Napoleon Bonaparte once prophetically stated, “An army marches on its stomach.” A simple yet very truthful statement and a point that brought major concern and consternation to many a military leader before and after the French leader uttered those six words.
Top of monument dedicated to the “Cow Cavalry” (author collection)
In 1863, the state of Florida would prove its worth to the Confederacy. The 11th out of 11 states in population, Florida sent its native sons to the war effort, drawing from a prewar military age population of 15,000 souls. What the state lacked in manpower, another living, breathing, moveable force certainly made up for it.
In the 1860 census, approximately 388,060 head of cattle grazed in the state in what some referred to as the “last great frontier east of the Mississippi River.” Although the cattle tended to be smaller in size, the harsh, humid climate had endured the beasts with the ability to ward off common diseases, especially ones borne from the dreaded tick. Usually weighing in at 600 pounds, half of that, or 300 pounds of beef could be cut for consumption.
Yet, until the fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi in July 1863, the Confederate government had seemingly forgotten about this valuable commodity in the deep, deep South. Out of desperation, the Confederate government turned toward Florida, splitting the state into five commissary districts and requesting 3,000 head of cattle per week. Under the overall control of Major Pleasant W. White, his first name ironic, the native of Quincy, Florida tried his best to stick to the 1,000 head of cattle moving north per week quota.
As desperation for foodstuffs mounted in the Confederacy, cattle were driven north as quick as possible, but never enough to meet the needs of soldiers serving the two principle armies; the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of Tennessee, along with garrisons at places like Charleston, South Carolina. Furthermore, pasture and fodder along the path north out of Florida also dwindled precipitously which greatly reduced the size of cattle as they reached the war front. In early 1864, all available pork and bacon was ordered by the Confederate government to be shipped north.
All this movement did not go unnoticed by the Federals. The reason for the climatic and largest land battle in Florida, at Olustee on February 20, 1864 was an effort to cut off this supply route. Along with quick strikes by Federal troops and cavalry stationed along the coasts, at places like Fort Myers, the movement that culminated at Olustee exacerbated the need to protect the cattle herds and the drivers that were moving the thinning herds north. Prey already to Confederate deserters, rising animosity toward the war effort, hesitancy on cattle owners to sell for Confederate promissory notes, also threatened to stem the tide. Something had to be done.
Historical Marker for the John T. Lesley Home, Tampa, FL (author collection)
To protect this vital supply line, companies of cavalry, eventually numbering nine in total were raised. Officially organized as the 1st Battalion Florida Special Cavalry, Company B was raised by Captain John T. Lesley, in the area of Ichepuckassaa, Florida, to the east of Tampa, in Hillsborough County. Lesley, had joined the Confederate war effort early, being in the first company from Tampa to leave for the front and rose to the rank of major while serving the cause in Tennessee. He returned to Florida in 1863 where he was entrusted to raise the aforementioned company.
Comprised mostly of men that were on either end of the spectrum of military age; either too young or two old to fight, they served the Confederate war effort by joining what would be referred to as the “Cow Cavalry.” Eventually, approximately 900 men enlisted in the 1st Battalion Florida Special Cavalry.
Grave of John T. Lesley. “He was a part of Tampa, and a big part, from the city’s infancy … His death marks the breaking of the final link that service the past and its traditions from the present and its hopes, and many tears have been shed because of the breaking of the bond.” Tampa Daily Times after his death on July 13, 1913
Their job was to assist in driving the herds north and also protecting the herds from the multitude of threats along the way. They were successful in delivering cattle to Confederate troops stationed in Charleston and Savannah, Georgia. Their efforts helped stave off defeat, given that when efforts were ramped up in spring 1863 in South Florida, the commissary in Atlanta was reporting at the same juncture the abysmally low-number of 4,000 cattle available for consumption in his possession!
A mundane task, but for one central Florida town, a task worthy of a small granite monument, and a legacy of providing the most essential weapon for a soldier; food.
“Cow Cavalry” Monument Plant City, FL (author collection)
Florida’s Civil War, Terrible Sacrifices by Tracy J. Revels
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