Sands of Time, Florida’s Role in the Civil War


Twenty-two million people live in Florida today because of the Civil War, stated Palm Beach Post reporter Eliot Kleinberg on April 8, in his talk to a capacity audience at the final Estero Island Historic Society public presentation of the season.

“History is not an abstraction. It’s real, and everything is connected,” said Kleinberg. “History is like rows of dominoes that, as they topple each other, cause cascades of far-reaching effects.”

From Vicksburg to the end of the Civil War, Florida played a crucial, if largely disregarded, role as the smallest and least-populous of the Confederate states. And the trajectory of that tragic war, plus the developments following Reconstruction, set the stage for today’s bulging population and water-quality crises.

Eliot Kleinberg provided, in energetic and impassioned style, an insider’s knowledge of Florida in the Civil War, with fascinating tidbits about other eras thrown in. The author of a dozen books about Florida history, Kleinberg offered “not opinions, because journalists aren’t  supposed to express those, but my observations from years of study.”

At the outset he punctured common myths and exposed dark truths about the state. “Juan Ponce de Leon was not looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth in Florida,” said Kleinberg. “He was a virile, 28-year-old explorer. No, he was interested in Florida because Spain promised he could become governor of any territories north and east of Puerto Rico that he could hold, and he’d get a cut of it all.”

Likewise, Florida was not named for the beautiful flowers along its beaches (what flowers?) but because Ponce de Leon first landed on these shores – at either Jupiter or St. Augustine – during Easter festivities, which in Spain were called “Pascua de la Florida” (Easter of the flowers).

Kleinberg also shared the topic of his book, Black Cloud: the 1928 hurricane that caused Lake Okeechobee to overflow, killing 3,000 residents. Many of them were impoverished black people, buried in mass graves.

Dikes were subsequently built around Lake O, which have held in the water and yet contribute (through poor water management) to southern Florida’s environmental woes.

All history is connected!


watsons map, island history, civil war
Watson’s New County Railroad & Distance Map of Florida, 1875. Note the vast open spaces south of Ocala.

“War is ugly, awful and hurtful”

The real Civil War was not a Union crusade against slavery, Kleinberg insisted. It was about  a unified country asserting uniform laws. “Northern soldiers were fighting not to free black people but to preserve the Union. The average southern soldier couldn’t afford to own slaves. He was fighting to preserve his property rights; his 3 acres of beans or peppers or whatever he could grow.”

Kleinberg added: “Nobody’s hands were clean during that war. Black people were lynched on the streets of Manhattan. Three proprietors of the Hartford [Connecticut] Courant owned plantations in Louisiana that were farmed by slaves.”

Slavery was a huge economic as well as human-rights issue. In 1860 the total monetary value of slaves was $3 billion – more than the entire assets of New England.

If the Confederacy had won the Civil War, the United States would likely have fractured further into regional entities, said Kleinberg. It could not have continued to exist as a unified nation.

“Anyone who romanticizes the Civil War is deluded. You don’t romanticize the Titanic or 9/11. Nobody should regard the Civil War as anything but an unmitigated disaster. The biggest tragedy was not the outcome. It was that the war ever happened. An entire generation was forced to stand up, fire and fall.” Killing and killed by their own countrymen.

Florida: Tiny Backwater

Big Civil War Impact

In 1865 the population of Florida was 140,000 – of whom only 675 settlers lived south of Ocala (the native people weren’t accurately counted). The state held nearly 62,000 slaves; 44% of the population.

Although the first shots in the Civil War were fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina, they could just as easily have flown at Fort Pickens, one of 3 Federal forts surrounding Pensacola Harbor. Fort Pickens, the most vulnerable, stood on a peninsula and could be reached overland.

civil war, fort myers beach, war is hell letter
War is Hell” This excerpt is from a letter soldier Winston Stephens wrote to his wife Octavia. Within a span of five days, she lost her husband and mother and gave birth to her son.

Legend claims that the fort’s retired builder, who had become a Confederate sympathizer, warned Union soldiers to abandon it or face bombardment. One of the defenders replied: “You built this fort with your own hands. You won’t destroy it.” With tears in his eyes, the builder backed down.

The Jupiter Lighthouse did not fare as well. Locals, who knew routes through Jupiter Inlet well enough to navigate in the dark, wanted the light extinguished, but gun runners from elsewhere wanted it lit to guide them. The assistant lighthouse keeper persuaded his boss, at gunpoint, to douse the light. Stashed away safely, the mechanism was replaced unharmed at war’s end.

Fort Jefferson, isolated in the Dry Tortugas, proved too far offshore for its antiquated cannons to reach Union ships sneaking up the Gulf of Mexico. Key West remained a small Union outpost with 3 federal forts that did not figure in the Civil War.

Because of Florida’s vast coastlines, the Union devoted one-quarter of its blockade resources to the state. Blockade runners could bring guns and goods ashore from the Bahamas, or overland from Texas. Even more goods flowed outward.

What Florida lacked in population it made up in resources: cattle, pork, turpentine, salt. The Confederacy “sucked these goods out of the state” to supply its troops, who – by 1864 – suffered mightily from the effects of the Union blockade. The Rebels had decided Florida was not worth defending, and sent most of the state’s soldiers north to Virginia.

The Battle of Olustee on February 20, 1864, Florida’s sole major Civil War conflict, ended in the Confederates repelling a force of Union soldiers that had invaded the state a few weeks before and marched north to take Jacksonville. Their goal was to topple the state capital of Tallahassee and secure Florida (and its votes) for the Union, prior to the 1864 presidential election.

But at Olustee, Confederate forces prevailed in a brutal battle that caused 34% casualties among the Union and 18% of the Rebels. In an ugly aftermath, Confederate soldiers roamed the battlefield, executing any black Union troops they found.

In the final Florida battle, at Natural Bridge south of Tallahassee, a scratch force of West Florida Seminary students and grizzled veterans of the Seminole Wars repelled Union troops. Tallahassee remained the only state capital among the Confederacy not to fall into Union hands until war’s end.

As the Confederate defeat became inevitable in spring 1865, the state’s Governor, John Milton, announced: “Death would be preferable to reunion.” He returned to his plantation in Jackson County and shot himself.

According to Eliot Kleinberg: “Robert E. Lee was responsible for more Civil War deaths than anyone. He was such a good tactician that he kept pushing the end of the war out further and longer, even as the Confederacy went bankrupt” and Rebel soldiers fell ragged and hungry.


After the War

Overwhelming Growth

Union soldiers who returned home post-war recalled the balmy Florida breezes as they froze, up north in February. Before long, a wave of tourism washed ashore and helped lift the state out of its deep recession.

“By the 1880’s Florida was known as the Southern Riviera,” said Kleinberg. People began to buy property and to homestead. Then came tides of land speculation, with cycles of boom and bust fueled by tax incentives to build luxury hotels and railroads, followed by financial crashes and the fury of hurricanes.

A vicious 1935 hurricane washed Henry Flagler’s grand railroad into the ocean. But the climate kept luring tourists and new residents. Florida’s population trended sharply upward despite setbacks:

1940 – 2 million

1950 – 3 million

1970 – 7 million

2016 – 20 million

“Somewhere along the line we discovered that growth without planning is no good,” said Kleinberg. “What was once a moderate water-supply crisis is now a major one.”

The south Florida native concluded: “We need to hire wise local, state and federal officials to balance the rights of those who want to move here, and the developers, with the rights of those who are losing the Florida they grew up in and loved. It is vanishing, almost before our eyes.”


By Janet Sailian



Confederate monuments

Asked by an audience member about his stance on Civil War monuments, Kleinberg replied:

“Confederate monuments were not erected right after the Civil War, but in 1948, 1958 and later. The Confederate flag was an obscure flag, not even a major symbol, until the 1950s. It’s not truly about heritage. Until 1868, slavery was still legal in the U.S. So all flags before then represent slavery.

“Confederate monuments represent a time and actions that were treasonous. These symbols, like swastikas, belong in museums to remind people how not to behave. They don’t belong outside courthouses to intimidate people.”