- A Forgotten Front: Florida During the Civil War Era ed. by Seth A. Weitz and Jonathan C. Sheppard
A Forgotten Front: Florida During the Civil War Era is a collection of ten essays about different aspects of Florida and the Civil War. Of the eleven states that seceded, it seems that the least has been written about Florida. Thus, any work on Florida's Civil War history is welcome. The subjects covered in A Forgotten Front seem almost random. It appears that the editors chose the writers first, as opposed to choosing the subject and seeking out the expert. That is not necessarily negative. In this case, it has led to an interesting selection of essays, but this collection should not be the first book anyone interested in Florida's role in the American Civil War should read. The book is not a general overview, as the title leads readers to believe.
As with any collection of essays, the quality of contributions varies. R. Boyd Murphree offers an excellent chapter on Governor John Milton and the many problems he faced as the chief executive of a militarily weak and vulnerable state. Seth A. Weitz, one of the coeditors, uses the Compromise of 1850 to explain politics in antebellum Florida. He convincingly argues that it was the compromise that drove Florida's moderates into the camp of the radical Democrats, thus leading to secession.
Other chapters, while well written and researched, do not add much to the book. Jonathan C. Sheppard provides a chapter on the Union capture of Amelia Island. This historical event was minor, even by Florida standards. A historian is always loath to say an event is so insignificant as to not warrant further study. However, the editors' choice of such an inconsequential episode for one of the book's few chapters on military history completely downplays the importance of military action in Florida during the Civil War. There were military events in Florida that played a role in the Civil War as a whole. The military actions surrounding Fort Pickens in Pensacola led directly to the outbreak of hostilities at Fort Sumter, just to name one encounter hugely more important than the capture of Amelia Island.
Tracy J. Revels's chapter on Florida women could easily have been about any southern state. That the experience of women in Florida during the war was all but the same as in other states is not a criticism, but it is a common observation among historians and makes for an unenlightening chapter. So, too, with Robert A. Taylor's chapter "Florida Hispanics in the Civil War," which seems to be based on little more than going through the old muster rolls looking for Hispanic-sounding names. [End Page 452]
The lone chapter dealing with race and Florida court cases is one of the weakest in the book. The entire chapter leads up to the postbellum Florida Supreme Court case Walker v. Gatlin (1867) and brings up the very interesting legal and financial question of whether future Florida governor David S. Walker owed James H. Gatlin money for a slave Walker had purchased prior to the outlawing of slavery. The problem is that the author, Chris Day, uses the case to discuss African Americans' pursuit of freedom and "activism in the courtroom" (p. 155). While it might have had that effect, the case was about money. The Democratic Party of Florida was extremely active in the postwar period in trying to control the freedpeople and make the social system as much as possible as it had been before the war. Day may have picked one of the few things not motivated by race during this period to write about.
There are strong chapters. David Nelson, in the concluding chapter, examines how the Civil War and many of the war-related controversies are remembered in Florida. Like with most other southern states, Florida's memory of the Civil War was dominated by what...