Saturday, May 1, 2010

Schafer: "THUNDER ON THE RIVER: The Civil War in Northeast Florida"

[Thunder on the River: The Civil War in Northeast Florida by Daniel L. Schafer (University Press of Florida, 2010). Cloth, maps, photos, drawings, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:291/362. ISBN:978-008130-3419-5 $29.95]

Back in 1984, Daniel L. Schafer published Jacksonville's Ordeal By Fire: A Civil War History (Florida Publishing Company) with Richard A. Martin. Schafer's new history of the Civil War in the Jacksonville area, titled Thunder on the River, is an updated and greatly expanded continuation of his previous work. It's also much more detailed and scholarly in its composition.

While the geographical extent of the book's coverage encompasses a large, roughly triangular-shaped area (its corners the towns of Baldwin, Palatka, and Mayport), the greatest attention is still paid to Jacksonville, the most important city located along Florida's St. Johns River. Ancillary happenings at Fernandina and St. Augustine are also briefly touched upon. Thunder on the River centers on the four federal occupations of Jacksonville, beginning in 1862 and ending with final permanent holding of the city by the Union army and navy in 1864. The descriptions of the military operations surrounding these events are detailed enough to satisfy most readers, however original maps were needed. As often happens when large archival maps are reduced in size in order to fit comfortably inside modern book pages, details can be inscrutable. Additionally, because the images are not directly tied to the text, many important towns and locales are left out altogether.

The book also serves to tie up loose ends left by other authors and historians of Civil War Florida. Where Stephen Ash recounted the history of the third occupation of Jacksonville (1863) from the Union perspective in his excellent book Firebrand of Liberty (2008), Schafer's integration of the Confederate side into the story broadens the reader's understanding of these events, although his own book also tends to devote more space to Federal operations [presumably, a source material availability issue]. In perhaps a nod to previous book length work on the 1864 Battle of Olustee by William H. Nulty (1990) and Lewis G. Schmidt (1989), Schafer only briefly summarizes the events of the battle, but he does provide some interesting information about the latter stages of the campaign that does not appear elsewhere in the secondary literature. In another example of fresh military historical material presented in Thunder, the author describes the defensive network constructed by the Confederates to protect the important rail junction of Baldwin, Florida from the possibility of Union forces attacking the town from nearby Jacksonville.

Although military events are the main focus of the book, the impact of the war on the region's social and political structures are also discussed at length. The institution of slavery along the shores of the St. Johns River was essentially destroyed by Union forces, many of which were composed of black units organized at Hilton Head, South Carolina. The series of Union occupations and evacuations also imposed great hardships upon the civilian population, a significant segment of which was unionist in its loyalty. As with many regions only temporarily visited upon by the Union army and navy, much in the way of public and private property was destroyed (with or without orders), and the power vacuum created by the absence of regular garrison forces from either side led to a breakdown in civil order. This in turn allowed guerrillas and other lawless elements freer reign to further harass the inhabitants, regardless of loyalty. Property confiscation under the authority of northern agents of the Direct Tax Commission and the effort by the U.S. government in 1864 to bring Florida back into the fold under the "ten-percent plan" before the November election are also covered. The final chapter discusses the early Reconstruction-era conflicts that arose between the white populace and the occupying Union army, a force composed in large measure of black soldiers from the 34th and later the 3rd USCT regiments.

Solidly researched and thorough in its presentation of the region's wartime military, social, and political history, Thunder on the River is the most impressive book published about the Civil War in Florida in recent memory. One can confidently add Daniel Schafer's study to the short but growing list of essential Florida volumes.

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