Sunday, February 28, 2010

Review of A Small but Spartan Band

Review of A Small but Spartan Band: The Florida Brigade in Lee's Army of Northern Virginia by Zack C. Waters and James C. Edmonds
University of Alabama Press

by Robert A. Waters

All male ancestors of fighting age that Waters family historians have been able to trace fought for the Confederacy during the War Between the States. They hailed from Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. When I was growing up, that war mattered more to many of our family members than the recently-fought conflict in Korea. My great-great grandmother received a Confederate pension because she was the widow of a southern veteran. I still fondly remember family conversations about the struggle for Southern independence and our family’s participation in that lost cause. That’s why I’m ecstatic that my brother Zack and his writing partner Jimmy Edmonds have published this long-needed book.

Even though Florida was a backwater country in 1861, it already had a long history of conflict.

Native Americans had populated the state for at least 8,000 years--the wars they fought amongst themselves are unknown. But when the Spanish arrived to establish a settlement in 1527, they were driven off by the fierceness of the local Indians. It was four decades later that the Spaniards finally set up a small fort called San Augustin. Shortly after that, Jean Ribault led a band of French Hugenot settlers to an area near Jacksonville, but he and his men were quickly massacred by the Spanish.

From that time on, the history of Florida was drenched in blood. There was the razing of the fort in St. Augustine by British pirates; the Apalachee massacre; the Battle of Pensacola; the near-extermination of native Florida Indians by the invading Seminoles; the Dade Massacre and Chief Osceola’s determined campaign against settlers in central and southern Florida; and slave raids. In 1810, a rebellion of settlers against Spanish rule led to further violence and established the Free and Independent Republic of West Florida.

In the 1820s, Andrew Jackson fought and eventually subdued the Seminoles, thereby opening up the territory for settlement.

On March 3, 1845, Florida, the land of flowers, became the 27th state to join the union.

By 1861, when Florida became the third state to secede from that same United States of America, it had about 140,000 residents. Most weren’t available to fight: women, children, and slaves made up the bulk of the population. In fact, only about 15,000 males in the state were able to take up arms. Many of those fought in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

A Small but Spartan Band describes the Florida soldiers’ travails from the beginning of the war in 1861 until Lee’s surrender in 1865. Florida troops fought bravely in some instances, and less so in others, mostly depending on their leadership. They gained a reputation after the war as having been poor soldiers, or worse, deserters. This book shows that much of that reputation came about because Southern historians of the post-war era were looking for scapegoats to blame for the loss of the war to the hated Yankees.

During the four years of the conflict, Florida Rebels were isolated from family and friends back home. The mail was unreliable and they rarely received letters from loved ones. Their own letters to the homefolks were sometimes poignant, telling tales of suffering and death. On December 7, 1864, C. O. Bailey of the Seventh Florida regiment wrote: “We had an awful time of it--the ground was frozen all the time. It had rained a hard rain a few days before we started and the roads were badly cut up and then being frozen it was like walking on sharp rocks...” Many of the Florida soldiers had no shoes as they marched in the freezing Virginia sleet.

In one of the early tests of the mettle of the Floridians, the Battle of Seven Pines, E. A. Perry’s Second Florida Infantry fought impressively, charging through artillery bombardment to finally rout the enemy. A Federal soldier later wrote about the battle: “Our shot tore their ranks wide open, and shattered them asunder in a manner that was frightful to witness; but they closed up again at once, and came on as steady as English veterans. When they got within 400 yards, we closed our case-shot and opened on them with canister; and such destruction I never elsewhere witnessed.”

The Floridians fought in almost all the major campaigns, as well as many little-known skirmishes.

At Fredericksburg, the Eighth Florida performed miserably. The regiment was divided into two groups, with Companies A, D, and F commanded by Captain William Baya. During the engagement, Baya was ordered to fire on the bluecoats. Because his troops had been placed in an unprotected open area, he refused. Captain Andrew Govan of the Seventh Mississippi, wrote: “[The Floridians] failed repeatedly to obey my commands when ordered to fire on the bridge-builders.” Because of such occasional lapses, the Florida troops gained a reputation as being unreliable.

On the other hand, at Gettysburg, they performed with great valor. They were part of Pickett’s charge and suffered appalling casualties.

After the war, the surviving Florida troops went home to desolation. Many had lost everything--others were able to re-start their lives and eventually prosper. Some became farmers, ranchers, business-owners, doctors, lawyers, and politicians, contributing to the re-building of the state. For more than a hundred years after the last shot was fired, the War Between the States shaped many of the beliefs and actions of Floridians.

A Small but Spartan Band does something remarkable: with thousands of books covering every aspect of the so-called Civil War, the authors plow NEW ground. No full study of the Florida troops has been done in 110 years--certainly none that meet academic standards. (Don’t let the word “academic” fool you--the writing is brisk and fast-paced, sometimes leaving the reader breathless from the descriptions of the action.)

For my brother Zack, this book was a labor of love, consuming 25 years of reading, researching, and writing about the war that changed American history. His articles on the subject have been published in many journals and periodicals.

If you have any interest at all in this subject, buy A Small but Spartan Band. It stands to be a classic in the literature.

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