When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Florida had been a part of the Confederacy for a year. As bloody as the war was for the nation, Southeast Florida escaped from battles and casualties.
That’s basically because after the Cooley incident in 1836, when the only white settlement along the New River was wiped out by Seminoles, settlers fled the area. Not until the days of Flagler and Frank Stranahan in the 1890s did non-Seminoles slowly return. During the Civil War era, there were no whites, no plantations, no slaves.
It was a different situation in North Florida, where at least half of the population was slaves. A major battle broke out near Lake City after Union troops landed in Jacksonville without meeting resistance and later marched on toward Tallahassee. They were met by Confederate forces, many irregulars from militias, at Olustee. After a fierce battle that involved thousands of troops on each side, and heavy casualties, the Union forces retreated back to the coast and stayed there for the duration of the war.
Despite that battle, Florida was not considered a major threat except for supplies that headed north. Thus the Union side set up a naval blockade that included Key West.
At first, Florida’s southeast coast was ignored. It was dismissed in Washington, D.C., as an area “that can hardly be said to be inhabited and is of no great consequence.”
Only after Confederate sympathizers had extinguished the lights in both the Jupiter and Cape Florida lighthouses was the blockade extended to include the southeast coast.
It was just off the Hillsboro Inlet that blockade runners aboard a sloop called Enterprise, which had left the Mosquito Coast just above Cape Canaveral, were captured by the USS Sagamore. Their cargo was cotton, and they were headed for the Bahamas. (The Sagamore had also attempted to seize the city of Tampa but was driven away by the guns of local Confederates called the Oseola Rangers.)
That was the sum total of South Florida “action” during the war.
But once the war was concluded, some history was made here. That involved the escape route of the Confederate Secretary of War, John C. Breckinridge. Before being the South’s war chief, he had been the 14th vice president of the United States, serving under James Buchanan.
At 36, he had been the youngest vice president ever. The Kentucky lawyer was even a candidate for president in 1860, running against Abraham Lincoln as a Southern Democrat. (He showed his popularity in Florida in that run: he received the vote of every registered voter between the Upper Keys and Cape Canaveral, a grand total of 24 votes.)
According to their own accounts as retold by historian Stuart McIver, Breckinridge and five companions made their way to Florida and headed overland south to the Indian River. There they secured a small lifeboat, then posed as fishermen and hunters to make it down to our neighborhood on the New River.
Here they encountered a sailboat with three armed men they thought to be deserters. At gunpoint, Breckinridge’s party backed them down and forced them to trade vessels. From there they made it down to the Miami River, obtaining provisions at gunpoint. And on June 10, 1865, the Breckinridge party had safely sailed to Cuba.
A final note of Fort Lauderdale Civil War lore: two of the most significant generals of the war, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, spent time in Fort Lauderdale. In the actual fort, that is. The war raging then was Maj. William Lauderdale’s battle against the Seminoles.
As for Breckinridge, he returned to his Kentucky home after three years in Cuba when President Andrew Johnson extended amnesty to former Confederates. Weakened by war injuries, Breckinridge resisted entreaties to get back into politics and spent his last seven years in peace.