One hundred and fifty years ago Monday, Florida voted in a special convention to secede from the United States — and prepared for civil war.
John C. McGehee, the secession convention's president, made clear the purpose. "At the South, and with our People of course, slavery is the element of all value, and a destruction of that destroys all that is property," he declared in opening the proceedings.
Florida was the third Southern state to secede, after only South Carolina on Dec. 20 and Mississippi on Jan. 9. Eight other states followed in the next four months.
It moved Unionist and twice-territorial governor Richard Keith Call to proclaim, "You have opened the gates of Hell, from which shall flow the curses of the damned which shall sink you to perdition!" What followed fulfilled his prophecy.
Florida's secession happened barely two months after Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on Nov. 6 with a majority of the nation's electoral votes — all outside the South. So divided was the nation already that Lincoln was not even on the ballot in 10 Southern states, including Florida.
Lincoln's election was the last straw for Southerners watching the growing strength of the abolition movement in Northern states. They had issued repeated threats to secede in the years leading up to this.
In fact, preparations for secession and war had already been under way throughout the South. For example, in January 1860, Florida began to organize military companies in Tallahassee and Fernandina.
In those two months after the stormy U.S. presidential election, the "fire breathers," as the secessionists were called, began a furious campaign.
Seizing the initiative, legislators voted to schedule an election in December to select delegates for a secession convention. Only white males could vote, and they selected a majority of prosecession delegates (85 percent of them owned slaves) to assemble for the convention in Tallahassee just after the new year — overwhelming hapless Unionists and Cooperationists trying to delay or prevent secession.
Months earlier in 1860, the state Democratic Party convention had adopted resolutions demanding strict enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and protections for slavery in both states and territories. With Lincoln now about to take office and gains in the U.S. House and Senate by his "Black Republican" Party, as they termed it, secession was the South's only hope.
On Jan. 3, 1861, the delegates met with elaborate ceremony and solemn prayers in the Capitol to begin six days of intense debate, included repeated stalling attempts by more cautious delegates. One defeated proposal was to put the question of secession to a popular vote. The secessionists had none of that. They passed the Ordinance of Secession, 62-7, on Jan. 10.
The convention then took steps to establish a new state government able to operate services such as a postal system and an army and navy, which until then had been federal. It then appointed representatives to Montgomery, Ala., to help form a new Confederate States of America.
To commemorate their decision, the delegates assembled on the front steps of the Capitol on the next day to sign the ordinance individually before an enthusiastic crowd. Five of the 69 delegates declined to take part in the ceremony, but their final dissent attracted little notice.
Swept up in the frenzy for secession, it mattered little to Florida leaders that Lincoln had not been yet been inaugurated (that wouldn't be until March 3) — and had merely advocated limiting the spread of slavery into new territories.
Slaveholding states were determined not just to protect their institution — but also to ensure their right to expand slavery into new territories — even if it meant war.
They underscored that determination later in 1861 when adopting the Confederate constitution. It flatly stated, "No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed (by Congress)." Ironically, the drafters defeated a proposal to allow secession from the Confederate nation.
Emotional celebrations by whites followed in the capital and elsewhere in Florida — with torchlight parades, rousing speeches, gun salutes, pealing of church bells and other signs of jubilation. Enthusiastic men rushed to volunteer for military duty. Militia units moved to seize federal military installations and supplies, at least the undefended ones.
The hasty secession left many Floridians dismayed and angry. Outside the plantation belt, especially in coastal cities, white antisecessionist sentiment was strong, albeit a minority. So also in the sparsely populated central and south Florida counties, with few slaves and little sympathy for plantation owners.
Of course, nobody consulted the 61,745 Florida slaves, but you can guess their views about protecting their enslavement. Despite the secessionist bombast in Tallahassee, in reality Florida's contribution to the Confederate war effort was minor. Total population was 140,424 in 1860 — only 77,747 were white, the rest slaves or a handful of free blacks — about 1.5 percent of the combined population of Confederate states.
Most Floridians then lived in the northern tier of cotton plantation counties from the eastern Panhandle to Jacksonville. The rest of Florida was mostly empty frontier with many more cows than people. The largest county in the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough (which included now-Pinellas County), had a total population of 2,981, 564 of them slaves.
Only about 16,000 statewide were white males ages 18 to 45 and available for the Confederacy's greatest need — soldiers — and its army could lose that many killed or wounded in a single battle. In fact, a harshly enforced Confederate draft law enlisted nearly all Florida men between 18 and 45 and sent them north to fight at Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Cold Harbor and other remote battles — leaving few regular troops to defend our state.
Northerners were not especially impressed by our secession. Florida was "the smallest tadpole in the dirty pool of secession," wrote an observer at the time.
In turn, Union military leaders were content to contain Florida's military threat by a naval blockade, occupation of key cities like Pensacola, Key West and Jacksonville (four times), and occasional raids (usually to free slaves, rustle cattle or destroy salt works) as in Manatee County in 1863. The only major battle, in 1864 at Olustee near Lake City, turned back a Union offensive with high casualties on both sides.
By 1864, Florida was increasingly isolated, its ability to send food and raw materials to Confederate forces weakening. It faced growing problems of Confederate deserters, sometimes allied with runaway slaves, the tightening grip of the Union naval blockade and economic collapse. While reports from the North of new Confederate defeats mounted, so did civilian miseries.
Gloom spread. In his final message to the Legislature in 1864, Florida's wartime governor John Milton declared, "In this conflict the baseness, cruelty, and perfidy of our foe have exceeded precedent; they have developed a character so odious that death would be preferable to reunion."
On April 1, 1865, Milton died in his home in Marianna by a shotgun blast to his head, an apparent suicide. Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox eight days later, and the war effectively ended.
On May 20, Union solders marched to the Capitol and hoisted the Stars and Stripes. Florida's war to save slavery had ended in defeat — preservation of the Union — and the emancipation of black Americans.
Bob Rackleff is a Tallahassee writer and historian and former speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter.