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Sunday Favorites: African Americans in the Civil War

Contrabands boarded dinghies and braved rough seas in hope of being rescued by the Union blockade.

General Development Corporation and the Mackle Brothers get all the credit for developing Port Charlotte. Like the eight other communities they would eventually build around the state in the 1950's and 60's, they threw-up cookie-cutter homes and sold them to northerners for pennies on the dollar at an alarming rate.


Today, examples of their efforts are considered the "old homes" in places like North Port, Port St. John, and of course, Port Charlotte, where pastel colored two bedroom structures with slat windows look quaint, if not antiquated, compared to the houses of today.


But the the true pioneers of Port Charlotte had a much different story, one that is not lost to time, but instead relatively unknown. The Civil War raged on, but the battles in Florida were very different than those general engagement battles fought elsewhere where thousands of troops charged into certain death. In Florida, small outfits hid in trees using guerrilla warfare and the element of surprise upon their enemy.


For the most part, Florida was allied with the Confederacy, not because of the belief that the South should secede, but because the Confederacy was a cattle rancher’s best customer. Historian Rodney E. Dillion Jr. estimates that by late 1863, 2,000 head of cattle were shipped to the rebels every week. 


While the Union blockade along the West Coast halted many supplies from reaching the Confederates, the interior of Florida went untamed. It was at the suggestion of Capt. James McKay, one of Florida’s most famous blockade-runners, that the Confederacy formed cow calvaries to drive the herd north on the inland and protect the livestock from Union raids. The cavalry was made up of rough and tough ranchers who knew the land like the back of their hands, while the terrain was exotic and strange to those Yankee soldiers shipped in from the North. 


Union supporters were given shelter on several islands off the coast, including Egmont Key in Tampa Bay and Useppa Island in Charlotte Harbor. Refugees would not only raid boats but sometimes go into a suspected blockade runner’s home and carry him back to the vessel to take an allegiance to the Union. If he took the oath and was returned, he was immediately hung as a spy, according to the book “Charlotte Harbor: Early Years” by Lindsey Williams and U.S. Cleveland. 


The main headquarters for the Union Army of Southwest Florida was in Fort Myers. It was an outfit manned by approximately 400 black soldiers with white officers. 


One of the officers was Nathan DeCoster, originally from Maine. He had been sent to Key West to recuperate from a battle wound. While in Key West he met a Union nurse, Emily Phillips, who was a refugee from the Peace River area. They fell in love, and DeCoster married Phillips after he returned to the area after the war, and employed many of the black soldiers that served under him in the military. 


The colored troops of Fort Myers would make raids as high up as Fort Meade according to Williams and Cleveland. However, the raids usually ended in surrender and there were very few casualties, unlike the general engagement battles going on other states. 


A black Union Soldier is pictured in uniform.

A standoff skirmish that occurred with a local cattle guard on Feb 21, 1865, required DeCoster and his troops to travel up the Peace River and take oaths of allegiance from former rebels. The tour of Charlotte Harbor impressed DeCoster and when the war ended two months later. DeCoster guaranteed his lovely nurse that he’d return to the area.


After marrying Phillips, DeCoster homesteaded just east of Hickory Bluff, present day Charlotte Harbor. He set up a steam-powered sawmill on a bayou north of Melbourne Street. 


DeCoster’s workforce consisted of five black workers that served under him at Fort Myers: Joseph Chapman, 40, Richard Hamilton, 30, Mitchell Harrison, 20, July Roberts, age unknown and John Lomans, 25 the latter of which was a native of Washington D.C. Two other black men, Frank Griffin and Julius Caesar, settled along Charlotte Harbor about this time.


Unfortunately DeCoster and his men entered into an era of political strife and animosity stemming from the war. When Democratic President Grover Cleveland took office, the Reconstruction Period following the War Between the States had theoretically ended. However, as Janet Snyder Matthews articulates in her book "The Edge of Wilderness," Manatee County was still divided.


Snyder said the lifestyles of poverty-stricken “Crackers” living in Manatee County contrasted greatly with newly arriving families whose members were educated farmers and capitalists from the north. Many of them had served as officers in the Union Army. Those people resented the fact that black men were taking jobs that could be held by whites.


John Lomans, a black carpetbagger who had served in a colored troop under DeCoster at Fort Myers, was the only African-American in the county who could read and write. Circuit Court Judge James Magbee appointed him “Servant of the Court”. The judge allegedly used all of DeCoster’s hired hands to integrate juries at Pine Level, which was then the seat of Manatee County (Charlotte Harbor was also part of Manatee County at this time).


But not everyone was so accepting of former black soldiers. On July 25, 1869. Lomans, then a voter registrar, was traveling through Fort Ogden when brothers Gus, Alonzo and John Johnson attacked him.


Lomans recounted the incident in a sworn affidavit; he said he was beaten by the brothers with a cow whip and shot at with a revolver. The attack was accompanied by threats from Gus who said if Loman’s took another step, he would “shoot my damned heart out.”


This was the beginning of a period of revenge by vigilantes who targeted “black carpetbaggers” who had settled in the area. About a month later, another group accosted Lomans and “put a rope around his neck” and bullied him before he was finally let go. 


Other African Americans were not so fortunate. A few months after the incident with Lomans, Griffin was pursued and beaten by former members of the cow cavalry. A month later, James Cooker, Jim Parnell and William Louis were shot-gunned to death near the Village of Manatee. At Bartow, Nathaniel Redd was lynched.


These atrocities led most black men to leave Manatee County. Among them, DeCoster who had been harassed since coming to Harborview and Frank Griffin who had survived a near death attack and witnessed another.


Of the African Americans that came with DeCoster, only Lomans and July Roberts stayed. 


In the 1880 census Lomans was listed as a farmer age 40, with a wife Ester, 28, and four children; Mary Francis George and Cinderella. They had 11 other children who died young. Some texts indicated that many of the Lomans family may have been buried in the Charlotte Harbor “colored cemetery,” much of which was filled in to accommodate a restaurant parking lot somewhere on Tamiami Trail. 


John Lomans died in 1899 at age 59. His daughter Mary married George Roberts, the son of July Roberts. Both veterans were among the first settlers in Charlotte Harbor, yet are vaguely mentioned in history books. Lomans went on to become a magistrate for Manatee County and July a well-respected member of the community.  



Part I of "African Americans in the Civil War" can be read here.

Part 2 of "African Americans in the Civil War" can be read here.


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