A Painting by Christopher M. Still
Oil on Linen 48 x 126 in
The last glow of the setting sun falls on a cattle drive through Florida pines. The trail leads to a marshy bank, and in the distance is the silhouette of a train, pulled slowly by a regiment of soldiers. A Civil War drum in the foreground is a reminder of the call to war and the bullet holes in its shell of the cost. This is the 1860s.
Conflicts with native tribes had been subdued, and the pathway for pioneers was clear. Land grants and recent statehood attracted families searching for a new start. Most were poor, and eked out a living by subsistence farming and cow hunting.
Pasture land was scarce and expensive, so cattle were allowed to freely roam and graze, later to be captured. Cow hunters seasonally searched out their cattle, branded them, and sorted out the calves. The hardy breed of cow introduced by the Spanish formed the foundation for the cattle industry that eventually became a major economic force in Florida.
Florida was a very recent member of the American Union, and seemed on its way to becoming another southern cotton state. As the country struggled to abolish slavery, the state’s influential planters, who relied on slave labor, resisted. In 1861, following the lead of Mississippi and South Carolina, Florida seceded from the Union joining the Confederate States of America when it was formed shortly afterward.
The state prepared for a short war, expecting little Northern challenge. The least populous Confederate state, Florida provided 15,000 men to the southern war effort, most fighting far from home, leaving women, children, and the elderly to carry on in the pioneer environment. Florida also contributed critical supplies including salt, beef, pork, and cotton. Battles within the state were mainly small raids on salt operations or cotton supply boats en route to Cuba, led by the Union troops who occupied many coastal towns and forts.
Florida’s largest battle the Battle of Olustee took place in an area near Ocean Pond in 1864. Union soldiers attempted to cut off the cattle route near Lake City. They were defeated, and in retreat toward Jacksonville, they placed wounded men on flatbed railroad cars. When the train broke down, the 54th Massachusetts regiment came to its aid, pulling the engine and four cars for five miles. Some of these soldiers were escaped Florida slaves, and all were lauded for this heroic deed.
The war had taken a heavy toll by 1865, and Floridians longed for peace. Yet in March, a final Union incursion that threatened Tallahassee was thwarted by Confederate troops and local militia, including a company of cadets from West Florida Seminary (a predecessor of Florida State University) in a battle at Natural Bridge. Tallahassee was the only southern capital east of the Mississippi uncaptured at the war’s end a month later.