Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Did a Union General recognize the Independence of Florida?

Mouth of the St. Johns River
With the Union Navy now firmly in command of the mouth of the St. Johns River and many of Jacksonville's pro-secession citizens having fled inland, the Unionist residents of the city took a bold step on the evening of March 20, 1862, 150 years ago today.
Hon. William Marvin
U.S. District Judge
The following note was included in a private letter from Flag Officer S.F. DuPont of the U.S. Navy to U.S. District Judge William Marvin, who had been appointed as part of the Federal effort to reinstate U.S. law in northeastern Florida. Marvin later would serve as the appointed governor of Florida during the early days of the Reconstruction era.

...A meeting was called there last night by the citizens and the strongest Union resolutions passed, expressing the determination of the people of Florida to be a part of the Union and condemning the Confederate States Government as never having been approved by the people of Florida. - Flag Officer S.F. Du Pont, U.S. Navy, March 21, 1862.

Jacksonville, Florida
Photo courtesy of Brian Mabelitini
On the same day as the meeting (March 20), the Union army issued a circular "To the people of East Florida" from the headquarters of the Expeditionary Corps in Jacksonville:

...There is great satisfaction in the fact, now become patent to all, that a large portion of you still cling, in your hearts, to that mother who first liberated you from the thraldom of a despotic government; who next rescued you from the deadly grasp of the wiley savage, at a frightful cost of life and treasure; and who afterwards elevated you from the condition of territorial dependence to that of a proud and independent State. - Gen. T.W. Sherman, U.S. Army, March 20, 1862.

Gen. T.W. Sherman, U.S.A.
Library of Congress
The "despotic government" referred to in the circular was Spain, which had ruled Florida in a fairly benevolent fashion. The "wiley savage," of course, was a reference to the Seminole Indians, who had fought the U.S. Army to a standstill in the swamps of South Florida.

The author of the circular was Brigader General T.W. Sherman, who should not be confused for the better known General William Tecumseh Sherman. He went on to recommend that the citizens "assemble in your primary and sovereign capacity; that you throw off that sham government which has been forced upon you; swear true fidelity and allegience to the Constitution of the United States."

Sherman's circular is a fascinating document in that it recognizes in an official way that Florida was a "proud and independent State." If, as General Sherman proclaimed in an official document, Florida was an "independent State" and its citizens capable of acting in a "primary and sovereign capacity," the was he recognizing that the Sunshine State was indeed an independent entity?  And if it was an independent entity, could it not legally secede from the Union?

The circular issued from Jacksonville raises serious questions about whether the U.S. Army, through General T.W. Sherman, officially recognized the legal sovereignty of Florida on March 20, 1862.

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