Monday, December 5, 2016

Review of Revels - "FLORIDA'S CIVIL WAR: Terrible Sacrifices"

[Florida's Civil War: Terrible Sacrifices by Tracy J. Revels (Mercer University Press, 2016). Hardcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:187/210. ISBN:978-0-88146-589-1. $29]

Florida's Civil War by Tracy Revels is the second volume in Mercer University Press's State Narratives of Civil War series. That new initiative apparently looks to provide a wide range of readers with relatively brief but comprehensive state home front histories. It's a laudable goal, and one that is well achieved by the series contribution of Revels. In less than two hundred pages of scholarly synthesis, she manages to thoroughly survey the military, social, political, and economic facets of Florida's Civil War experience.

Though the third Deep South state to declare independence, Florida had real and potential social divisions not represented in the secession convention and that did not bode well for unity during a long and destructive Civil War. Confederate support was strongest in Middle Florida, the most populous section as well as the one with the highest imprint of plantation style agriculture. In many cases, coastal cities had strong commercial ties with the North and significant northern-born populations to go along with those connections. In terms of executive power, the Confederacy was very fortunate in having a Florida governor (John Milton) who was a strong nationalist. Though Milton heatedly protested Richmond's constant and unrealistic dictates, the governor eventually acquiesced to every national demand made upon his state, even when those most draconian Davis administration policies and decisions rendered Florida almost entirely defenseless for much of the war.

Obviously a volume of this size cannot exhaustively cite, let alone discuss, the entire panorama of military events that occurred on Florida soil during the Civil War. Nevertheless, Revels does a fine job of singling out the most consequential campaigns and battles (ex. the early war standoff at Pensacola/Fort Pickens, the Union combined operations on the Atlantic side of the state that seized key points such as Fernandina and Jacksonville, and the Battle of Olustee) for relatively in-depth coverage. The author also effectively samples raids, guerrilla actions, and other smaller scale military operations representative of the more common statewide experience. Revels is clearly well cognizant of current trends in Civil War military scholarship, as her exploration of Florida's 'inner war' is no less well developed than her conventional war treatment. As the war dragged on, enough Unionists and disaffected Confederates were found to form federal units like the 2nd Florida Cavalry for operations within the state. Confederate guerrilla bands also coalesced to oppose enemy inroads and suppress dissent, and unique state units like the fabled "Cow Cavalry" were organized to protect South Florida's vital cattle herds from internal and external disruption.

Revels has spent a good portion of her professional career studying the women of Civil War Florida, and her findings are encapsulated in the new volume. Many features of the Florida wartime experience are common to the ladies of other Confederate states. As elsewhere, Florida women were very visible and vocal in their popular support of independence, and they also broadly supported the war effort with home industry (i.e. sewed flags, made uniforms, etc.) and nursing care. While the general tumult surrounding secession and Civil War eroded many of antebellum southern society's traditional barriers to female expression, Revels finds that the frontier culture of Florida further loosened gendered boundaries of behavior. So Florida's women freely engaged in public political speech, attended the secession convention in person, wrote newspaper editorials, published broadsides, and spearheaded "aggressive" fund raising. Though the war dramatically increased their domestic challenges, women living in isolated South Florida were already used to providing for their families and conducting business during long spouse absences, so for many of these individuals the general adjustment proved somewhat less traumatic. As the book shows, pro-Union women had their own set of problems, not the least of which involved guerrilla threats and the possibility of sudden, life-altering exile.

Though slave life was as harsh and dehumanizing in Florida as it was elsewhere, the author notes that the frontier necessity of white owners working intimately alongside slaves and the great distances involved between neighboring homesteads and settlements necessitated more than typical trust levels from the master and more independent movement granted the slave. Slavery's somewhat atypical situation in underdeveloped and underpopulated Florida also tended to erase gendered norms when it came to slave work, so female slaves in Florida were expected to labor alongside male slaves in the performance of the most physically demanding tasks like forest clearing and canal digging. Late in the war, as coercive means of control crumbled in Florida like they did elsewhere in the Confederacy, slaves in large numbers escaped bondage and made for the protection of Union held coastal enclaves or passing naval vessels. Around 1,000 of these ex-slaves joined the U.S. Army. The existence of contraband camps is briefly mentioned, but the book does not examine the workings of any specific facility.

In addition to its manpower, Florida held great economic value to the Confederacy, and that aspect of the state's contribution to the war effort is particularly well developed in the book. While hopes for niter production were dashed early on, Florida became a prime supplier of salt and beef, especially during the last half of the war. Revels describes well the wartime scale of Gulf Coast salt production and how the lucrative, but simple and portable, nature of the industry evaded the Union Navy's determined efforts to destroy it. When other beef sources for the Confederacy's eastern and western armies dried up by the war's midpoint, Florida was looked to to supply the military's needs. While the sheer distances involved and the primitive transportation infrastructure rendered hoped for requisition numbers flights of fancy, roughly 75,000 head of cattle eventually made it to Confederate quartermasters. This number might have been increased, but internal corruption and Union military interference hampered the transfer of herds from South Florida, and the Confederate government waited too long to approve the conscription-exempt Cow Cavalry until it was too late to make a major difference.

As is common with historical survey books of this type, the published literature is the bedrock source material for Florida's Civil War. It is difficult to quibble with the author's general approach to sources, but at times Revels does perhaps unfairly privilege dated scholarly publications over much more modern, and arguably better, works from non-professional historians of Civil War Florida (the relatively recent Marianna and Natural Bridge studies authored by Dale Cox come to mind). That said, the assemblage of scholarly books and articles noted in the bibliography is nicely supplemented by targeted archival and newspaper research. As a final note of minor criticism, the book really could have used a better state map, with the one included barely readable.

For readers seeking to quickly absorb the full spectrum of Florida's Civil War experience, this volume is a great option, perhaps the very best available. Valuable on its own merits, Florida's Civil War should also serve as a fine model for the rest of the series authors to follow.


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