Blockaders, Refugees, & Contrabands: Civil War on Florida’s Gulf Coast, 1861-1865, by George E. Buker
This meticulously researched and thoroughly engaging work is the first historical document I have read that provides an accurate assessment of the pivotal role of the Eastern Gulf Squadron of the United States Navy in leading to the collapse of rebel authority in much of Florida by supporting deserters, disrupting the transportation of cattle to feed rebel troops, destroying salt works, arming escaped slaves and refugees to fight Confederate raiders, and protecting armed islands and fortresses where the Confederate government held no power. As this book provides a wealth of information, excellent research, and a refreshingly pro-Union perspective, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know what the Civil War was really like in the Gulf Coast of Florida.
It is especially worthwhile to compare this book to previously reviewed books on the subject of Florida’s involvement in the Civil War  . Compared to the two other books it is to be greatly preferred for accuracy of detail, scope of examination, and its respect shown to the contributions of Florida’s “Union Men” in the United States Second Florida Cavalry Regiment and other pro-Union troops as well as the brave soldiers of the United States Colored Troops’ Second Infantry Regiment.
This book is organized in a chronological fashion (for the most part) in fourteen chapters, starting from the establishment of the blockade and then examining the phenomenon of Union Men. Then comes chapters examining what it meant to be on station as a blockader, the early efforts to close the coast to rebel trade, and the escape of slaves to the Union ships. Then a chapter focusing on the signal efforts of the Tampa Unionist Henry Crane (often ignored in local histories), as well as a tale of two ships (the Sagamore and Stars & Stripes) and their activities during 1863, and the phenomenon of conscripts and deserters flocking to the Navy for support and aid to give and receive. Then comes chapters on the career of William Strickland, the U.S. Second Florida Cavalry, and the Second Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops. After this the book closes on the importance of cattle raids, the change in relations that occurred as personnel changed and the army took a more important role in Union military policy, and finally a focus on the unique success of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron in fomenting civil war within Florida.
One of the more fascinating elements of this book is the demonstration that the United States Navy in the Eastern Gulf managed to cultivate very positive relationships with local Floridan citizens that were unmatched in other blockading areas (where there was less warmth towards the local citizenry by officers), and that the navy had a much warmer relationship with the people of Florida than the army. The contrast of the behavior of local Union men to the navy raids of rebel salt works (which received substantial local support from whites and blacks) and the raid of General Abbot on Marianna (where Union men participated in the Home Guard to repel the raid, despite their Union sympathies and previous working relationship with the US Navy) is revealing.
The careful attention of Mr. Buker to primary documents from the U.S. Navy, the diaries of Union men, as well as Confederate civil and military dispatches, demonstrates a high degree of competence and an extensive knowledge of the relevant historiography. The impressive evidence shows the extremely fragile state of Florida during the Civil War, which was truly a civil war within the state on the same sort of feuding and internecine hostility as occurred in West Virginia. The element of Florida’s house divided, and the ability of naval officers to exploit these divisions, is a very important aspect of Florida’s Civil War experience that is often neglected in the biased and historically questionable accounts of Dickison and his ilk.
This book is also impressive in its ability to connect Union feeling with previous experience in the Third Seminole War (1855-1858), which opened the areas south of Tampa, such as Port Charlotte and Ft. Myers, to settlement and which influenced the attitudes of Floridans towards the U.S. Navy and the secession of their state. Additionally, this book provides a great deal of evidence that the harshness of Confederate actions towards lukewarm or Unionist Floridians was a major factor in alienating a substantial base of Florida’s population. The Confederate Army’s behavior and the contrast of its harshness with the generous spirit of the Union Navy in its dealings with Floridian citizens gave the Union a major advantage in achieving popular support all along the often forgotten and neglected Gulf Coast areas of Florida. This story needed to be told, has too often been ignored, and it is wonderful that Mr. Buker has done such a necessary task with such conspicuous skill. I hope this most excellent work receives the credit and audience it so richly deserves.