History of Florida/Florida from Civil War to the Gilded Age, 1861-1900

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Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida[edit]

Florida seceded from the United States on January 10th, 1861 becoming the third state to do so and was admitted to the Confederacy on February 4th, 1861. Secession to most Floridians was legal, logical and justified. J.E. Johns describes how the majority hailed the creation of the Confederacy as a permanent respite from the sectional controversies which had plagued the people of the United States prior to 1860.

Table showing the order in which the various Confederate States seceded from the Union, Florida being the third to do so.

The success of the secession movement in Florida was the result of events within the nation and the state between 1850 and 1860. Settlers had been flooding into the state during this time, mostly from Georgia and South Carolina. These settlers brought their traditions and state-rights philosophy. By the late 1850s, the Democratic Party – the fiercest defender of states’ rights and slavery – was the only true national party and was dominant in Florida, helped by popular anti-Republican Party sentiment within the state. When the Republican Party won the presidential election in 1860 with its anti-slavery position and heavily northern tinge, Florida quickly seceded.

The Civil War[edit]

During the Civil War Florida suffered economic hardship, naval blockade, internal dissension, Union invasion and defeat. Its main contribution to the war was not in the form of troops, but supplies. Florida was geographically vulnerable and was incapable of defending itself from union raids, naval blockades which consequentially compromised its methods of resupply. The State of Florida has a unique history that is easily distinguishable from other confederate states as it shared different geographical challenges, constructed and dissolved treaties with Florida natives and underwent significant African American recruitment to the union. General Winfield Scott pressed the importance in executing a naval blockade in the Mississippi River and around the coasts that would evidently isolate the confederates and eliminate any potential routes of foreign aid/ resupply.

Fort Pickens was the location of one of the earliest confrontations Florida faced with the Union and was to be one of the few southern forts to remain in Union hands throughout the Civil War. Other battles in Florida include, the Battle of Fort Meyers, Battle of Fort Brooke, Battle of Marrianna, Battle of Natural Bridge, Battle of Olustee, Battle of Saint John's Bluff, Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Battle of Tampa, and Battle of Gainesville. It was in September 1861 that the first bloodshed in Florida occurred when the Federal warship named Colorado came into contact with the Confederate vessel Juda near Fort Pickens. Union soldiers drove the Confederates from the vessel before setting fire to the ship. The first action by a Confederate force in Florida came as a result but failed to destroy or capture the fort.

The Confederate State of Florida found herself in a unique situation as it was tasked with providing able men to the confederacy as well as desperately defend its coast from Union raids and naval blockades. Florida’s efforts to provide its share of military contribution while securing its own territories resulted in failure in 1862 as the federalist troops successfully secured Fernandina and St. Augustine without much resistance and established numerous military bases along the coast. Union Maj. Gen. Quincy A. Gillmore had a firm foothold in Florida. He was famously credited for recruiting black troops in Florida and cutting off all confederate sources of resupply from and to the state.

Florida was a crucial factor for the South in the civil war in terms of supplying food and troops. After seceding from the union and joining the confederate states Florida had supplied 5000 troops by the end of 1861. Since Florida was a southern state it meant they relied heavily on plantations and slave labour to boost their economy, similar to other confederate states. During the civil war one of the big downfalls of the confederate states was their lack of firepower, which is why conscription became law in Florida in 1862, in order to provide more support.

Before the fall of St. Augustine, Florida legislatures appointed John Griffin to travel to Southern Florida and form a mutual alliance with the Seminole Indian tribes against the union. The foundation of this relationship would be on supplying staples, trade and military protection under the confederacy. However when St. Augustine fell to the Union, Southern Florida became a haven for draft dodgers, white northern sympathizers and many still loyal to the confederacy became paranoid that the natives had joined the union cause.

During the Civil War Florida often came into conflict with the Confederate government, notably over the issue of supplies. The governor during the war, John Milton wrote to President Jefferson Davis to warn him that Florida citizens “have almost despaired of protection from the Confederate government”. The defense of Florida went from inadequate to almost non-existent during the course of the war and even led to some suggesting the abandonment of the state. In one example Pensacola, the largest city of West Florida, became a city of deserted homes. Despite experiencing heavy union military pressure, Florida remained part of the confederacy until after the war as union forces could only control only a few major cities. However what is more interesting about Florida is the decisive recruitment and accomplishments of African Americans in the union army. Florida had among the lowest blacks volunteer turnouts to join the union army, though surprisingly they were acknowledged as representing 44.6% of Union Florida regiments and most came from East Florida. They represented 10% of Florida’s black population and by the war’s end they represented 15% of the union navy. The very fact that Florida remained a confederate state during this time speaks loud words about the number of black volunteers

The largest battle that took place in Florida during the conflict was the Battle of Olustee, February 1864, a victory for the Confederate Forces. It marked a “bloody check to the Union cause in Florida” and forced the Federal troops in East Florida back to the three fortified towns which it occupied – Fernandina, Jacksonville and St Augustine. Although this was a major Confederate success, Florida had relatively little value militarily to the Union and it thus had little impact on the wider war which the Confederacy was to lose. What the Battle of Olustee did was spell defeat to hopes among Unionists that Florida would be returned to the Union before the wars end.

Battle of Olustee.

President Andrew Johnson declared the end of the Civil War on May 9th 1865. The war had taken a devastating toll on the seceding states with the conflict having spread over the Confederacy “like some hideous flood”. Florida was no exception and it bore its full part in the struggle with some 16,000 of its best citizens having gone to war, fighting in all of the major battles. At least 5,000 Floridian soldiers died. Destruction of property was great also – falling from a total worth of $47,000,000 to $25,000,000 during the course of the war.

Reconstruction[edit]

On July 25th 1868, after the state ratified amendments to the Constitution to abolish slavery and grant citizenship to former slaves, Florida was fully restored to the United States. The period after the Civil War is known as the Reconstruction period. The initial plan for reconstruction was moderate but as Davis argues, radical reconstruction was probably inevitable from the hour Lincoln passed away. One of the most prominent aspects of the Reconstruction period was the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency established in 1865 to aid freed slaves and it played a major part in the education of African-Americans in Florida after the Civil War.

Although Democrats initially controlled the Florida state government after the Civil War, the confederate states began to pass the infamous black codes. These laws, and legislature that passed them were described as “bigoted, vindictive and shortsighted" ultimately limiting the rights of African Americans and forcing them to work in a labour economy for low pay. Republicans in Congress suspended all Southern Governments and disfranchised all Confederate officers and elected officials, giving the party control of southern governments including that of Florida.

Racism continued to be enacted as policy. Former slaves were not permitted to testify in trials unless an all white jury had first determined that they were creditable or if a contract between a former slave, now a free worker and their employer was broken they could be sent to prison The laws were an effort to make the society “separate but equal” however white offences were often overlooked or given small punishments. In one case a white man was charged with killing a freed slave and received a fine of $200 and one minute in prison.

Many of the recinstructionists in Florida were primarily focused on restoring the economy in the hope that a growing economy would help in the reconstruction process. The Freedman's Bureau also agreed that economic growth would help with reconstruction. Prior to the civil war and shortly after, Florida relied heavily on the cotton industry. Former slaves were encouraged to return to plantations and to continue to work there as share croppers. These sharecroppers were offered a percentage of what was produced. For the most part the former slaves never made enough to leave and would often buy personal items from the planation owners on credit, however they often did not make enough money to cover theses debts and would be unable to leave.

Florida’s economy underwent significant changes during Reconstruction. Before the war large plantations producing cotton with slave labour had been the most important aspect of the economy but this diminished in importance with the freeing of slaves as a result of the Civil War. Lumbering replaced much of this, becoming extensive in the state.

New industries emerged in Florida some of which included citrus, cotton, sugar and lumber among others. Slave labor was no longer an option for Plantation owners and instead had to hire African-Americans as employees although they were paid poorly. Their pay was so much lower than what a white man of the time would make that it discouraged European emigrants from moving to Florida due to an inability to compete for jobs.

In thirty years the state’s population tripled, growing from 140,424 in 1860 to 391,422 in 1890 due to increased opportunities and land development throughout the state. The massive population increase helped to bolster the workforce of the various plantations and farms as agriculture took root as one of the dominant industries of the state. By 1866 nine-tenths of Florida’s African American population were working in agriculture.

Although Florida saw economic growth after the end of the Civil War, the government had accumulated debt which threatened to bankrupt the state, thus leading to the sale of four million acres of land to Hamilton Disston ‘and associates’ for one million dollars in 1881. Intensive land development in Florida began following the purchase and new development programs were launched by Railroad companies in an attempt to encourage entrepreneurs to develop on land near the newly established rail roads.

Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877 which installed the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House and gave the Democrats control of all state governments in the South. Although the Democrat, Samuel J. Tilden had won the popular vote, he was short of votes in the electoral college, with the electoral votes of three states, Florida included, disputed. The disputed states gave their electoral votes to Hayes as part of this compromise, making Hayes president.

Immigration[edit]

Ironically, Florida encouraged immigration in order to fill jobs and boost the economy. The Bureau of Immigration was used to abolish immigration tax in order to expand immigration in Florida. Florida tried to encourage people of the same religion and ethnicity to reside in the same areas as each other because they thought it would be easier for people to live in an environment they were already confortable in. They also attempted to attract wealthy land owners to come to Florida and not go to other booming states such as California by advertising their freed slaves as cheap labor. One reason why people might have been less accepting is because Florida was already apart of the confederate states, which meant they were pro-slavery and still looked at black people as property. In many cases former slave owners believed that a new government might let them keep their slaves or at least pay them for what they considered lost property. These were key indicators of how racist the south really was. Also, there were already Seminoles residing in Florida, which was another reason why southerners were not as welcoming of new immigrants because they wanted to feel a sense of security. This made Florida a more segregated state by choosing to have the different ethnic groups separated.


Even though many people disagreed upon diversifying Florida at the time, it has helped shape America into what it is today. Florida housed a variety of ethnicities, who brought their own way of life to the United States. This newfound diversity was plenty for Floridians to handle at the time because of what they lost in the civil war (eg. land and slave labour) and because of the lack of compensation from the federal government.

Further Reading:[edit]

  • Catton, Bruce. Civil War. England: MARINER Books, 2004,p. 15-16.
  • Davis, William W., The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida. New York: Columbia University, 1913.
  • Johns, John, E. Florida during the Civil War. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1963.
  • McDonough, James. War so Terrible. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987, p. 6-7.
  • Murphree, R. Boyd, `Florida and the Civil War: a Short History`.Available at https://www.floridamemory.com/collections/civilwarguide/history.php Accessed 3 November 2015.
  • Nulty, William H., Confederate Florida: the Road to Olustee. Tuscaloosca: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
  • Richardson, Joe M., `The Freedmen’s Bureau and Negro Education in Florida`, The Journal of Negro Education 31 (1962), pp. 460-467
  • Shofner, Jerell, H., `Negro Laborers and the Forest Industries in Reconstruction Florida`, Journal of Forest History 19 (1975), pp. 180-191
  • Taylor, Robert. "Unforgotten Threat: Florida Seminoles in the Civil War." Vol. 69 (1991), p.302-303.
  • Winsboro, Irvin. "Give Them Their Due: A Reassessment of African Americans and Union Military Service in Florida during the Civil War." Vol. 92(3) (2007), p. 332-333.
  • Wynne, Lewis N., and Taylor, Robert. Florida in the Civil War. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2003.
  • French, Mary. Chronology and Documentary Handbook of the State of Florida, Oceana Publications Inc, 1973.
  • Harrington, F. C. Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State, Oxford University Press, 1939.
  • Williams, Thomas Harry, and Richard Current, and Frank Freidel. A History of the United States [Since 1865], Alfred A. Knopf Inc, New York, 1959.
  • Winsberg, Morton D. and Jeff Ueland. Atlas of Race, Ancestry, and Religion in 21st-century Florida. Gainesvillle, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006.
  • Eckert, Edward K. "Contract Labor in Florida during Reconstruction." The Florida Historical Quarterly 47, no. 1 1968
  • Murphree, R. Boyd. "Florida Memory - A Guide to Civil War Records." Florida Memory. Accessed November 8, 2015.
  • White-Perry, Giselle. "In Freedom's Shadow." National Archives and Records Administration. 2010. Accessed November 9, 2015.

"Prologue: Pieces of History." » Records of Rights Vote: The 14th Amendment. Accessed November 9, 2015. Irsch, F. Florida Immigration; an Address to the County Commissioners, Corporations, Land Owners and Citizens of Florida [by] F. Irsch, General Agent of Immigration to Florida for the United States and Europe. Florida: DaCosta Prt'g. and Pub. House, 1881. 15.

  • Ortiz, Paul. Emancipation Betrayed the Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005
  • Peek, Ralph L. "MILITARY RECONSTRUCTION AND THE GROWTH OF ANTI-NEGRO SENTIMENT IN FLORIDA, 1867." Florida Historical Quarterly 47, no. 4 (1969): 380-400
  • Richardson, Joe M. "Florida Black Codes." The Florida Historical Quarterly 47, no. 4 (1969): 365-379.