This week marked the 150th Anniversary of the end of major hostilities in the Civil War. Throughout much of the war, union forces occupied Pensacola and Key West the two most strategic locations in the state. But the capital, Tallahassee which was the size of a large village at the time was never captured and for much of the war, Florida provided a great amount of the food and armory for the Confederate forces. At the start of the war, Florida was the least populated state in the Confederacy, thus the major contribution for the state was in terms of good – food and items that were smuggled through the state thanks to blockade running.
Olustee was the only major battle in Florida. and was a significant Confederate victory. The 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge (which was really a small skirmish) passed just last month with little fanfare. But the battle was mildly significant in the sense that it saved Tallahassee from falling into union hands making it the lone southern capital to not fall, creating a psychological pride and independence that many Floridians with deep roots still feel today.
However, Florida’s most important cities Key West and Pensacola had long before fallen into the hands of the northerners and thus Tallahassee was more symbolic than meaningful.
Less than a month after the battle, with a union victory assured, Florida Governor John Milton (pcitured) committed suicide stating
“(Yankees) have developed a character so odious that death would be preferable to reunion with them. Death would be preferable to reunion.”
Despite the defeat in the war, Florida’s Democrats did not stay out of power long and eventually the Reconstruction governments made up largely of northern carpetbagger Republicans and former slaves were replaced by Democrats of the same ilk who had led Florida toward secession in the first place. Milton had been an ardent secessionist from a party that was run entirely by the planter aristocracy. Florida Democrat Stephen Mallory served the entire war in Jefferson Davis’ Cabinet as Secretary of the Navy. Upon returning to power during the Reconstruction period, Florida Democrats rewarded business interests disenfranchised African-American voters and made it difficult for a majority of the white population to advance economically.
It is important that when we look back at these historical events we remember that those figures that were involved were women and men of their times. In retrospect, most figures of that era were conservatives, racists and far from worldly or cultured by any contemporary standard. I probably would have been a radical Republican were I alive in those days, but that almost certainly meant I would not have been a Floridian, but living somewhere in the north. However, understanding history and the events that shaped Florida at the end of the war is critical to understand the development of our state throughout time, We must appreciate the sacrifices and contributions of the men and women from Florida to the history of our state even if our own political ideology finds most of their personal and political views detestable (as my ideology does).