D.C.

Kirby Smith outlived all the other top-ranked Confederate generals. After a post-war career as a businessman and educator (president of the University of Nashville and professor of mathematics at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee), Smith died at Sewanee on March 28, 1893. Although he is buried in Tennessee, Smith’s native state did not forget him. In 1922, a bronze statue of Smith was placed in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, where it stood along with the marble statue of inventor John Gorrie as Florida’s contribution to the Hall. Kirby Smith’s statue remains in the Capitol to this day.

Florida and the Civil War (December 1862)

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.

Colonel David Lang (between 1861 and 1865)

Colonel David Lang (between 1861 and 1865)

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).

Florida and the Civil War (November 1862)

Three Heads are Better than One

Historians have long pointed to lack of cooperation between state governors and the central government in Richmond as one of the principal reasons for the defeat of the Confederacy. Added to that problem was contention between many of the governors about how best to wage the war. Since bad news sells better than good news, instances of cooperation between Confederate governors or between the governors and Richmond are less well known. One such episode occurred in Florida in November 1862, when the Confederate government agreed to support the creation of a new military department to strengthen the defense of the tri-state region bordered by Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

Florida Governor John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

Florida Governor John Milton (between 1861 and 1865)

Florida Governor John Milton conceived the idea of the tri-state military district. In doing so, Milton acted on his long-held belief that the Apalachicola River was the most promising avenue for a Union invasion of Florida. He feared that Union capture of the port of Apalachicola and an advance up the river would allow the Yankees to capture and destroy the rich cotton fields of Gadsden and Jackson counties—Jackson was also Milton’s home county—before proceeding to the tri-state border, where the Apalachicola meets the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers flowing down from Georgia and Alabama, respectively. Union forces could then push on to Columbus, Georgia, the Chattahoochee’s most important port and one of the Confederacy’s few industrial centers. Milton hoped that a tri-state military department providing for the defense of portions of West and Middle Florida, southeast Alabama, and southwest Georgia would enable him to call on the bordering states for troops to help defend Florida, where only a small number of Confederate troops remained after the spring of 1862.

Junction of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers to form the Apalachicola (1926)

Junction of the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers to form the Apalachicola (1926)

Milton first proposed the tri-state defense department in a letter to Jefferson Davis as early as October 29, 1861, barely more than three weeks after becoming governor. At the same time, he wrote to Governor Joseph E. Brown of Georgia and Governor A. B. Moore of Alabama requesting their support for the idea. At that time, his fellow governors were not enthusiastic—they did not see the need for such a department—and Davis passed on Milton’s proposal to the Confederate War Department, which ignored Milton’s request. A year later, however, Brown and Alabama’s governor John Gill Shorter were more receptive. They realized that with Florida’s denuded defenses their states were more vulnerable to attack from the south. In addition, both states had invested heavily in salt production along Florida’s Gulf Coast. Thousands of Georgians and Alabamians were producing salt in Florida and their citizens, along with the rest of the Confederacy, depended on the vital supply of salt from Milton’s state.

In October 1862, Milton again asked President Davis to support the tri-state department. This time he agreed. Davis may have changed his mind due to Milton’s loyal support for the unpopular conscription law, which Davis had pushed the Confederate Congress to pass in April 1862. Assured of Davis’ backing, Milton, Brown and Shorter submitted a formal request for the creation of the department to Davis on November 11, 1862. The governors’ proposal placed the following counties within the department: Henry, Dale, Barbour, Russell, Covington, Coffee, and Pike in Alabama; Decatur, Thomas, Miller, Early, Baker, Clay, Calhoun, Randolph, Quitman, Stewart, Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Mitchell, and Dougherty in Georgia; and Leon, Gadsden, Wakulla, Jefferson, Madison, Liberty, Washington, Jackson, Calhoun, and Franklin in Florida.

Map of the Tri-State Area-Florida, Georgia and Alabama (ca. 1865)

Map of the Tri-State Area-Florida, Georgia and Alabama (ca. 1865)

Despite Davis’ initial support, Milton again ran into difficulties with the Confederate War Department. They did, however, split the Department of Middle and East Florida into two districts: the District of Middle Florida, covering the area between the Choctawhatchee and Suwannee rivers; and the District of East Florida, which consisted of the rest of Florida east of the Suwannee River. Milton also failed to get Richmond’s approval to incorporate the Alabama counties into the new defensive arrangement. The Confederate army’s adjutant and inspector general, General Samuel Cooper, informed Milton that since the Alabama counties fell outside the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, those counties could not be part of the new Florida district. Fortunately for Milton, Cooper agreed that the Georgia counties could be under the new District of Middle Florida. Milton had finally gotten Richmond to take notice of the Apalachicola region, even though Florida would remain at the bottom of the Confederate government’s defensive priorities.

For information on relations between Florida and its neighboring states during the war see Ridgeway Boyd Murphree, “Rebel Sovereigns: The Civil War Leadership of Governors John Milton of Florida and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, 1861-1865,” Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 2006.

Florida and the Civil War (October 1862)

Bluff Naked

Florida faced three avenues of invasion during the Civil War: the Apalachicola River, the St. Marks River, and the St. Johns River. Although the state obviously comprised much more land than the territory along those three waterways, geographic, economic, and political factors made the rest of the state, with the exception of the naval bases at Key West and Pensacola, largely irrelevant to Union strategy. The vast majority of Florida’s population (slave and free), agricultural production, and political power resided in North Florida, which was the only section of the state contiguous to the Confederacy. Of the three strategic rivers, only the St. Johns River played a central role in the Union’s campaign in the state: Federal forces never tried to drive up the Apalachicola, and when they finally marched up the St. Marks in March 1865, in a campaign that ended in a Confederate victory at Natural Bridge, the war was nearly over.

The St. Johns was vital to the Union’s Florida strategy. If the Federals controlled the river, they could raid at will into the Confederate interior and use the river as a protective barrier for control of the land to the east. Behind this barrier, they could potentially begin the political reconstruction of Florida by securing and organizing the large number of Unionists in the area. A secure Northeast Florida would also serve as a magnet for escaped slaves, many of whom would eventually enlist in the Union army.

Preventing these possibilities made control of the St. Johns equally important for its Confederate defenders. One key to preventing a Union march up the River—the St. Johns is one of the few rivers in North America that flows north—was control of St. John’s Bluff. The bluff was located on the approach to Jacksonville, six miles from the mouth of the St. Johns, and was the highest point along the river.  Artillery on the bluff would make it extremely difficult for ships to pass upstream. However, with Confederate defenses in disarray following the Union’s first occupation of Jacksonville in March 1862, Union gunboats stationed at Mayport operated up and down the St. Johns. The gunboats were magnets for escaped slaves, who flocked to the river in search of the vessels and passage to freedom. Slave owners along the St. Johns demanded the Confederate government take immediate action to stop the exodus.

St. Johns Bluff

St. Johns Bluff

Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, the Confederate commander in east Florida, was determined to fortify St. Johns Bluff and end the Union raids. He had few resources at his disposal, however. When he assumed command in April 1862, most Confederate forces were removed from Florida to meet the crisis brought on by Federal victories in Tennessee. With only a handful of troops, Finegan set out to strengthen his forces with local volunteers and launched a wide-ranging campaign to find arms, especially artillery, for his units. By September 1862 he had found enough artillery to fortify St. Johns Bluff, where Confederate troops used slave labor to construct their defenses.

Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finegan

Confederate Brigadier General Joseph Finegan

The Confederates opened fire on the first Union gunboat to approach the fortified bluff on September 11. Taken by surprise, the U.S.S. Uncas, soon joined by the U.S.S. Patroon, bombarded the Rebels but failed to destroy the position. On September 17, three more Union gunboats arrived to reinforce the two vessels and launch a renewed bombardment. It soon became apparent that naval force alone would not drive the Confederates off the bluff. The Union dispatched over 800 troops to Florida from its units along the South Carolina coast. These troops arrived at Mayport on October 1. The next day, the Union troops landed and began a march around towards the rear of the Confederate position.

Meanwhile, the Confederate commander on the bluff, Colonel Charles F. Hopkins, was in a panic. He believed that 5,000, not 800, Yankees were preparing to assault his defenses. Faced with continued bombardment from the Union gunboats and the prospect of an overwhelming Union force attacking from the rear, Hopkins decided he must abandon the position.  Disgusted with the prospect of retreat before he had even encountered the enemy, Captain Winston Stephens, one of the Confederate officers at the bluff, believed the position was strong enough to withstand any Yankee assault and reckoned his men “could kill four to one in these woods.” Colonel Hopkins was not so optimistic. He ordered his men to retreat from the bluff on the night of October 2-3. The Federals then occupied the position and captured all the Rebel cannon in the process—Hopkins had failed to ensure that the guns were spiked or blown up.

Winston Stephens: Welaka, Florida

Winston Stephens: Welaka, Florida

The Confederate retreat from St. Johns Bluff was a humiliating defeat. The Federals reoccupied Jacksonville on October 3, and their gunboats once again steamed unmolested up the river. General Finegan called Hopkins’ retreat a “gross military blunder” but Hopkins, who demanded a court martial to defend his actions, argued that the position was indefensible due to the lack of men and material available to his command. The court martial exonerated Hopkins, who, although excoriated in the Confederate press, was less to blame for Florida‘s weakness than the Confederate government, which had removed the men and material necessary for the state’s defense.

The Stephens quote is found in Daniel L. Schafer’s Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida, University Press of Florida (2005). Most of Stephens’ extensive wartime correspondence with his wife, Octavia, is published in Rose Cottage Chronicles: Civil War Letters of the Bryant-Stephens Families of North Florida (University Press of Florida, 1998).

 

Florida and the Civil War (September 1862)

Saint Mary

The slaughter in Virginia during the summer of 1862 overwhelmed the South’s meager medical resources. Although Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia seemed invincible as it marched into Maryland in September 1862, a ferocious battle at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17 led to the bloodiest day’s fighting of the entire war. The opposing armies had combined losses (killed, wounded and missing) of 23,000 men. Over 10,000 of these unfortunates were Confederates.

While wounds, disease and sickness, not to mention the terrible toll of battle deaths, haunted both sides, the much smaller population of the South made it more difficult for the Confederacy to recover from the enormous battlefield bloodlettings. It was only the willingness of Southern civilians to work and sacrifice for the Confederate cause that allowed the Rebel armies to remain in the field for over four years of war. One of the most prominent of these citizens was Mary Martha Reid of Florida, whose work caring for Confederate wounded in Richmond, Virginia, made her one of the most famous Confederate heroines of the war.

Usually known as “Martha Reid,” Mary was born Mary Martha Smith at St. Mary’s, Georgia, on September 12, 1812. In 1836, she married Robert Raymond Reid in St. Augustine, Florida. President Martin Van Buren appointed her husband, who was serving as a federal judge in Florida, territorial governor in 1839. Governor Reid presided over the convention that forged Florida’s first constitution. He died in 1841 during a yellow fever epidemic in Tallahassee. The Reids’s only surviving child, Raymond Jenks Reid, lived to serve as a lieutenant in the Second Florida Infantry, part of the Florida Brigade in Lee’s army, during the war. In fact, it was Mary’s wish to be near her son that led her to Richmond, where she became involved in the establishment and administration of the Florida Hospital.

As the casualties poured into Richmond during 1861-1862, the municipal government, private entities, and eventually the Confederate government organized hospitals in the city. Individual states also stepped in to provide hospitals for their own wounded soldiers. A result of state pride and medical concern—it was believed hospitalized men would be more comfortable surrounded by comrades from their own units—the state hospitals were popular with the troops. Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Florida were among the states that created hospitals in Richmond.

The Florida Hospital officially opened on September 26, 1862. It was located in the building of the former Globe Hospital on 19th Street in Richmond. Governor John Milton supervised the financing of the hospital from Tallahassee. He appointed Dr. Thomas M. Palmer, former surgeon of the Second Florida Infantry and doctor from Jefferson County, superintendent and recognized Mary Martha Reid as the hospital matron. However, due to the ever-increasing casualties and sickness among the troops, the Confederate government decided to consolidate the number of hospitals in Richmond and focus on larger institutions. The government ended the use of state hospitals in late 1863; however, a small Florida ward continued to exist in the large Howard’s Grove hospital into 1865.

Mrs. Reid continued her work for Florida’s sick and wounded until the Confederate government fled Richmond on April 2, 1865. During her time in the city, she acquired a reputation as a tireless advocate for Florida’s soldiers and devoted herself to their care and the administration of the Florida Hospital. She remained in Richmond despite the fact that her original reason for moving to the Confederate capital, concern for her son, ended in tragedy on May 6, 1864, when Raymond Jenks was killed in the Battle of the Wilderness.

Headstone for Raymond J. Reid: Richmond, Virginia (March 2008)

Headstone for Raymond J. Reid: Richmond, Virginia (March 2008)

Mary Martha Reid died in Fernandina, Florida, on June 24, 1894. In 1866, only a year after the war’s end, the Florida legislature recognized her sacrifices by providing her with an annual pension of six hundred dollars for life. She also became one of the most prominent female symbols of the “Lost Cause.” Florida’s first chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy took Mary’s name as their own in 1897, becoming the “Martha Reid Chapter” that year.

For further reading on the Florida Hospital and the role of Florida women in the Civil War see David Coles, “Richmond, the Confederate Hospital City,” in Virginia at War 1862, William C. Davis and James I Robertson Jr. editors (University Press of Kentucky, 2007) and Tracy J. Revels, Grander in Her Daughters: Florida’s Women During the Civil War (University of South Carolina Press, 2004).

Florida and the Civil War (August 1862)

Mourning in America

Death was the real victor of the Civil War. Most families, especially in the South, lost a father, brother, son, or knew relatives and neighbors who lost a loved one. By the summer of 1862, the death toll was so overwhelming that whole communities were constantly draped in black. The Tallahassee Florida Sentinel was concerned that continual public mourning was weakening the Confederate economy:

“When so many households throughout the South are called upon to mourn the loss of Dear ones, the custom of wearing mourning clothes adds greatly to our expenditure and detracts to that extent from our ability to maintain this unequal struggle. It is unnecessary to remark that such goods are now very scarce, and costly, and many are compelled, in obedience to custom, to make sacrifices which they cannot well afford.”

Although the pervasiveness of death made all Americans citizens of what historian Drew Gilpin Faust has called “the Republic of Suffering,” shared grief could not relieve the pain of surviving family members, especially parents who lost a son.

Martha Pittman of Marianna, Florida, lost her only surviving son, John D. Pittman, on August 31, 1862, when he died of wounds received in the previous day’s fighting during the Battle of Second Manassas (Second Bull Run). John, a student at the University of Virginia when the war began, remained in school until March 1862, when he wrote to his mother that he had decided to leave the university and join the army “now that the South is in her greatest danger.” (The Confederacy had recently lost the battles of Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee.)

Portrait of John D. Pittman (on left) and a young man identified as "Johnson."

Portrait of John D. Pittman (on left) and a young man identified as “Johnson.”

John returned to Florida and enlisted in Marianna, joining the newly formed Eighth Florida Infantry Regiment in May 1862. His unit joined the Florida Brigade in the Army of Northern Virginia, which in August moved against the Army of the Potomac occupying positions near the old Bull Run battlefield. The only casualties suffered by the Florida Brigade, which was part of the Confederate reserve, came as a result of Union artillery fire on August 30. Unfortunately, Pittman, who had not even reached his 20th birthday, was among those few Florida wounded. He died in a field hospital the next day.

Upon John’s enlistment, Martha already mourned losing her son to war. She composed a poem “To Her Son,” writing it on a blank page in the student autograph book that John had brought with him from Virginia:

“Mother sorrowing over her son

But give him up to defend his Country

Whose dear heart is made sad,

By the Dear Son bravely gone

Mother praying for her Son

Who was all her pride and story?

Sister mourns a dear one gone

A Brother called to take up arms

Mother weeping? Over thy Son

Dearer than thyself to thee;

Will (all) by death left desolated

Tell me is it well with you

Yes tis well with the loved and lost

And not lost to us forever;

They have but before us crossed

Over the deep and shadowy river”

May 27 1862               M P

Martha Pittman

Martha Pittman

The editorial from the Florida Sentinel was first quoted in Florida A Hundred Years Ago (Samuel Procter, ed. 1963). The Pittman letter and poem are part of the Blackshear, Pittman, White, and Drew Families Papers.

Distant Storm: Florida’s Role in the Civil War, 1861-1862 (Part Two)

In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, the Department of State’s State Library and Archives of Florida presents “Distant Storm: Florida’s Role in the Civil War.” Part Two, “The Confederacy in 1861-1862,” is now live on Florida Memory. The exhibit features original documents and photographs from the collections of the State Library and Archives of Florida, accompanied by a narrative on Florida’s role in the Civil War.

Confederate Columbiad guns at the entrance to Pensacola Bay (February 1861)

Confederate Columbiad guns at the entrance to Pensacola Bay (February 1861)

Florida entered the Civil War as one of the original seceding states. The second installment of “Distant Storm” begins with Florida’s role in the creation of the Confederate government and ends with Florida’s role in maintaining the Confederacy through 1862. During this period, Florida began the war at the center of the secession crisis, as Confederate and Union forces confronted each other at Fort Pickens off Pensacola Harbor.

The national focus on Florida soon shifted, however, and Florida was largely forgotten as Union and Confederate armies contested for control of Virginia and Tennessee. Florida regiments left the state to participate in the great battles to the north. The regiments, formed into the Florida brigades of the East and West, became integral units in the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee.

Richard B. Waller (ca. 1861)

Richard B. Waller (ca. 1861)

Back home, the state contended with economic and governmental problems that accompanied the lengthening war. Governor John Milton contended for control of the executive branch with restless members of the ongoing secession convention and had the unpleasant duty of implementing the Confederate Conscription Act, the first national draft in U.S. history.

Despite Union incursions and an ever-tightening naval blockade, Florida ended 1862 as an intact but increasingly brittle member of the Confederacy. Confederate Floridians grimly hoped that 1863 would bring the South final victory.