Throwback Thursday: The Civil War in Florida- union blockade

From the Library of Congress

Florida was the least populated state in the Confederacy during the Civil War. But with by far the longest coastline in the nation, the Union had to take seriously the ability of the smugglers to use Florida to get weapons and other raw materials to the Confederate Government.

At the outset of the war, the Union opted to blockade southern ports as part of General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”. The blockade was in many ways a defacto recognition of the south’s independence because a nation does not blockade its own ports in the act of war. The decision to blockade southern ports gave the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland and France both of whose governments were partial to the southern cause (though public opinion in the UK was anti-slavery and generally pro-union) even more reason to consider formal recognition of the Confederacy.

But perhaps the Confederacy overplayed their hand with an assumption those government would yield to the dependence of their populations on cotton for various consumer goods. The blockade made it impossible for the south to trade with foreign nations.

The full proclamation from President Lincoln read as follows:

Whereas an insurrection against the Government of the United States has broken out in the States of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, and the laws of the United States for the collection of the revenue cannot be effectually executed therein comformably to that provision of the Constitution which requires duties to be uniform throughout the United States:

And whereas a combination of persons engaged in such insurrection, have threatened to grant pretended letters of marque to authorize the bearers thereof to commit assaults on the lives, vessels, and property of good citizens of the country lawfully engaged in commerce on the high seas, and in waters of the United States: And whereas an Executive Proclamation has been already issued, requiring the persons engaged in these disorderly proceedings to desist therefrom, calling out a militia force for the purpose of repressing the same, and convening Congress in extraordinary session, to deliberate and determine thereon:

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, with a view to the same purposes before mentioned, and to the protection of the public peace, and the lives and property of quiet and orderly citizens pursuing their lawful occupations, until Congress shall have assembled and deliberated on the said unlawful proceedings, or until the same shall ceased, have further deemed it advisable to set on foot a blockade of the ports within the States aforesaid, in pursuance of the laws of the United States, and of the law of Nations, in such case provided. For this purpose a competent force will be posted so as to prevent entrance and exit of vessels from the ports aforesaid. If, therefore, with a view to violate such blockade, a vessel shall approach, or shall attempt to leave either of the said ports, she will be duly warned by the Commander of one of the blockading vessels, who will endorse on her register the fact and date of such warning, and if the same vessel shall again attempt to enter or leave the blockaded port, she will be captured and sent to the nearest convenient port, for such proceedings against her and her cargo as prize, as may be deemed advisable.

And I hereby proclaim and declare that if any person, under the pretended authority of the said States, or under any other pretense, shall molest a vessel of the United States, or the persons or cargo on board of her, such person will be held amenable to the laws of the United States for the prevention and punishment of piracy.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this nineteenth day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, and of the Independence of the United States the eighty-fifth.

Jacksonville, Key West, and Pensacola the three major ports in Florida at the time were occupied by the Union quickly into the war. Fernandina, intended to be a beachhead for the blockade was captured in 1862 by the Union.

Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West was a key locale for the Union

The South Atlantic Blockading Squadron was based in Key West and patrolled the Florida east coast. The Union attempting in 1862 to capture Tampa and could not. However, the Union was successful in preventing further blockade running around Tampa Bay and the Hillsborough River with a victory a year later at the Battle of Fort Brooke.

Tampa battlefield 1862

Apalachicola was also an early target of the blockade on the Florida Gulf Coast. Smuggled goods could in the early days after secession make its way down the Chattahoochee River from Georgia or Alabama into the Gulf of Mexico via Apalachicola. Thus the union quickly targeted and blockaded St Andrews Bay.

But the vast areas of low population and the large numbers of bays and inlets in the state made it largely impossible to shut down Florida’s coastline. This gave rise to a number of blockade runners, generally captained by British citizens that smuggled goods and weapons into the Confederacy from the Bahamas, Cuba and Virgin Islands via Florida.

In fact the biggest problem areas for the Union blockade eventually proved to be the Bahamas and Cuba. The two areas under British and Spanish rule respectively had ready made smugglers who for a price were willing to aid the southern cause. Florida proved the gateway to this potential. Eventually though the Anaconda Plan even choked Florida to death.

The Union blockade was successful as General Scott’s initial plan of capturing all the port cities and choking the south to death economically helped win the war by 1865. In 1863, the south’s exports of cotton had dropped to a trickle and the cotton be exported often ended up in the north. As the blockade became more effective and more ports were captured the south has no economic hope of survival as an independent nation.

A convenient southern narrative revolves around “The Lost Cause” and battlefield defeats that could have been avoided. But study of the blockade hasn’t been as extensive but once you delve into it, you realize the south was doomed from the start. While Lincoln risked international recognition of the Confederacy with the blockade he also effectively ensured they could never economically wage full scale war for more than a handful of years – and effectively won the war thanks to this.

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