Roger Peace: Florida secession

Published: Sunday, January 9, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 7, 2011 at 6:19 p.m.

On Jan. 10, 1861, Florida became the third state to secede from the United States, following South Carolina and Mississippi.

This momentous decision was not inevitable. Had Southern white men been less swayed by the "fire-eaters," avid secessionists, and the political system been less dominated by slaveholding planters, Florida, and indeed the whole South, might have remained in the Union and the Civil War avoided.

In the 1860 elections, over 40 percent of Florida voters cast their ballots for presidential candidates who opposed the break-up of the Union; 38 percent for John Bell of the Constitutional Union Party, and 2.5 percent for northern Democrat Stephen Douglas. In the Florida gubernatorial race, the Constitutional Union candidate, Edward Hopkins, garnered 43 percent of the popular vote, losing to Democratic candidate John Milton, a secessionist, 6,994 to 5,248.

Lame duck Gov. Madison Starke Perry was one of the "fire-eaters." In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln, he called for a special Secession Convention to begin on Jan. 3, with delegates elected from Florida counties and senatorial districts in December. Whereas about one-third of white families in Florida owned slaves, sixty-three of the sixty-nine delegates (91 percent) were slaveholders.

Why did non-slaveholding whites elect slaveholders to represent them? Plantation slaveholders were the successful businessmen of their day. Some non-slaveholders aspired to slaveholding status. Many whites feared economic competition from emancipated slaves. And the culture was infused with an underlying belief in white superiority.

At the Secession Convention, the assembled delegates elected John C. McGehee, a slaveholding planter from Madison County, to preside over the meeting. McGehee made it clear that slavery was the central issue. He declared that "the Government of our Fathers" had guaranteed "the right of property in slaves," and that "slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property."

The main issues at the convention were whether to secede immediately or wait for other southern states to make a decision, and whether the electorate as a whole (white males over 21) should decide the issue.

"Fire-eaters" such as Leon County delegate Gen. G. W. Parker pushed for immediate secession. "Why delay another moment?" he argued. "Are not the dogs of war loosed upon us from the North, and will we sit here in long debate which to choose, submission, degradation and ruin, or a Southern Confederacy, with a bright and peaceful future?"

His fellow delegate, however, George T. Ward, the owner of three plantations and 170 slaves in Leon County, promoted a "moderate" course, arguing for "cooperationist" amendments to delay secession and hold a popular referendum on the issue.

In the end, Ward voted with the majority to secede on Jan. 10. The vote 62-7.

Two representatives who voted against the secession measure, Alexander McCaskill and John Morrison, were from Walton County, where only 13 percent of white families owned slaves. Following the convention, they were so hounded by the "fire-eaters" that they wrote an open letter to the Tallahassee Floridian and Journal to defend their honor and explain their motives. They believed that the measure should have been "referred back to the people of the State for ratification," as the convention delegates did not have the right to make this decision.

Most white Floridians welcomed the news of secession, according to local newspapers. Confederate flags waved from rooftops and men eagerly joined local militia units.

One of the few Florida leaders to remain openly pro-Unionist was Richard Keith Call, former territorial governor of Florida, who declared that secession was treasonous and he would have nothing to do with it.

Many Floridians, particularly those in coastal areas, remained quietly pro-Union. Union forces occupying Fernandina, St. Augustine, Pensacola and Key West offered refuge to Union supporters and also provided aid to destitute civilians as the war went on.

Over the course of the war, Florida furnished the Confederate army and navy with approximately 15,000 soldiers and sailors, but 2,219 of these men deserted their units. Bands of deserters and draft resisters formed in the lowland areas of Taylor, Calhoun, Lafayette, Levy, and Manatee counties.

Governor Milton complained, in August, 1862: "There is not within my knowledge a portion of the State free of skulking traitors." There were also 1,290 white Floridians and 1,044 black Floridians who served in the Union army or navy.

As we reflect on the history of Florida in the Civil War, we should recognize that the decision to secede was not without controversy, and that not all Floridians supported the Confederate cause. In another generation, slavery would end in any case, as the industrial revolution took hold.

Roger Peace teaches U.S. history at Tallahassee Community College.

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