Issue #89: January 10th, 1861 - Florida Secedes from the Union
A Look at Florida's path toward secession
On this day (January 10th) in 1861, Florida became the Third State to secede from the union. In light of this, I wanted to repost an article I wrote in 2018 where I detailed Florida’s pathway toward secession and the Civil War. I will offer a short summary below, but I highly recommend reading the full article for far more details.
THE FULL SECESSION ARTICLE
Florida seceded much earlier in the process than many people think; only coming after South Carolina and Mississippi. South Carolina had rushed out of the union in December. Mississippi, meanwhile, held elections for district delegates to a convention and was then out of the Union just before Florida.
Lets summarize how that happened.
Summary of Florida Secession
In the mid-1850s, Florida was firmly pro-slavery and largely run by Democrats. In the elections since 1845 statehood, both Democrats and Whigs had held the Governor’s post and legislative control. However, as the Whigs fractured in 1854, the broad “opposition” coalition that emerged (before Republicans firmly formed) could not best Democratic candidates. In the 1856 election, a coalition of Whigs and “Know Nothings” nominated David Walker; who faced off against Democrat Madison Perry. This race was close, with debate about growing sectionalism and a possible secession movement was already underway. In that year’s Presidential contest, southern Democrats warned of secession if Republican John C Freedmont won the Presidency. Perry was part of the fire-eater wing of southern politics - a group of fierce pro-slavery politicians who advocated secession if needed. Walker tried to caution a more careful approach - which did win over even pro-slavery voters who worried about war. In the end though, Perry would win.
This win is so critical because it ensured that the Governor in 1860 would be a fire-eater Democrat. The 1860 Gubernatorial race would be for a term that wouldn’t start until the fall of 1861.
Perry spent his term working to prepare his state for what he saw as eventually secession. In 1858, Republicans took control of the house. In 1859, Florida passed a resolution pledging support to the southern states that might secede. The resolution, clearly and in plain English, laid the source of the conflict at slavery.
The resolution used language common in the South, which was prevalent in the Florida newspapers. Specifically, Republican was not used. It was “Black Republican.” The new Republican Party, as far as the south was concerned, was the party of abolition and black rule over whites. GOP candidates had no support in the deep south. No one ran, and ballot access was banned in many areas.
In 1860, Florida held its next Gubernatorial election. In that contest, Democrat John Milton, a fellow secessionist, won the office over ‘Constitutional Union’ candidate Edward Hopkins.
In the Presidential contest, Southern Democrat John Breckinridge, who stated on the campaign trail that states had a right to secede, won Florida’s popular vote. Abraham Lincoln was not even on the Florida ballot.
The elections of 1860 guaranteed Florida would secede from the union. The legislature and still-Governor Perry moved quick. On November 30th, a law was passed that set December 22nd as the date for delegate elections to a secession convention. Candidates had just a few weeks to campaign.
The exact results of these elections appear to be lost to time, or are buried in an archive somewhere. What historians do agree on is that unlike that Mississippi map, which showed most counties had contested contests for delegates, the Florida contests were fairly quiet. Newspaper archives show many members being elected unopposed. There was also little pro-union sentiment. The big divide in delegate allegiances was whether they were….
Strict Secessionist: People who favored immediately seceding from the union
Cooperationists: People who favored slowly advancing on secession; ideally by waiting on more states.
The cooperationist group worried about the south not presenting a united front. Many of these members were plantation owners or businessmen who rightly understood that a long war would kill the economy and also may not be winnable in the long term.
Also of important note: around 75% of the delegates were slave owners. This convention was decided by slave owners deciding which course of action best protected their interests (with some worried about war and others clamoring for it).
The best way we can get a sense of which camp delegates fell into was based on their votes at the convention itself. The convention opened on January 3rd, and its election of a pro-secession Chair (unopposed as best I see) indicated this would eventually lead to leaving the union. All these votes are made available via the minutes of the Florida Secession Convention - which yes I read the entirety of.
Cooperationists pushed a series of votes to aim and delay secession. Most tried to tie secession to Georgia and Alabama also leaving, or forcing a referendum of the people. I cover all these votes in my main article, but some notable ones are below.
There are six key votes that can be used to divide into strict secessionist vs cooperationist. I coded the respective delegates based on these votes - as seen below.
Map Note: The Holmes delegate during the first vote (cooperation side) was removed when the election showed his opponent had won. The replacement voted secessionist across the board.. so I labeled that seat “solid secessionist.” So I can at least verify Holmes had a contested contest.
Some of these votes were issue the cooperationists genuinely believed needed to be done, while others were delay tactics. While there were likely some closet Union men in this group, for the most part the cooperationists were just worried about a total war devastating there businesses and fields. Some of the strict secessionists also would have supported popular votes in other instances; but many wanted rapid secession from many states as a show of strength.
After all delays failed, a final vote on a secession resolution was put forward. It was then approved by a 62-7 margin. Many of the cooperationists backed the vote, while a few held out.
With this vote, Florida would leave the union, becoming the 3rd state to do so. Florida would hold the distinction of being the only confederate state who’s capital was never invaded. Troops would not enter Tallahassee until after the war was over.
So what happened to the fire-eater secessionist Governor’s that Florida had in the 1850s and 1860s?
Madison Perry would serve in the confederate army for some time, but died of illness in 1865 - months before the war’s end.
John Milton left Tallahassee as the war came to an end - writing to the legislature “death is preferable to reunion.” He would return to his home in Jackson County and commit suicide by gunshot.
Milton’s dramatic end makes him, as best I see, the only sitting Governor to die by suicide. If you go to his Wikipedia page, you will see there is a family claim he died by an accidental discharge when he was cleaning a gun. Now I’ll tell you the issues I have with that claim.
1) The book source sited by Wikipedia (which I brought to verify) does not include a direct claim by the family - but rather a “we don’t know” notion. The book even sites claims of Milton seeming to be mentally unwell by the war’s end.
2) Considering Milton’s words to the legislature, it sure sounds like a suicide note. Many first hand reports also point to Milton becoming incredibly stressed and depressed as the war turned bad for the south.
3) Are we saying that someone in the 1850s in Florida didn’t know how to safely clean a firearm? This is the kind of mistake a first time gun owner makes. Not someone who was the son of a War of 1812 veteran and was heavily involved in the Civil War effort.
Feel to leave a comment to let me know how you think John Milton died!
AND READ THE FULL ARTICLE
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