Friday, June 24, 2011

War on Women and Children: Memories of Civilian Life in Apalachicola

Antebellum Architecture in Apalachicola
When Florida seceded from the Union on January 10, 1861, the City of Apalachicola was one of the most prosperous ports on the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of bales of cotton came down the Apalachicola River from the plantations of Northwest Florida, Southwest Georgia and Southeast Alabama. Brought down to Apalachicola on paddlewheel steamboats and barges, the "white gold" was loaded aboard ocean-going vessels for trips to New England, Europe and beyond. The "floating palaces," as the beautiful river steamers were often known, carried cargoes of both necessities and luxury items back upriver in return.

This all changed in 1861. The Union Navy blockaded the port and the Confederates sent a military force to defend Apalachicola. Fortifications were erected and cannon mounted along the bayfront and Southern soldiers prepared to resist attacks by the Federal warships offshore. The standoff continued until March of 1862, when the soldiers were called away and Apalachicola became, for all practical purposes, a city without a country.

Union troops were not sent to occupy it, although the navy sent shore patrols ashore from time to time. Neither did the Confederacy try to maintain a presence, although again Southern patrols occasionally came down the river for visits. This left the citizens of Apalachicola without the protection or support of either government and they suffered accordingly.

Oyster Boats on Apalachicola bay
The following account of life in the city in 1864 was written by Cora Mitchel, who lived there with her mother and four siblings during those terrible years:

Agriculturally, Apalachicola was unfortunately situated, being built on a sand bank. Almost every one who could get away had gone, and there were few negroes to cultivate what little soil there was. No steamers could come down the river, and if any one went down the bay for fish and oysters, he was suspected of sympathizing with the Northerners. That left the city dependent on an occasional barge coming down the lower part of the river with corn meal. Of other food there was none except a few sweet potatoes. There were no cattle, consequently no meat; no poultry, as there was no food for them. Our cow had died from lack of food. She had lived quite a while on cotton seed, but gave very little milk, and at last was buried in the back yard.


Riverfront in Apalachicola
Before father left he had found several casks of rice in one of his empty warehouses. It was taken to the house, and he thought it would last a long time. But one day mother discovered that weevils were in it and put it out in the yard on sheets. The neighbors saw it and soon a crowd collected and demanded the rice. Mother knew they would take it by force if she refused, so yielded, giving each a little till nearly all was gone. After the supply of rice was exhausted there was little good food to be had. Corn meal, with an occasional treat of oysters, was the steady bill of fare. Once the supply of meal was so low that mother went to a friend saying, "I hear you have some corn meal; you must divide with me; I have almost nothing for my children." Once there was a report that a barge was in sight, and all flocked to the wharf, only to see the barge upset and the whole cargo dumped into the water. One can imagine the scene!

Life in Apalachicola, according to Mitchel, grew progressively worse for both blacks and whites as both starved together. In one part of her account she mentioned how two deserters were captured by a Confederate patrol, tied to trees in the woods and shot. In another part, she noted that a Union boat party came ashore to "burn some houses."

In the end her mother took the family aboard a Federal transport for passage to Key West and eventually to the North. It was either that or starve.

Apalachicola today is a beautiful historic city that is known for heritage tourism, outstanding seafood and spectacular scenery. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/apalachicola.

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