Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Union Soldiers of Florida, Part Four

This is part four of a continuing series on Floridians who served in the Union Army. To read the previous parts, please scroll down or check the Archive section.

The 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry began forming at Pensacola during the final months of 1863. One of the best accounts of the events surrounding the creation of the regiment can be found in a history written for the Milwaukee Journal.

The account was penned by Wade H. Richardson, an Alabama Unionist who fled through the lines to Pensacola. He joined Company A as a private:

Enrollment began the latter part of December, and on the 3d of January, 1864, I enlisted in Company A, whose quota of 100 men was not yet half filled. I was detailed to assist at headquarters in enlisting th emen as they came in. At that time there were several hundred men in hiding in southern Alabama and Florida, and squads of our recruits were passed through the lines to assist these men to our camp...As to the rank and file, they were a motley crew of as dare-devil fellows as can be collected at any seaport town, I guess. Among them were Spaniards, French creoles, half-breed Indians, Germans, a few Poles and a host of crackers and gophers - the western Floridians were derisively called gophers.

The term "gopher" refers to the former use of gopher tortoises as a popular food by rural residents of Northwest Florida. In fact, the region was a major exporter of gopher tortoises. Thousands were shipped from Vernon in Washignton County and so many were eaten and shipped away that they almost were eaten into extinction. They are now a protected species.

By the end of January 1864, General Asboth was able to report that 120 volunteers had enlisted in the new regiment and were then in his camps. Others were reported to be on their way and he moved a force to Point Washington (shown above) on Choctawhatchee Bay to help them make it through the lines.

A detachment of these, along with some men from the 7th Vermont, decided to capture a Confederate company that had moved into position at Cedar Bluff on the Choctawhatchee River. An apparently unauthorized raid was launched up the river on February 8, 1864, and Captain Gabriel Floyd's company from the 4th Florida Infantry was surrounded and captured that night without the firing of a shot.

Two Confederate lieutenants escaped, however, and notified a nearby cavalry company that pursued the raiders and freed the rest of Floyd's men. Eighteen men, including Captain James Galloway of the organizing Union regiment, were captured.

Despite such incidents, Asboth had enough men on hand by March to muster the new unit into the Union service as the 1st Florida Cavalry Regiment of U.S. Volunteers.

I will take a closer look at the history of the regiment in the next post.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Union Soldiers of Florida, Part Three

This is part three of a continuing series on Union soldiers from Florida. To read the previous parts, please scroll down the page or check the archive section.

By the end of 1863, there were large numbers of Unionists and Confederate deserters hiding in the swamps of the Choctawhatchee, Chipola and Apalachicola Rivers in Northwest Florida. Some of these men were organized into what local citizens called "raider gangs." Led by men such as Jim Ward, they emerged from their hiding places to raid and still on both sides of the Florida line. Others, however, did not resort to such illegal activities and merely hid out until they could make their way through the Union lines at Choctawhatchee Bay and Pensacola.

Many, particularly those who crossed into Union lines for ideological reasons, took their families with them and a large refugee camp called "Shanty Town" grew up near Fort Barrancas on Pensacola Bay.

The presence of these men and their families was not particularly threatening to Confederate authorities in Florida until a delegation of them went to visit the newly arrived commander of Union forces in Pensacola, Brigadier General Alexander Asboth, during closing months of 1863. Asboth (pictured above) was a former Hungarian freedom fighter who had been brought to the United States aboard an American warship after the Hungarian Revolt collapsed in 1848. A resident of New York prior to the war, he was the surveyor who laid out Central Park in that city. He commanded a division at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, where he was severely wounded.

The general was handicapped by a lack of cavalry and listened with interest to the delegation of refugees. They told of how they were committed to the Union and how their families were suffering as a result of their decision not to fight for the Confederacy. They offered to enlist in the Union army.

Asboth sought and received permission to form the men into a new regiment of Union cavalry. This unit, the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry, would play a critical role in operations in Northwest Florida and South Alabama for the next two years.

I will take a closer look at the formation of the 1st Florida U.S. Cavalry in the next post.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Nice Online Article on Battle of Natural Bridge

I will continue to explore the story of Union soldiers from Florida in coming days, but I wanted to let you know about a very nice article on the Battle of Natural Bridge in the latest issue of Sweet Tea Journal.

Written by Jim Noles, the piece gives a nice overview of the Natural Bridge expedition and a good discussion of the site as it appears today.

Here's the link to the article:

As always, if you are interested in learning more, please consider my book on the Battle of Natural Bridge. It can be purchased by clicking the book cover on the right hand side of this page. The link takes you to where the book is available.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Union Soldiers of Florida, Part Two

It was not until early 1863 that the Unionist movement again began to surface in Florida in a serious way.

Unionists were active earlier than that around the Jacksonville area, but it was the Union occupation of Pensacola, St. Andrew Bay, Apalachicola and Cedar Key in 1862 that really opened the doors for those interested in slipping through the lines. It was a Confederate action, however, that sent Floridians into the Union ranks in large numbers.

The Union occupation of Kentucky and Tennessee eliminated a vast breadbasket for the Confederate armies. As a result, Southern authorities were forced to look for dramatically increased supplies of provisions from Florida and other states in the Deep South. Whereas before Confederate agents had purchased supplies when farmers had them available to sell, it now became mandatory that Southern farmers provide the war effort and it was no longer up to them how much they sold.

Commissary agents were zealous in their duties and moved through the country securing corn, pork, beef and other supplies, often from wives of soldiers who could barely still feed themselves and their families. By 1863, calls for help were coming into the office of Governor John Milton (shown above) from citizens throughout the state. One example is a letter sent to the governor by Rev. John R. Richards of Calhoun County describing the passage of Commissary Agent J.P. Coker through that county:

...Some of my neighbors went after him and begged him to give them their milch cows, which he Mr. Coker, refused to do, and took them on. And now, my dear Governor, I assure you, on the honor of a gentleman, that to my knowledge there are soldiers' families in my neighborhood that the last head of cattle have been taken from them and drove off, and unless this pressing of cows is stopped speedily there won't be a cow left in Calhoun County. I know of several soldiers' families in this county that haven't had one grain of corn in the last three weeks, nor any likelihood of their getting any in the next three months; their few cows taken away and they left to starve; their husbands slain on the battlefield....

Milton heard such stories from across Florida and sent raging letters to Richmond about the situation. He pointed out that many Floridians were beginning to think that the new Confederate government cared less about their rights than the U.S. one. He described "brave men, who, indignant at the heartless treatment of the rights of citizens, have joined the enemy." He continued:

...The citizens of Florida in many parts of the State are ignignant at the unnecessary abuse of their rights; and I have reason to know that the lawless and wicked conduct of Government agents in this State have produced serious dissatisfaction among the troops from this State in Northwest Georgia and in Virginia, and unless the evils complained of shall be promptly remedied the worst results may be reasonably apprehended.

In short, according to Milton, it was the severity with which citizens were being treated by the commissary agents that started to drive the soldiers from Florida to desert and join the Union forces.

I will have more on the speed with which this movement took place in the next post.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The 1st and 2nd Cavalries: Union Soldiers from Florida

Over the next few days I will be devoting some time to exploring the activities of the 1st and 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry Regiments. These regiments were heavily involved in different actions and raids in Florida, including most notably the 1864 raid on Marianna and the 1865 Natural Bridge expedition.

Several times through the years, I've encountered shock on the part of Florida families when they learned their ancestors fought for the Union instead of the Confederacy. It seems that today we like to look at things in clear cut ways. In the days of the War Between the States, however, things were not always so clear cut.

Florida in 1860 was very divided in its emotions. Many in the state favored independence and secession, while others were extremely loyal to the old flag and the Union. A large number of Floridians had fought for the United States during the War with Mexico or had fathers and grandfathers that had served in the War of 1812 and American Revolution. Loyalty to the flag of their fathers was hard for many to surrender. Some studies, in fact, indicate that a slight majority of Floridians opposed secession.

When the state left the Union in January of 1861, most of its Unionists remained quiet. Some went North, but others stayed home and remained good citizens. Like most Southern citizens of the day, Floridians - both pro-Union and pro-secession - believed that their loyalties lay first with their state.

Florida's Unionists in fact contributed heavily to the state's Confederate regiments. Rosters reveal numerous names of individuals known to have been Unionist in their sympathies, especially from the counties of Northwest Florida.

In fact, early in the war there was no great movement of pro-Union Floridians to join the forces of the U.S. Some men made their way to the Union bases at Pensacola Bay and Key West, but for the most part they went along with the war effort. It was during the winter of 1862-1863 that the situation began to change. I'll have more on that in the next post.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Last Florida Officer to Fall?

Tucked away in an almost forgotten corner of an old cemetery in West Point, Georgia, can be found the grave of Captain Celestine Gonzalez of the 1st Florida Infantry.

Gonzalez was killed on April 16, 1865, seven days after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, while fighting in the defense of Fort Tyler, an earthen redoubt built to protect a vital bridge over the Chattahoochee River at West Point.

A close friend of Brigadier General Robert C. Tyler, who had lost a leg at Missionary Ridge, Gonzalez was with the general when he occupied Fort Tyler on the morning of April 16th with a small force of Confederate regulars, convalescents, militia and volunteers in a heroic attempt to hold back a strong column of Union soldiers led by Colonel Oscar H. LaGrange. It is said in West Point that prior to walking up the hill to the fort that bore his name, General Tyler promised the ladies of the town that he would either prevail in the battle or perish in their defense.

For hours Tyler, Gonzalez and their men held Fort Tyler against overwhelming odds. With three pieces of artillery and volleys of musket fire, they held off three Union regiments that swarmed toward the fort from three sides. Union artillery blasted the fort until its cannon were dismounted, but still the Confederates clung to their earthworks and refused to surrender.

Realizing that the tide of the battle was turning against him, General Tyler undertook one last dramatic act of defiance to inspire his men. He walked in front of the walls of the fort, in full view of the Union attackers, until he was shot down by an unknown Federal soldier. Captain Gonzalez died not long after.

Fort Tyler eventually fell and the Federals secured the vital bridge over the Chattahoochee. Colonel LaGrange later expressed regret at the loss of life in the battle, noting that had he known of Lee's surrender, he would not have forced the issue.

General Tyler and Captain Gonzalez are buried today side by side in a common grave at the Fort Tyler Cemetery in West Point. Tyler was the last general on either side killed during the war. Gonzalez, I believe, may have been the last Florida officer to die in the war.

To learn more, please visit

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Civil War site closed due to Flooding

Suwannee River State Park in North Florida has been closed to due severe flooding on the Suwannee River. The park is the site of the Fort on the Suwannee that was a major target of the Olustee Campaign in 1864.

The U.S. 90 bridge over the Suwannee River adjacent to the park has also been closed.

The park preserves the earthwork remains of one of two forts built by the Confederate army to protect the vital railroad bridge over the Suwannee River. The bridge was the only rail link connecting East and West Florida during the Civil War. Union General Truman Seymour planned to destroy the bridge and split the state in the two at the time he launched the campaign that ended at the Battle of Olustee.

To learn more about the park, please visit

Here is the latest list of state park closings from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection:

Continued state park closures include:
Adams Tract River Camp
C/o Troy Springs State Park
674 N.E. Troy Springs RoadBranford, Florida 32008
*Closed until further notice.

Holton Creek River Camp
C/o Suwannee River State Park
3631 201st Path
Live Oak, Florida 32060
*Closed until further notice.

Dowling Park River Camp
C/o Suwannee River State Park
3631 201st Path
Live Oak, Florida 32060
*Closed until further notice.

Fanning Springs State Park
18020 N.W. Highway 19Fanning Springs, Florida 32693
*Closed to swimming until further notice. The cabins and park remain open for day use visitors.

Madison Blue Springs State Park
8300 N.E. State Road 6Lee, Florida 32059
*Closed until further notice.

Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
799 N.W. Blue Spring RoadMayo, Florida 32066
* Closed until further notice.

Manatee Springs State Park
11650 NW 115th Street
Chiefland, Florida 32626
*The Usher Boat Ramp, swimming and diving are closed until further notice. The park remains open for campers and day use visitors.

Peacock Springs State Park
12087 SW US Highway 27
Ft. White, Florida 32038
*Portions of the park, including swimming and diving, are closed to visitors until further notice.

Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park
U.S 41 North
White Springs, Florida 32096
* Hiking trails and other portions of the park are closed to visitors until further notice.

Suwannee River State Park
3631 201st Path
Live Oak, Florida 32060
*Closed until further notice. Adjacent U.S. 90 bridge is also closed to traffic.

Troy Springs State Park
674 N.E. Troy Springs RoadBranford, Florida 32008
*Closed to swimming and diving until further notice. The park remains open for day use visitors.

Florida Caverns State Park
3345 Caverns Road
Marianna, Florida 32246
*Campground, cave tours and the Blue Hole use area, and hickory picnic area are closed until further notice. The visitor center and is open for day use visitors.

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
7525 W. Scenic Highway 30A
Santa Rosa Beach, Florida 32459
*The isolated day use area accessed by Topsail Road, off of Highway 98 is closed until further notice. The rest of the park remains open for day use and overnight visitors.

Visitors can contact state parks directly for the most up to date information on park closures, or visit For additional information on flood conditions, visit, or visit for traffic updates.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Skirmish on the Upper Chipola - 1863

While the story of the Battle of Marianna is pretty well known, few people are aware of a second engagement that took place in Jackson County during the summer of 1863. The fight developed in the swamps of Forks of the Creek between Campbellton and Malone.

This area of swamps and wetlands along the Alabama line is formed by Cowarts and Marshalls Creeks as they flow south into Jackson County to a confluence or “forks” that marks the head of the Chipola River. In 1863 this was an almost impenetrable area that had become the hiding place of a large band of Confederate deserters and Southern Unionists. Made up of men from both Alabama and Florida, the group taunted authorities on both sides of the state line and occasionally ventured forth to raid for food, supplies and valuables.
Pleas for help went up to Governor John Gill Shorter of Alabama from residents living along the Alabama side of the line and, noting that the hiding place of the raiders was reported to be in “the swamps of the Chipola River and its tributaries,” he ordered Captain W.T. Armstrong of the 6th Alabama Cavalry to proceed to the area. Armstrong was ordered to assist 2nd Lieutenant G. Newman of General James Clanton’s staff in arresting the men and was authorized such force from his own company and the mounted militia company of Captain Robert J. Chisolm as he felt necessary to conduct the operation.
Armstrong and Newman launched their campaign in late July of 1863 and penetrated deep into the swamps of the Forks of the Creek area. They succeeded in capturing 6 or 7 of the refugees, but were unable to locate the main body of the raider band. Likely this was because the raiders were busy laying a trap for the Alabama troops.
The Confederate officers detached a small body of men to escort the prisoners back to Alabama for safe-keeping, but instead the soldiers of this detachment walked into an ambush laid for them by the raiders. Fighting broke out and one of the Alabama soldiers was wounded, but the heavily wooded nature of the terrain prevented additional casualties. All of the prisoners, however, were released.
The exact location of the skirmish is not know, but it took place somewhere between the confluence of Cowarts and Marshalls Creeks and the Alabama state line. The danger of additional ambushes prompted Armstrong and Newman to withdraw into Alabama and Governor Shorter soon appealed to General Howell Cobb in Quincy for help in rounding up the raiders. Cobb appealed to his commander, General P.G.T. Beauregard in Charleston, for men as well as for permission to set an example by hanging a few of the raiders. “If authority can be had to hang a few of these traitors,” he wrote, “we will soon hear no more complaints of the kind.”
Cobb also promised to investigate allegations by Governor Shorter that soldiers from Companies C and F, 11th Florida Infantry, were not only communicating with the deserters, but were also providing them with arms and ammunition. The two units were then camped at Campbellton and, in support of Shorter’s allegations, records reveal that 22 men from the companies deserted in July and August of 1863.
The raider band was never rooted out of the swamps and, with several other similar organized groups, continued to harass the residents and authorities in Northwest Florida and South Alabama until the end of the war.