March 1862: Invasion!

Florida and the Civil War

This is the second in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

March 1862: Invasion!

The arrival of a Union invasion fleet off Amelia Island on March 3, 1862, was a startling but not unexpected event. As early as October 1861, Governor John Milton notified neighboring Confederate governors that a Union invasion fleet was steaming southward for a possible landing in Florida. Although the fleet’s target at that time was Port Royal, South Carolina, not Florida, ships from the flotilla eventually transported the Union expeditionary force that descended on Amelia Island in March.

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

For months, east coast Confederate and Unionist Floridians had expected Federal troops to land in Florida. Although a Federal raiding party occupied the Gulf port of Cedar Key in January 1862, under orders from General Robert E. Lee, General James H. Trapier, the commander of Confederate forces in the Department of Middle and East Florida (the area from the Atlantic to the Choctawhatchee River in the west), concentrated the bulk of his forces for the defense of Amelia Island. Meanwhile in Jacksonville, a city with a strong Unionist element, pro-Union men and women awaited the liberation of their city, where many of them were threatened by secessionist vigilance committees.

By March 1862, however, the Unionists had more cause for optimism than the secessionists. Confederate defeats in Tennessee during February resulted in the Richmond government’s decision to withdraw its troops from Florida to reinforce Tennessee. As the Union fleet approached, General Trapier ordered the withdrawal of his troops from Amelia Island. On March 4, the Federals occupied Fernandina after the last train carrying troops and fleeing civilians crossed the bridge to the mainland under the fire of the USS Ottawa, a Union gunboat. Fernandina remained under Union control for the rest of the war and became a place of refuge for hundreds of escaped slaves from Florida and southeast Georgia.

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February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida and the Civil War

This is the first in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

February 1862: Florida the Undefended

Florida’s precarious position on the periphery of the Confederacy became even more exposed in February 1862, when the Confederate government ordered the withdrawal of all but a handful of the Confederate forces in Florida.

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

9th Mississippi unit: Pensacola (1861)

This decision came in the wake of a series of Union victories during the first half of the month. Federal troops in Tennessee under the command of Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson on February 6 and 16 respectively. In between those victories, on February 8, a Union naval force captured Roanoke Island off the North Carolina coast.

These victories resulted in the surrender of thousands of Confederate troops and opened the way for Union thrusts into the Confederate interior, especially in the West, where Grant advanced south towards Mississippi. A shocked and dispirited Confederate government rushed to reinforce the West by withdrawing Confederate troops from Florida.

On February 18, Richmond ordered General Braxton Bragg, commanding the Confederate army at Pensacola, to withdraw his units and send them to Tennessee as quickly as possible.

Meanwhile, on Florida’s east coast, General Robert E. Lee began preparations to remove most of the forces under his command. At this stage of the war, Lee was responsible for the defense of the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia and East Florida. On February 24, the Confederate War Department ordered Lee to transfer units under his command in Florida to Tennessee. He was only to keep enough troops in Florida to block Union entry into the St. Johns River and for the defense of Apalachicola: the Confederate government feared Union capture of Apalachicola could result in an invasion of Georgia from the south.

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

General Robert E. Lee (1860s)

By the end of the month, Florida was virtually defenseless as a Union flotilla carrying an invasion force approached the coast.