Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review of Weitz & Sheppard, eds. - "A FORGOTTEN FRONT: Florida during the Civil War Era"

[A Forgotten Front: Florida during the Civil War Era edited by Seth A. Weitz and Jonathan C. Sheppard (University of Alabama Press, 2018). Hardcover, map, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 268 pp. ISBN:978-0-8173-1982-3. $39.95]

Civil War Florida has been long dismissed as an isolated and thinly-populated front of little significance, but historical coverage has vastly improved in recent memory. Olustee, Florida's largest and most famous battle, has received detailed treatment from William Nulty, Lewis Schmidt, and others. With slim volumes from Dale Cox recounting West Florida's Marianna and Natural Bridge battles and Michael Hardy's study of the Brooksville Raid, substantial attention has also been paid to the smaller-scale battles and raids fought within Florida's borders. George Buker has pioneered the study of Florida's Unionists, and he and others have addressed the federal blockade of the Gulf Coast. When it comes to Pensacola, George Pearce and John Driscoll have left few stones unturned, and important events in Northeast Florida have been well documented by a series of writers, most recently by Daniel Shafer and Stephen Ash. A fine book-length examination of Florida's Civil War monuments has been authored by William Lees and Frederick Gaske, and the economic contributions of Confederate Florida have been explored in depth by Robert Taylor. Finally, for those seeking a scholarly general history, Tracy Revels has recently provided a good option. While the above sampling of existing works covering many different aspects of the Civil War in Florida perhaps belies the state's status as a grossly neglected part of the Confederacy, the essays contained in Seth Weitz and Jonathan Sheppard's A Forgotten Front: Florida during the Civil War Era do effectively argue that there is plenty of room for further expansion.

The first three chapters, written by volume co-editor Seth Weitz and contributor Lauren Thompson,  examine Florida politics and society from statehood through secession. Taken together, these hefty offerings provide readers with a very solid background for understanding the 1850s decade of change in the state, when the voting population realigned from moderate proslavery politics to enthusiastic support for secession.

As is the case with many U.S. states to this day, the major geographical divisions of antebellum Florida—west, middle, and east—had competing interests and distinct economies. During its early history, Florida's center of power passed back and forth between the coasts before eventually settling in the middle, where conditions proved best for plantation agriculture and slavery. According to Weitz in the first chapter, this is the stage of growth and change that finally transformed Florida from a bit of a regional political/economic anomaly into a true Deep South state.

Florida's antebellum political transformation mirrored that of neighboring states, though the main actors were obviously different, and readers learn much about the leading political figures of the day (most of whom remain obscure in comparison to those hailing from older and more populous southern states). Citing the original Florida purchase and especially the tens of millions of federal dollars spent relocating and fighting the Seminoles, Thompson also reminds us of factors that made Florida's secession movement a source of particular resentment in the North.

The only chapter in the book that specifically deals with an aspect of the conventional war in Florida is volume co-editor Jonathan Sheppard's piece on the Confederate defense and Union capture of Amelia Island. After the Port Royal disaster's exposure of the cordon defense policy along the coast, the Confederate yielding of the island and its coveted deep water port at Fernandina without a fight was part of the new strategy of concentrating limited resources on a handful of points deemed strong enough to resist federal seaborne strength.

A significant consequence of this new directive for coastal defense, in combination with the series of disasters suffered in the West in early 1862, was that most of the state's volunteer forces were sent elsewhere, leaving mostly irregular bands to continue the fight. Zack Waters's following chapter briefly examines the guerrilla war in Middle and East Florida, a conflict that dominated the region's domestic scene and made partisan officers like J.J. Dickison household names. Like Buker did before him, Waters appropriately highlights the irregular war's naval component, which saw Union ships and men exploit the state's extensive coastline to conduct small hit and run operations against isolated enemy military and economic targets (like cattle herds and salt production facilities) while also aiding and cooperating with Unionists, escaped slaves, and Confederate deserters.

R. Boyd Murphree offers a very informative biographical profile of Florida governor John Milton, a native Georgian and Confederate nationalist who came to symbolize Middle Florida's 1850s radicalization. Murphree positions Milton as perhaps the staunchest gubernatorial supporter of the policies of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, and a leader possessing a pragmatic bent all too often absent from the minds of other war governors. While deeply concerned by the national government's near military abandonment of his state, Milton quickly came to accept its necessity for the overall defense of the country. He also supported conscription and other controversial war measures. Milton was certainly a states' rights ideologue, but his willingness to sacrifice for the greater good was in stark contrast to the actions of men like Georgia's Governor Brown and a host of Trans-Mississippi state executives. Murphree also sees Milton's suicide as a consequence of a combination of depression and exhaustion (both physical and mental), not a calculated act of defiance as some others have suggested.

The next few chapters broadly examine a set of previously understudied subjects. David Parker surveys Florida's churches and religious leaders and looks at their role in validating secession and sustaining the Confederate cause during the travails of a long, bitter, and destructive war. In his essay, Parker draws useful distinction between religion being a driving force behind the march to war and religion being a justifying force.

Chris Day follows with an examination of Florida's complicated legal history as it applied to slavery both before and during the war. Of particular note is the writer's use of specific court cases to highlight the tortuous and frequently contradictory nature of slavery laws and jurisprudence, especially when it came to legally defining the slave's dual nature as human being and property.

With much of the existing southern women's literature still focused on the plantation class, Tracy Revels's contribution uses many examples to invite readers to consider a broader female population, white and black. As Revels keenly observes, with its large slave and white Unionist populations and diverse mix of settled and frontier lifestyles and existences, the state is a particularly strong laboratory for future research.

Robert Taylor's brief essay profiles a selection of Hispanic Confederate Floridians and places a spotlight on their unsung wartime contributions. The final chapter by David Nelson offers a wide-ranging recounting of Florida's Civil War memorialization and commemoration from the end of the war to the present day, the current debate over a proposed Union monument at Olustee being the article's connective thread. As expected, the driving role of the UDC in promoting Confederate memory is discussed and the endurance of "Lost Cause" views critically assessed.

With fine essays covering a mixture of both well established and developing topics, A Forgotten Front offers readers a solid overview of Florida's Civil War as well as a promising roadmap for future research. Recommended.

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