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Of the eleven states that would create the Confederate States of America, Florida was the third state to secede from the Union, and the least populated. Instead of man-power, Florida’s contribution to the war effort centered on supplying the Confederate army with salt, cattle, citrus, and corn whiskey. However with the Union forces attempting to blockade nearly 3500 miles of the Southern coastline, 1400 miles of which were Florida’s shores, getting those supplies to the Confederate army was difficult, to say the least.
The blockade infringed on varying international treaties and could have cost the United States government dearly if they had lost the war. Regardless, its success is evident. By stopping trade, the Federals were able to stop much of the assistance that the South may have received from foreign countries in addition to the supplies produced by other states in the South. Over the course of the Civil War, the blockade slowly suffocated the Confederacy and, in combination with strategic victories in battle, decided the outcome of the war. The success of the blockade was also instrumental in developing the lucrative and risky business of blockade running to ensure that at least some supplies made it past the Union forces that blocked the ports and patrolled the coast.
Because the Big Bend section of the state was more populated and had more developed infrastructure, blockade runners on the west coast of Florida typically employed bigger ships. These allowed blockade runners to carry greater quantities of lead, iron, ammunition, and weapons to Tallahassee, where they were transferred to the Confederate army. This structure allowed for greater access to luxuries, such as coffee and textiles, which brought in a bigger return on investment than war materials. Although the Confederate government would have rather that blockade runners transport only war materials, it did recognize the need for blockade runners to make a profit.
Despite its sparse population during the period, Manatee County had its own resident blockade runner: Capt. Archibald McNeill. McNeill, who moved his family into Gamble Plantation in spring of 1862, was the mail carrier for the area, transporting mail and passengers between Tampa and the Manatee River using his sloop, Mary Nevis. Although McNeill and his family never owned the plantation, they did remain there as caretakers throughout the Civil War and into the Reconstruction period. The connection to the river was good for his business ventures, but brought about much unwanted attention from Federal troops. One such visit occurred while McNeill was away. Union troops conducting a raid on the plantation were successful in confiscating twelve barrels of sugar meant for the Confederate army.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State for the Confederacy, traveled to Florida in an attempt to escape to England. Like many other members of the Confederate cabinet, Benjamin had a large bounty offered for his capture. Benjamin travelled to Gamble Plantation and elicited the help of McNeill in the first part of his journey; the voyage to Nassau. During his stay, there was at least one incident in which McNeill and Benjamin were forced to hide in the woods of the property to evade capture. McNeill recommended two men who, with the help of several families in the area, were able to successfully deliver Benjamin to Nassau, thus ensuring Benjamin’s survival.
Further reading: Florida in the Civil War by Lewis Wynne and Robert Taylor, Edge of Wilderness by Janet Snyder Matthews, and Ellenton: Its Early Years by Jim Wiggins.
Krystin Van Leuven, the author of this article and curator at the Florida Maritime Museum, grew up in Manatee County and treasures the unique history of the area.