The Civil War in Florida

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renamed by the U.S. Army, after Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion) was being used simply as a warehouse for old and outdated cannons and arms.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.

 
A black & white photo of the USS Wabash

Union Occupation and Confederate Defeat

By early 1862, Federal forces began to seize a series of poorly defended Southern coastal towns, including St. Augustine. On February 28th, 26 U.S Navy ships sailed from Hilton Head, South Carolina’s Department of the South headquarters to occupy Fernandina, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine. On March 12th, in a small boat flying the white flag of truce, Commander. C. R. P. Rodgers left DuPont’s flagship USS Wabash, anchored off St. Augustine Inlet, to receive the surrender of St. Augustine. Three days prior, the remaining Confederate forces had withdrawn farther south, leaving St. Augustine undefended and open to a peaceful occupation. Rodgers was met by Mayor Christobal Bravo and other town council members. They were informed that he “had a single purpose- to restore the state of affairs which existed before the rebellion.” The city officials were assured they could continue to administer the town as long as Federal authority was recognized. Immediately, the Stars and Stripes were hoisted from Fort Marion. Du Pont wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells: “The American flag is flying once more over the old city, raised by the hands of its own people…”

Despite the lack of military resistance, the reception of Federal forces in St. Augustine was a cool one. While a number of Unionists did exist in the city, the majority of the population still supported the Southern cause. Most prominent among the secessionists were the ladies of the town, who used every occasion to taunt the Federal troops until an ordinance was passed threatening their arrest for any further demonstrations.

Continuous patrols of the St. John’s River by Union gun boats reduced any Confederate activity on the east side of the river to small raiding parties. For this reason, St. Augustine and the surrounding areas experienced little hostilities for the remainder of the war. This made the ancient city an ideal destination for Union regiments who were in dire need of rest and refitting after heavy fighting in Virginia and the Carolinas. In the fall of 1863, St. Augustine became a convalescent camp. Rather than evacuating troops to the North, the army chose to send them to Florida. Florida had already gained the reputation as a winter health resort. Activity in town increased with the construction of a hospital. Many men found work in carpentry. Henhouse and garden owners found a market for their produce. Before the war, St. Augustine had made a living off of sick “Yankees,” and now it was back in the old business.

 
Soldiers stand in the courtyard amidst large pyramids of cannonballs.

Throughout the war, nearly 6,000 Federal troops came through St. Augustine. Most were housed at the St. Francis Barracks while small detachments were also housed on the gun deck of Fort Marion in temporary hutments and tents. A typical day for a soldier would have consisted of guard duty at various locations throughout town, military drill on the fields south of the Barracks, working parties, and foraging the local area for food and supplies to add to their issued rations.

 

Aftermath

After the war, President Andrew Johnson initially continued with Lincoln’s gradual reconstruction plan. But under this policy, former Confederate statesman were reelected to seats in Congress and began passing laws negating the gains of the war, such as a series of “Black Codes” limiting the rights of African Americans in the Southern states. Changes had to be made. Republicans gained control of the U.S. Congress in the elections of 1866 and in short time began passing radical legislation. The Southern states were treated as conquered territories and divided into military districts under Army control. The rights of freedmen were broadened, while those of former Confederates were greatly limited.

As in all Southern states, the economy was in ruins, but the agricultural areas of Florida were largely spared by the war. Florida was able to assist other states in the rebuilding process by providing lumber and other vital resources. In order to transport these supplies, the number of rail lines in the state increased. This not only allowed materials to make their way out of the state but also opened the door for relocating families and tourists to discover the warmth and beauty of the Sunshine State. Only ten years after the war, the Florida economy had surpassed its pre-war levels.

Last updated: August 23, 2018

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