By Dr. R. Boyd Murphree
Florida’s role in the American Civil War spanned the entire conflict. From the earliest days of secession in January 1861, when war threatened to break out in Pensacola, to the final surrender of Confederate forces in Florida in May 1865, Floridians experienced all aspects of the war that the South faced as a whole: economic hardship, naval blockade, internal dissension, battle, and final defeat. The purpose of this guide is to identify and describe the Civil War collections and publications available to researchers at the State Archives of Florida and the Florida Collection of the State Library. The following short history provides an overview of the Civil War in Florida and the service of Floridians in the war outside of the state.
The catalyst for the secession of Florida was the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States in November 1860. Fearful that Lincoln and the Republican Party would seek to abolish slavery and thereby destroy the traditional economic and social order of the South, Florida secessionists, led by Governor Madison Starke Perry, called for the state to arm itself in preparation for secession from the United States and the creation of an independent Southern confederacy. The legislature met in regular session on November 26 and voted to call for the election of delegates to a state convention that would convene in January 1861 to decide for or against secession. Every delegate elected to the Convention of the People of Florida [Series S 540] that assembled at Tallahassee on January 3, 1861, supported secession. Their main concern was not whether to secede, but when. The more moderate delegates, known as “cooperationists,” wanted to delay secession until several southern states were ready to leave the Union together. Radical or “fire-eater” delegates demanded Florida’s immediate withdrawal from the United States. The radicals won the debate: the convention passed an ordinance of secession on January 10. The next day, the convention assembled at the state capitol to sign the Ordinance of Secession, which declared Florida’s decision to dissolve its association with the United States and become “a Sovereign and Independent Nation,” making Florida the third state to leave the Union behind South Carolina and Mississippi.”]
Military concerns dominated state affairs from the earliest days of Florida’s secession. Even before the formal declaration of secession Florida moved to prepare its defenses. During an extended session from November 26, 1860, to February 14, 1861, the legislature passed a bill to reorganize the state militia, agreed to raise two infantry regiments and one cavalry regiment, and appropriated $100,000 for the purchase of arms and ammunition. On January 4, 1861, the first day of the secession convention, radical members of the convention met in private to authorize Governor Perry to seize federal military sites within the state. Governor Perry ordered state troops to seize the federal arsenal at Chattahoochee and Fort Marion at St. Augustine. Florida troops easily occupied the two undefended installations but failed to secure the more strategic federal positions at Key West, Dry Tortugas, and Pensacola, where Union troops remained in possession of Forts Taylor, Jefferson, and Pickens respectively.
Fort Pickens became the focus of particular concern between North and South as secessionist troops from Alabama and Mississippi rushed to Pensacola to reinforce the small force of Florida militia opposing the Union garrison at the fort. Similar to the situation at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, the military confrontation at Fort Pickens threatened to unleash civil war. The fact that the first shots of the war did not come from Florida was due to the South’s lack of a national government to coordinate strategy among the seceding states (the Confederate government did not exist until February 1861) and the hope that negotiations might secure Fort Pickens for Florida without bloodshed. When war finally came at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the standoff at Fort Pickens continued, but receded in importance as the focus of the war shifted to the front in Virginia. Despite a Confederate assault on Santa Rosa Island—the site of Fort Pickens—on October 9, 1861, the fort remained in Union hands throughout the war.
Florida Becomes a Confederate State
By the end of 1861, some 5,000 Floridians had joined the military forces of the Confederate States.
As Southern militias gathered in Pensacola during the first weeks of the siege of Fort Pickens, Florida, as one of the early seceding states, sent delegates to the constitutional convention that assembled on February 4, 1861, in Montgomery, Alabama, to establish the Confederate States of America. The convention produced a provisional constitution and government headed by Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as president and Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia as vice president. On March 11 the convention made the constitution permanent and the provisional government, which relocated to Richmond after Virginia seceded, dissolved within a year. Davis and Stephens, who were reelected to their offices in November 1861, were inaugurated as the chief executives of the permanent Confederate government on February 22, 1862.
Florida participated in all of these political developments. On February 26, 1861, the secession convention in Tallahassee approved the passage of the provisional Confederate constitution and ratified the final version on April 13. The convention also endorsed the ticket of Davis and Stephens as the Confederacy’s chief executive officers and revised Florida’s constitution to recognize Florida’s membership in the Confederate States.”]
Read more about Florida’s civil war history.