Florida contributed close to 16,000 soldiers for the Southern effort during the course of the Civil War.
Though the state fielded one of the smallest contingents in the Confederate armed forces, it had one of the highest enlistment rates per capita of any state in the South. Almost 40 percent of the state’s white male population served in some capacity by war’s end. An additional 2,200 Floridians, including 1,000 African-Americans, fought on the Union side during the war.
The Tampa Bay area was well represented in both of the Confederacy’s primary armies — the Army of Tennessee and Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The Tampa-based Sunny South Guards (Company K, 4th Florida Infantry) served throughout the South, first in Florida then as part of the Army of Tennessee. Another Confederate unit, Company K of the 7th Florida Infantry (originally known as the Key West Avengers) was stationed in Tampa before heading north for Tennessee. They were treated to an emotional goodbye when, according to Company K member Robert Watson, Tampa’s “ladies … turned out and saw us off. There was quite a waiving [sic] of handkerchiefs and many tears shed.”
A considerable number of Hillsborough County’s young men enlisted in Company B, 7th Florida Infantry, including John and William Henderson, John A. McKay, George Boyette, Alexander and Benjamin Cowart, four members of the Whidden family, George Simmons and John Krause.
More than 6,000 Florida soldiers were killed or wounded during the war. Many others were captured and held in Union prisoner of war camps until they were exchanged for prisoners, were paroled or died waiting.
Still others decided that war was too much for them. George Mercer Davis, a member of Company B, 2nd Florida Infantry, and grandfather of Davis Islands developer David P. Davis, deserted the army during the June 1864 Siege of Petersburg, Va.
The situation was not much better for those back home. In the best of times, Tampa was an isolated community on the South Florida frontier. The lines of communication and transportation consisted of ships and stagecoaches. These methods provided regular but still not completely reliable connections to the rest of the country. The stagecoach took three days to travel between Gainesville and Tampa. Ships, powered by either sail or steam, proved to be a faster connection between Tampa Bay and other coastal communities, though travel times outside of the immediate area were still measured in days rather than hours.
The Civil War changed this, and not for the better. The biggest adjustment for Floridians, and Tampa Bay area residents, came to the shipping industry. The Union blockade, established very early in the war, greatly reduced the number of ships coming in and out of the state. While blockade runners — fast ships that could get past the Northern blockade — did make runs to and from many Florida ports, there were still shortages of everyday materials.
The hardships experienced by Tampans during the war are well documented. The New York Herald printed a story from Key West on March 24, 1862, reporting that “The state of things — Tampa is fearful. They are literally starving. They have no coffee, no tea, no flour, no cloth of any kind, except their common homespun, for which they pay $1.25 per yard.” The story concluded by stating, “They all say they cannot hold out much longer if the blockade is not broken by England.”
The English government would not step in, but supplies would trickle in through the ever-tightening blockade from various private European businesses and contractors.
However, not all of life’s necessities had to be imported from foreign shores. Florida’s coastline provided more than just a home base for blockade runners. Vast saltwater marshes, particularly along the gulf coast, provided the raw materials and concealment for salt manufacturing.
Today we largely take refrigeration for granted. The fact that we can buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat — most coming from far away communities — and safely store them in our own homes for days is something that did not exist in the mid-19th century. The best way that the people of that era had to preserve meat was the use of salt for curing.
The Tampa Bay area had at least two salt works. One, located near Rocky Point, likely consisted of two boilers where saltwater was heated until the water evaporated, leaving a salty slush that was spread out on wooden blanks to dry. Once dry, the salt was packed in casks and stored until needed, or shipped out over land or on blockade runners.
The other salt work sat on the southern shoreline of Hernando County at the appropriately named Salt Springs. Located near present-day Port Richey in what is now Pasco County, the salt works was owned by Brooksville residents Leroy G. Lesley and David Hope. In March 1864, Lesley, Hope and another partner named Ryals advertised their product in a Gainesville newspaper, selling a bushel of salt (roughly equivalent to 70 pounds) for $10 cash or in trade for two bushels of corn. Adjusted for inflation, one bushel of salt cost almost $140 in today’s money. Later that year, Lesley and Hope attempted to sell the salt works for $8,000.
The war ended in April 1865, but the effects, at least in South Florida, lingered for almost two decades. Reconstruction brought an influx of new people, though many were not seen as welcome by locals. The damages wrought by the Civil War, both physical and emotional, would eventually heal and Tampa’s prospects began to brighten by the mid-1880s with arrival of the “big three”: the railroad, phosphate and the cigar industry.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached by email at [email protected] or at (813) 228-0097.