Portrait of confederate soldier who helped to protect Florida's cattle herds. Courtesy of Florida Photographic Collection, State Library and Archives of Florida.
"While most of the larger engagements of Florida's Civil War took place in the northern half of the state, south Florida became the scene of widespread, if not large-scale, military activity during the conflict's last year and a half. Much of this action surrounded Florida's valuable cattle trade and the determination of each side to control the industry to its own benefit. Though occurring on a small scale, the events carried significant implications and repercussions."
On January 11, 1861, Florida signed a formal Ordinance of Secession and withdrew from the Union.
When the Civil War began, south Florida was the most remote area in the eastern United States, with approximately 7100 inhabitants. Settlers engaged in subsistence farming. Cattle ranching was becoming an increasingly profitable industry.
At the outset of the Civil War, Florida was a confederate state, but the Union had considerable force in Key West, a strategic location at the end of the Florida Keys. The Union navy's East Gulf Blockading Squadron operated out of Key West. Fortifications at Fort Taylor, Key West and Fort Jefferson, in the Dry Tortugas, remained in Union hands throughout the war.
The Confederate states became increasingly reliant on Florida cattle and salt to feed their troops. This reliance intensified after the Battle of Vicksburg when the South lost its trans-Mississippi supply route. The Caloosahatchee region of southwest Florida supplied 25,000 herd of cattle to the southern army during the war.
In late 1883, Union Brigadier General Woodbury from Key West took up a position in Fort Myers, on the south Florida mainland, to raid the Confederate's cattle herds. The Union presence attracted Unionists in Florida, who formed a company-sized unit called the "Florida Rangers". This force, which expanded in 1864 to become the Second Florida Cavalry, mounted raids against Confederate positions along the Florida Gulf Coast and against the Confederate cattle operations. In response, the Confederates organized local citizens, herdsmen and cowmen into the 1st Battalion Florida Special Cavalry. The force was better known as the 'Cow Cavalry'.
The first recorded combat of the south Florida 'Cattle Wars' occurred in January at Fort Thompson, an old Seminole War outpost on the Caloosahatchee River. A Union scouting party from Fort Myers tangled with a band of Confederates. Other skirmishes ensued in the region, escalating with the arrival of additional troops from both sides. But strained relations between white Unionist refugees and black soldiers from the newly-arrived Union forces weakened the north's effectiveness. The Confederate's position improved as a result.
The southernmost skirmish of the Civil War took place in February, when the Cow Cavalry attacked Union-operated Fort Myers. The southern forces were repelled, with light causalities, but Union authorities decided to abandon the Fort soon thereafter.
The Cow Cavalry surrendered on June 5, 1865 in Bay Port, Florida, formally ending the Civil War in South Florida.
Timeline prepared by Gail Clement, University Librarian, Florida International University