Give Them Their Due: A Reassessment of African Americans and Union Military Service in Florida during the Civil War

By Winsboro, Irvin D. S. | The Journal of African American History, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

Give Them Their Due: A Reassessment of African Americans and Union Military Service in Florida during the Civil War


Winsboro, Irvin D. S., The Journal of African American History


During the Civil War in Florida, African American troops played a significant role in the Union victory. In sheer numbers alone, the African American units comprised a major Union presence within the state. Not allowed to enlist in regional regiments until 1862, the newly mustered black troops had to quickly prove their ability as soldiers. In the numerous skirmishes, raids, and larger conflicts that extended to every corner of Florida, African Americans often fought with bravery and distinction, despite the risk of slavery or execution if captured. Nevertheless, their aggregate roles in Union land and sea campaigns, their impact in driving home the magnitude of the war, and their own "special cause" of destroying slavery through force of arms in the southernmost Confederate state have often been ignored or underrepresented by early chroniclers and revisionist historical studies.

Most wartime accounts of Confederate Florida seldom refer to the black units, except in tangential references to "Colored troops" appearing in the area. In 1865 Union General and Provisional Governor of Florida, William Marvin, set the premise for this inaccurate assessment by declaring that African Americans in his state had "fought in no battles; or if engaged at all in such, they were trifling affairs." (1) His comments served to obfuscate African Americans' contribution to the war for generations to come. William Watson Davis in The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida, a seminal work on the conflict in Florida, observed that African Americans' "most valuable services to the Union were as guide, spy, and plunderers, [who] usually gave way under determined attack." Charlton Tebeau's standard work, A History of Florida, devotes but one sentence to African Americans' contributions to the Union effort. Tebeau limited his observations to the following: "General Rufus Saxton, the Union commander of the Department of the South, toward the end of the war used refugee Negroes as guides and received permission to enroll them as soldiers ... mostly at the end of the conflict." (2) Indeed, a common thread running through Civil War literature is that African American servicemen, with the sometimes exception of their duty at the noteworthy Battle of Olustee, served only briefly and peripherally in Florida and that they and their actions lacked both individuality and agency.

Consequently, the depth and breadth of the African Americans' military service in Florida during the Civil War has been missing in the literature for almost a century and a half. Indeed for much of this period, the rhetorical makeover of these events relegated African Americans to such minor and perhaps ignoble roles as "guide, spy, and plunderer." (3) However, military records in the National Archives and elsewhere document clearly that African American fighting men added a deep and meaningful dimension to the Union efforts in the southernmost theater of Civil War military operations. This needs scrutinizing by those interested in an accurate synthesis of the Civil War because African Americans made a major contribution to the Union strategy and impact in remote southern states such as Florida, both on land and at sea.

EAGER FOR THE FIGHT

The black troops that served in Florida arrived from units created during the first wave of African American enlistment in Union military service. Although African Americans had flooded the War Department with petitions to serve from the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861, the federal government and War Department refused to allow mass African American enlistment until 1863. Some commanders, among them Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, supported emancipation and recruited free African Americans in the South. In the spring of 1862, Department of the South commander, Major General David ("Black David") Hunter, had proclaimed that martial law liberated all slaves in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida (an order Lincoln later revoked), and sanctioned raising the initial black regiment, the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, which completed early action in Florida.

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