The origins of the American Civil War are many and complex. In the early years of the 19th century, states’ rights versus central government, differing cultures between Northern and Southern states, misunderstanding and distrust, an unequal system of American tariffs & taxes, slavery and its expansion into the new territories, opposing views of the U.S. Constitution, and the struggle to maintain a balance of political power between Northern and Southern states all were issues that tragically drove the Nation toward separation and ultimately war.
Secession and Seizure
Despite years of conciliation and compromise, the political situation continued to polarize. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 by a majority made up of only Northern electoral votes created an unavoidable split between the states. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina, claiming the right to dissolve its association with the rest of the nation, formally seceded from the Union. Several Southern states soon followed her lead. On January 10, 1861, the state legislature of Florida voted unanimously for secession, making it the third Southern state to dissolve from the Union, joining Mississippi and South Carolina.
Fort Marion (as Castillo de San Marcos was renamed by the U.S. Army, after Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion) was being used simply as a warehouse for old and outdated cannons and arms. Three days before Florida officially seceded from the Union, Florida militia dispatched from Fernandina arrived in St. Augustine with the intention of taking over the fort and securing the cannons and munitions stored there.
At this time, Ordinance Sergeant Henry Douglas, living in a caretaker’s house on the fort green, comprised the entire Federal garrison of St. Augustine. Confronted with the overwhelming militia force, Sgt. Douglas demanded they sign a receipt for the fort and all its contents. Only then did he give up the keys. The Floridians, impressed with the sergeant’s spirit, took up a collection amongst themselves to pay his passage back to Philadelphia. Thus the first conflict between North and South in St. Augustine was resolved peacefully.
Under the Confederacy
Like most places throughout the state of Florida, the news of secession was received with celebration and excitement in St. Augustine. Very quickly, however, the reality of war sank in. The United States Navy North Atlantic Blockading Fleet began patrolling Southern coasts, trying to cut off the Confederacy’s commerce with Europe, the only source for most of its needs. Soon, even basic necessities became scarce, and life changed dramatically. The glow of the old Spanish lighthouse and several others farther down the coast were extinguished to prevent navigational aid to the Union Naval blockade that slowly tightened its noose around the Southern coastline and economy. Learn more about the blockade here.
St. Augustine, with its protected harbor, soon became an essential base of operations during the war for blockade runners bringing in vital materials and equipment for the South. Fort Marion served as a transit point for supplies being shipped to the fighting in Virginia and Tennessee, and all but 5 of its 63 cannons were transferred north. With more and more of Florida’s fathers and sons leaving to fight far from their home state, General Robert E. Lee, serving at that time as coordinator for Southern coastal defense, decided that the coastline of Florida had to be sacrificed in order to protect the cattle grazing areas and vital railways of the interior. Small detachments of men were placed at strategic positions along the coastline. Only two companies (totaling roughly 70 men) detached from the 3rd Florida Infantry Regiment made up the garrison stationed in St. Augustine.
In spite of its decision to weaken the defense of coastal regions, the South was able to successfully hold and defend most of the populated interior areas. Southern economic targets in Florida were attacked in small Union military operations, such as cavalry raids in south Florida to seize cattle and navy raids against valuable salt works and harbors along the coast to prevent the import and export of goods. These were countered by fierce guerilla attacks from Southern forces based in the interior.
Most famous and effective of these units was Captain J.J. Dickinson and the 2nd Florida Cavalry, who controlled almost all of the central portion of the state. Dickinson’s exploits were legendary, raiding and capturing Federal working parties from Gainesville to the outskirts of St. Augustine. His most daring feat was the destruction of the Union gunboat Columbine in a pitched battle along the St. Johns River near Palatka, the only known instance in U.S. history of a cavalry unit winning a naval battle. Confederate daring, however, could not hold off indefinitely the immense power of the Federal forces.