Although Florida contained less than two percent of the Confederacy’s population, by 1864 evolving circumstances made the state sufficiently important to justify a Union invasion.
First, after the fall of Vicksburg the previous summer federal gunboat patrols on the Mississippi River often prevented Texas beef from reaching hungry Rebel armies on the left bank. Florida cattle became a prime substitute for Texas beeves. Second, the lightly defended state was a promising area to recruit emancipated slaves into the Union army. Third, an occupying federal army would give Lincoln justification to readmit the state into the Union on terms almost assuring him of Florida’s delegate and electoral votes in the 1864 presidential nominating convention and subsequent general election. A December 1863 Lincoln proclamation authorized former Confederate states to be readmitted into the Union once a mere ten percent of their 1860 voters signed a new allegiance oath. In response a small contingent of Union-loyal Floridians invited Lincoln’s private secretary, John Hay, to become the state’s Congressional representative should it gain readmission.
On February 7, 1864 a 6,500-man federal army under General Truman Seymour occupied Jacksonville after arriving in transport ships. Although two-thirds were white soldiers from the northeast about one-third were blacks including the Hollywood-famed 54th Massachusetts, as well as a regiment of former North Carolina slaves, and the 8th United States Colored Troop (USCT) regiment from Pennsylvania. To oppose them the Confederate commander in east Florida, General James Finegan, had only about 1,500 troops. Prompt movement would likely have enabled Seymour to secure a portion of the state comprising more than ten percent of its population, control much of the 165-mile railroad from Jacksonville to the state capital of Tallahassee, and cut-off cattle supplies to Rebel armies further north. Continue reading