Book review

Blockaders, Refugees, & Contrabands: Civil War on Florida's Gulf Coast, 1861-1865

By George E. Buker (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993)

 

Reviewer: Michael J Herr, American Military University

 

The author chronicles the role of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron in creating civil strife and warfare along the West Coast of Florida during the American Civil War. Commander Buker, U.S. Navy, retired from active duty in 1963. After earning his BA from Jacksonville University and his MA and Ph.D. from the University of Florida, he was a professor of history at Jacksonville University until his retirement in 1987. Now a professor emeritus, his previous works include Swamp Sailors: Riverine Warfare in the Everglades, 1835-1842; Sun, Sand, and Water: A History of the Jacksonville District US. Army Corps of Engineers, 1821-1975; and Jacksonville: Riverport - Seaport.

 


The book's title summarizes what it is about. The blockaders were the officers and seamen of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, guarding the Florida coast from St. Andrew Bay on the west to Cape Florida on the east. The refugees were pro-Union Floridians and Confederate conscripts and deserters. The contrabands were escaped slaves who, from early in the war, were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Navy under rules similar to those applying to whites, a practice the army never did adopt. When the sailors raided the mainland, they found Union sympathizers among the Floridians. Ship captains employed collaborators in their efforts to cut out blockade-runners, harass the enemy, and destroy valuable coastal salt works. As the number of refugees and contrabands increased, they also became an important source of manpower for the Union navy.

 

Florida's civil war developed when the dissidents were augmented by Southern army deserters and conscription evaders who sought refuge in the state's West Coast swamps and turned to the squadron for succour and aid. In time, the blockaders, refugees, and contrabands joined forces to fight against the Confederacy. When Federal control of the Mississippi River cut off the South's sources of western beef the Confederacy turned to the cattle ranges of south Florida to supply meat to its armies. Primarily to stop this flow of beef the Union army enlisted the refugees into the U.S. Second Florida Cavalry and elevated the conflict from guerrilla to conventional warfare. The Second Infantry Regiment U.S. Colored Troops, led largely by former squadron officers who transferred to the army, was added to the struggle and brought many slaves to the Union lines. Buker explains that once the squadron secured the blockade and began operations on the mainland, Florida Unionists provided the blockaders with the means to initiate a civil war within the state, which disrupted Florida's war effort. Florida's internal war caused civil dissension weakened the slave labor pool, challenged the Confederate and state governments, and reduced the South's supplies of salt and beef. In his conclusion on page 182, Buker states, "The military effort of the blockaders, refugees, and contrabands provided Confederate Florida with one of its most active foes during the war.... Moreover, the salt and cattle raids struck a blow to the entire Confederacy. The uniqueness of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron's wartime role was its organization of, and support for, Florida's civil war on the Gulf Coast."

 

In addition to being the most neglected of the blockade squadrons by the Federal government during the war, the East Gulf Blockading Squadron has also been the most overlooked by Civil War scholars. For example, in 'By Sea and by River: The Naval History of the Civil War' (New York: Knopf, 1962), Bern Anderson devoted a single sentence on page 216 to the squadron's activities: "Key West remained in Union hands and was the base for the East Gulf Blockading Squadron." Thus, Buker helps fill a void in the literature on this aspect of the Civil War. He also uses Florida's Gulf Coast to illustrate in detail what other authors have discussed generally how "the Union navy helped to exacerbate internal dissension" within the Confederacy (Beringer, Richard E., et al.,'Why the South Lost the Civil War', Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986, 185).

 

Buker is a professional historian and has produced a thoroughly researched work relying heavily upon published and unpublished primary sources as well as extensive secondary materials. One of the book's strengths is the author's blending of events and statistics with stories of interesting personalities such as Unionist Henry A. Crane, deserter William W. Strickland, and Confederate Capt. James McKay. On page 59, Buker describes the Crane family as "a microcosm of the nation, a house divided. The father served in the Northern forces while the son joined the Southern army." Strickland exemplifies the Floridians who became disillusioned with the Confederacy and switched to the Union cause. An alleged double agent, Captain McKay appears to have served the interests of both sides as well as his own at various times during the war.

 

Although his book is generally well written, Buker does not tell the story of the Florida Gulf Coast's civil war in one unified narrative. Rather, he divides the subject from chapter to chapter into topics such as "contrabands," "two ships," and "cattle raids." Buker's narrative flow is further diminished when he inexplicably jumps to a discussion of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and its activities off Florida's cast coast in the book's final chapter. Then, he concludes that chapter by summarizing the previous 13 chapters in the last four paragraphs. Also, at a few places in the book it is difficult to keep straight whether the bands being discussed were fighting for the North or the South. While Buker proves his thesis, some of his conclusions are overstated, such as on page 182, where he says, "The astonishing feat of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron, virtually creating the United States Second Florida Cavalry, should have ranked with some of the spectacular exploits of the other blockading squadrons, but the organization of that regiment has been overlooked by historians." Although the naval squadron's recruitment of this army unit was a notable accomplishment, the regiment ultimately consisted of only 739 men, and its creation hardly rose to the same level as the capture of New Orleans. And even if there had been no blockade, some conflict still would have occurred in Florida between the Confederate government, and its military units and loyalists, and factions such as Union sympathizers, contrabands, and Southern deserters.