- Aiming for Pensacola: Fugitive Slaves on the Atlantic and Southern Frontiers by Matthew J. Clavin
Although never explicitly referred to as such, Matthew J. Clavin's book is a significant contribution to borderlands history. If borderlands history once emphasized the frontiers of nations and empires, it now deals with, as Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett have written, "ambiguous and often-unstable realms where boundaries are also crossroads, peripheries are also central places, homelands are also passing-through places, and the end points of empire are also forks in the road" ("On Borderlands," Journal of American History, 98 [September 2011], 338). These words ring true for Florida, which was the site of imperial and racial conflict as well as cooperation between Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans well before the United States annexed it. The conflict between Spanish and English colonists, American nationals, Native Americans, and Africans over land and slavery hardly ceased in 1821. [End Page 407]
This work's ambitious claims extend further than the existing research on self-emancipated slaves warrants. While at least three hundred fugitives from American slavery ran to Pensacola in the four decades before the American Civil War, they represent the tip of the iceberg of selfemancipated Americans in those years. Recent studies of the American abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad reinforce this sense of scale. Manisha Sinha notes that historians today estimate some 150,000 African Americans freed themselves by running away between 1830 and 1860 (The Slave's Cause: A History of Abolition [New Haven, 2016], 382). Eric Foner concurs, suggesting that 1,000 to 5,000 annually voted with their feet for freedom in those three decades (Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad [New York, 2015], 4).
Yet scale is not everything. Spanish Florida was a colonial society with slaves, but it also contained free people of color who "benefited from the absence of the inflexible binary racial divide that characterized neighboring Anglo-American societies and the strictly ordered caste system that persisted throughout much of Spanish America" (p. 26). Indeed, not only were some black Floridians free, but also some were armed. Louisiana's Third Battalion—stationed in Pensacola after the American Revolution—included black soldiers who wore red coats left behind by the British, an irony not missed by American visitors. Over a hundred black and mixed-race men formed part of the Pensacola militia, a phenomenon absent from the southern United States outside of New Orleans. By the final years of Spanish rule a majority of Pensacola's nearly one thousand residents were black.
By 1860 Florida was by far the smallest of the future Confederate states in a demographic sense, and when admitted to the Union a few months before Texas, it had barely a quarter of the Lone Star State's population. Florida's white population was a third as large as that of Arkansas, the next smallest rebel state. Considering Florida's peripheral status and long coastline, it was little surprise that the Confederacy expended few resources on the defense of the state or that the Union was able to maintain control of Fort Pickens near Pensacola. By May 1862, Confederate forces abandoned the Pensacola region due to manpower shortages and the demand for soldiers along the western front in Tennessee. Black Floridians quickly allied with Union soldiers who occupied Florida. This military backwater was governed by abolitionist generals. Underground Railroad conductor Neal Dow of New England arrived at Pensacola as a Union brigadier general and began recruiting and arming slaves. Other antislavery officers organized Sunday schools where black soldiers and children alike could learn to read.
From its inception as a Spanish colony through the American Civil War years, Florida defied the racial norms set by the Spanish, British, and Americans due in part to its location at the intersection of those competing worlds. Clavin has given American and borderlands historians an excellent study of one underappreciated frontier...