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A People's History of Florida 1513-1876

Book Excerpts
People's History

Chapter 10 Excerpt

By August 1862, Governor Milton was claiming that there was not “a portion of the State free of skulking traitors, the majority of whom are of Northern birth and claiming to be citizens of Florida.” 60 In September 1862, the Florida Quincy Dispatch reported that in Calhoun County there were “some 50 or 60 men who need their necks stretched with stout ropes.”” It was referring to a group that was attempting to evade conscription and had “armed and organized themselves to resist those who may attempt their arrest.” It was believed that they were in communication with the Federal blockaders and had received arms through them. 61 This was probably a stretch to completely ascribe this to conscript evaders, as most were more concerned with the starving conditions of their families than the war effort on either side. Nonetheless, the bands of conscript evaders and deserters would eventually join leagues with the Federal army in an effort to combat the pursuing conscription parties further into the war. While Northern-sympathizers obviously made up a portion of the “Union men,” a Confederate Florida historian recognized the class composition of the deserters and conscript evaders: “The controlling motive with these men was hardly love for the Union. They seem to have been actuated by a strong desire to avoid service in the army. They wished to be at home more ardently than they wished to support their country or win the commendation of neighbors. They lacked patriotism. They were usually poor and illiterate.” 62 George Carter, a Florida citizen who evaded the draft, did so to take care of his “young family of fifteen or sixteen children, none of them old enough to properly provide for the others.” He believed that this was a greater duty than enrolling in the Confederate army although he did so at great hazard: “he was hunted by conscription parties, and had to hide in the woods at night without fire, despite the inclemency of the weather. He managed to elude the conscription officers and provided for his wife and children.” 63

            It was quite possible that most Florida soldiers didn’t understand the ramifications of their actions by failing to show up for service after the end of their furlough period. In December 1862, a Tallahassee newspaper complained that there were too many “stragglers, who, on one pretense and another have kept out of the fight.” It reminded the deserters, “the soldier who is absent without furlough, or who allows his furlough to expire without joining his company, is a deserter,” and urged that military force be used to “correct this evil.” 64 Planter heiress Susan B. Eppes recounted: “An enemy we had with whom we were unable to cope, the diabolical deserter…These men…belonged to a peculiar class…the descendents of criminals, who had taken refuge in the bays and swamps of the Florida coast. Their hand against everybody and everybody’s hand against them.” 65 Further noting that they primarily inhabited the countries located adjacent to the Gulf of Mexico. These deserter communities would commission their women as spies to visit the Florida interior “until some news of military movements could be gained.” 66 The women brought the news back home to their husbands who quickly relayed the information to the Federal blockaders. This was an effective way by which the Federals could remain informed of Confederate movements. When the women and children were captured, they were locked into “Deserter’s Camps” where they were surrounded by guards. Wagons and a body of troops were commissioned to the deserter territory, known as the “Wagon Brigade,” in order to fill up the camps with captives. As they traversed throughout these disaffected counties, an observer noted: “When each house was emptied of its contents and occupants, the torch was applied and the troops remained until each filthy cabin was in ashes.” 67 Governor Milton denounced these extreme measures and claimed that they tended to backfire: “The course pursued has increased the number of deserters and excited among them the vindictive purpose to avenge the wagons inflicted, and to liberate the women and children and aged men, who have been deprived of their liberty as well as of their property upon a suspicision of disloyalty.” As a remedy, he recommended that liberty be restored to the women and children, their homes rebuilt, and aid provided in order to salvage some sort of popular support for the Confederate government. 68

            Confederate Florida had a serious revolt on its hands. Runaway slaves, army deserters, and conscript evaders organized into marauding bands throughout every district of the state. They threatened to overrun many sectors. A letter from a Confederate officer to Governor Milton in early 1862 suggested that martial law should be implemented in the counties of East Florida “as they contain a nest of traitors and lawless negroes”. 69 Deserters commonly expressed their dissatisfaction with the tyranny of Confederate Florida. One deserter who crossed into Union occupied territory: “says that they have a variety of yarns concerning Montgomery's intentions - the most common of which is that he intends to free the whole of Florida from the rebels under Finegan.” 70 In April 1864, the New York Herald depicted the large number of Confederate soldiers that had come over to the Union side at Jacksonville: “The laborers are in different departments…are crackers still attired in the dirty grey uniform furnished them by the Confederate government.” 71 In April 1862, a Confederate guerilla reported that the majority of East Floridians were already supporting the Federals only weeks after it had occupied the area:

I regret very much to have to report to you that at least three-fourths of the people on the Saint John's River and east of it are aiding and abetting the enemy…It is not safe for a small; force to be on the east side of the river; there is great danger of being betrayed into the hands of the enemy.” 72

            The planter counties of Middle Florida were the few vestiges of Confederate loyalty left in Florida. As the war was primarily fought in the interests of these dominant slaveholding regions, they mostly remained loyal to the “Confederate cause,” even when the majority of citizens realized that they were expected to carry the burdens for the privileged few. But the impoverished coastal counties of Middle Florida were not so obliged. A Madison County resident petitioned General Joseph Finegan: “to check the accumulation of deserters in Taylor County. We have been informed that disloyalty is very general in that country, and they are not disposed to disguise their sentiments… I think from what I can learn that the immunity enjoyed by the deserters is producing a very bad effect; and if not checked soon, will be difficult to deal with.” 73 A good number of the deserters had sought refuge in the thick swamps of coastal Florida from other states such as Virginia and Tennessee. They maintained communication with the blockaders on the coast and received supplies from them. By October 1863, the number of deserters in Middle Florida had “increased so much in number and boldness as to endanger the peace and safety of the neighborhood, and unless promptly arrested will prove demoralizing to the service.” 74 Desertion became so common that it became difficult for conscription agents to hold anyone accountable. A Confederate officer promised the citizens of Levy County a sufficient force to “clear your locality of Yankees, deserters, and outlaws.” In Lafayette County, a resident denied that the people supported pro-Union candidates, but made it clear that they would neither support “those at home who are seeking to screen themselves from service behind some little office.” 75 The increasing rate of desertion in Taylor County became alarming. The organized bands of deserters threatened to overrun the county. General John F. Lay saw “nothing which can be done at present toward checking them.” 76 The rapidly growing presence of the Unionists threatened pro-Confederate county officials. Sheriff Edward Jordon reported that he was “compelled to stop collecting, or assessing taxes for the present, in consequence of the Enemy.” This was after a threat he received from “a squad of Persons called Union men.” The sheriff thought it was “best to desist…until there is a force in the County to check them. If not, I shall have to leave, I cannot say how soon, for safety, for I have received orders to join them or I cannot stay in the county.” 77

            As troops were withdrawn from Middle Florida to combat the Federal invasion of East Florida, the refugee bands seized and enticed slaves from the plantations of Jefferson and Madison counties, “bordering on the disaffected region of Taylor and La Fayette.” 78 Soldiers from other states also found the dense areas of Taylor and La Fayette counties ideal to hide-out. Brigadier General John K. Jackson reported: “Many deserters from the armies of Virginia and Northern Georgia, as well as from the troops of Florida, are collected in the swamps and fastness of Taylor, La Fayette, Levy, and other counties, and have organized, with runaway negroes, bands for the purpose of committing depredations upon the plantations and crops of loyal citizens and running off their slaves. These depredatory bands have even threatened the cities of Tallahassee, Madison, and Marianna.” 79 The Gainesville Cotton States reported that deserters were carrying out an organized attempt to “steal every Negro they can in an effort to ruin the Country.” 80 There was a regiment estimated to be made up of five hundred Unionists, deserters, and runaway slaves in the vicinity of Cedar Key that was committing raids on Gainesville. 81 In March 1864, a Gainesville newspaper reported that bands of organized deserters were “destroying railroad trestles, burning bridges, and cutting telegraph lines in an attempt to disrupt communications both within the state and between Florida and the other Confederate states.” 82 Bands of deserters attacked Confederate mail so frequently that they completely disrupted the mail services in Tallahassee. It became dangerous for some Confederate officials to even leave the safety of the cities. The deserters grew bolder in their defiance as the war went on. A band of one hundred deserters had learned of Governor Milton’s plans to leave Tallahassee and waited outside of the city to ambush him, capture him, and turn him over to a Federal blockading vessel in the Gulf. Once Milton was warned of this, he cancelled his travel plans and remained within the city. 83

2009 Adam Wasserman

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