January 3, 1861: “Gentlemen of the Convention: We meet together under no ordinary circumstances. The rapid spread of Northern fanaticism has endangered our liberties and institutions, and the election of Abraham Lincoln, a wily abolitionist, to the Presidency of the United States, destroys all hope for the future.” – John C. Pelot (Alachua County delegate)
Democratic Florida Governor, Madison Starke Perry, was poised for secession. Born in Lancaster County, South Carolina, Perry was fractious and urged the assemblage of a Florida militia.
155 years ago this week, three months prior to the Confederate attack upon South Carolina’s Fort Sumter, Florida delegates assembled in Tallahassee and signed the “Ordinance of Secession.” Signed first by John C. McGehee, attorney and President of the Florida Secession Convention, the ordinance dissolved bonds with the Union. An additional 64 signatures of representatives from a variety of counties and senatorial districts penned their names beneath that of McGehee.
Of the 69 Florida delegates eligible to vote, only seven voted against the ordinance.
“We, the people of the State of Florida in Convention assembled, do solemnly ordain, publish and declare: That the State of Florida hereby withdraws herself from the Confederacy of States existing under the name of the United States of America, and from the existing Government of said States: and that all political connection between her and the Government of said States ought to be and the same is hereby totally annulled, and said union of States dissolved: and the State of Florida is hereby declared a Sovereign and Independent Nation: and that all ordinances heretofore adopted in so far as they create or recognize said Union, are rescinded: and all laws or parts of laws in force in this State, in so far as they recognize or assent to said Union be and they are hereby repealed. Done in open Convention, January 10th, A. D. 1861.”
And so it was done.
Prior to the 1860 election, Southern political opinion varied. Some leaders believed that the election of Lincoln posed an immediate and guaranteed threat to their agrarian economic practices. This faction pushed aggressively for prompt secession.
Others preferred the “wait and see” course. Should Lincoln be elected and should his Republican administration enact legislation against the slave states, actions could then be taken.
Lastly, there was an assemblage of southern politicians who believed that it would be feasible to negotiate with the new administration and that secession would not be necessary.
“The people of the State of Florida assembled in Convention having declared the separation of the state from the confederacy of the United States of America and resumed all the powers granted to the Government of that Confederacy, it is due to ourselves to our – late – confederates and to the civilized world that we should set forth the causes which have forced us to adopt this extreme measure fraught as it is with consequences the most momentous. We have not acted in haste or in passion but with the utmost deliberation and from what we regard as immeasurable necessity,” remarked Governor Perry in the “Florida Declaration of Causes.”
Although Florida was the least populated of the Confederate States of America, over 16,000 Floridians fought for the Southern cause. While this total is minimal when compared to troop contribution of other Confederate states, it represented the greatest percentage of able-bodied males from any of the Southern states. An estimated 5,000 of the 16,000 were killed in battle.
While few military campaigns took place on Floridian soil, Union ships were strategically placed to block movement of Southern supplies to and from Pensacola, Key West, Jacksonville and St. Augustine. Despite the efforts made by the Union, Florida remained able to supply troops with beef, fish, fruit and, most critically, salt. Lacking refrigeration capabilities, salt was required to prevent the spoilage of meat.
Shortly after Florida’s “Ordinance of Secession,” Floridian soldiers demanded that Union troops abandon Fort Pickens, off of Pensacola on Santa Rosa Island. Union troops refused to abandon the fort and a military standoff began. It lasted for several months.
On the 30th of June, 1862, Union soldiers sailed into Tampa Bay and came ashore and demanded surrender. The Osceola Rangers obstructed the Union efforts and, despite drawing significant fire from a Union gunboat, the Confederates held their ground. The following day, the Union vessel left the bay.
The Union recognized the significance of Floridian supplies and made other efforts to sever the supply line to the Confederate troops. Union Major General, Quincy A. Gillmore, ordered Union troops into Florida to do just that.
Union Brigadier General, Truman Seymour, Union troops marched nearly unchallenged through Northern Florida. While doing so, they seized artillery, food, troops and liberated slaves.
Confederate General, Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard (P.G.T. Beauregard) dispatched an officer, Alfred Holt Colquitt, to join Brigadier General Joseph Finnegan to protect Tallahassee. Interestingly, Alfred Colquitt would become Governor of Georgia in 1883.
In the woods near Olustee Station, having followed the rails of the Florida, Atlantic and Gulf Railroad, the Union soldiers encountered General Finnegan and his troops. A tactical error reportedly led to Union defeat and General Seymour lost 34% of his force. 203 were killed, 506 were reported missing and 1,152 were injured.
The final noteworthy battle on Florida soil took place near the finale of the war. On March 4, 1865, Union Major General, John Newton, attempted to secure the Florida capital for the Union. Later named “The Battle of Natural Bridge,” Union troops, travelling aboard Navy ships, disembarked at the mouth of the St. Marks River near Apalachee Bay. Union soldiers and Florida militia (consisting primarily of teenagers, volunteers and Confederate troops) met at the Natural Bridge in Leon County between St. Marks and Tallahassee on the 6th of the month. The Union troops were unable to cross the bridge and retreated. As a result of these efforts, Tallahassee was the only Confederate capital, located east of the Mississippi, that was not captured by the Union.
This first week of January, 155 years ago, marked the onset of Florida’s resistance to the existing Union and the attempt to fashion a new, Confederate nation.
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