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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Civil War in the Pensacola Area

When Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, fear swept through the South. Although Lincoln had never called for abolishing slavery altogether, stating only that it should not spread to the territories, few Southerners believed him. They were certain Lincoln did plan to free the slaves, and Southern radicals called for the South to secede from the Union. South Carolina announced its secession in December 1860, even before Lincoln took office. Within six weeks Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas voted to leave the Union. These states justified their secession on the basis of states’ rights. That doctrine held that if the states had voluntarily joined the Union, they also could leave it whenever they chose.

Pensacola Bay with its safe harbor and adjoining navy yard complete with docking, supply, and shipbuilding facilities would be a valuable prize for either side if war broke out between the Union and the emerging Confederate States of America. The four brick forts which had been built with slave labor to protect the bay’s entrance from possible foreign attack would be part of the prize: Fort Pickens on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, Fort McRee to the west across the ship channel, and Fort Barrancas and its Advanced Redoubt on the mainland.

Stationed at Fort Barrancas, U.S. Army Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer realized that if war proved inevitable and Southern forces attacked, his small force of 51 men could not possibly defend all four forts. On January 10, 1861, the same day Florida seceded from the Union, he concentrated all his troops in Fort Pickens, which he believed was the key to the defense of Pensacola’s harbor. Two days later, Slemmer’s men watched as Southern soldiers moved into the other forts across the channel, removing the U.S. flags. Then, on January 15, soldiers from Florida and Alabama demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens. Lieutenant Slemmer refused. On January 28, 1861, a truce was reached that stated that the South would not attack and Fort Pickens would not be reinforced.

By the time Lincoln took office in March, both Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, and Fort Pickens, needed supplies. In his inaugural address Lincoln had pledged to continue to occupy federal property in the seceded states. If he withdrew the garrisons at those forts it would mean he officially recognized the Confederacy and its right to occupy those posts; if, on the other hand, he supplied the forts, he risked war.

The Union did send ships filled with supplies and reinforcements from Fort Monroe, Virginia, to Fort Pickens, but under terms of the truce they dared not land. For 10 weeks, the Union’s ships with blue coated soldiers aboard lay at anchor near Fort Pickens, while inside the fort, fearful of a surprise assault on the island, Lieutenant Slemmer kept his command on full alert. The Confederates had in fact planned such a surprise attack, but bad weather delayed them until the 12th of April. Then, before they could get under way, they learned that South Carolina forces had opened fire on Fort Sumter. The civil war so many had feared for so long became a reality.

Soon more Union ships with supplies and troops arrived off Fort Pickens. By the summer of 1861, the fort was still firmly under Union control, and the Union navy blockaded Pensacola’s harbor. Colonel Harvey Brown, now in command of Fort Pickens, and his thousand or more soldiers strengthened the island’s defenses by building gun emplacements, mounting guns, drilling, and moving supplies from ships to the fort.

The Confederate forces under the command of Gen. Braxton Bragg, now several thousand strong, kept equally busy. Though they were fresh troops, they made up for their lack of training by their great enthusiasm. The Confederate lines stretched for four miles, from Fort McRee on the west, eastward to Fort Barrancas and the navy yard. It was at the navy yard that the first fighting took place between the two armies. On September 13, 1861, a force of 100 Union sailors and marines crossed the bay and set fire to the Confederate ship, Judah.

Before dawn, on October 9, more than 1,000 Confederates landed four miles east of Fort Pickens and advanced against the Union lines. Darkness provided surprise but some soldiers lost their way among the sand dunes and scrub vegetation. One Union camp was taken and burned, but the approaching dawn and fear of Union gunboat attacks on their transport boats led the Confederates to withdraw eastward toward their landing place. In the meantime, Union troops from Fort Pickens counterattacked and the battle became a running skirmish down the island. Finally, the Confederates reached their boats and rapidly crossed the bay to safety. Known as the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, this confrontation was one of the first significant land battles of the Civil War fought in Florida.

Colonel Brown termed the attack a "gross insult to the flag" and was determined to punish the Confederates through a massive display of Union firepower from both Fort Pickens and ships in the gulf. At 10 a.m. Saturday morning, November 22, 1861, an all-day bombardment began. The Confederates did not wait long to respond. The next day both sides continued their bombardments. During those two days, 5,000 Union and 1,000 Confederate projectiles were fired from the big guns. The noise staggered the imagination. So enormous were the reverberations from the firepower that thousands of dead fish floated to the surface of Pensacola Bay, and windows shattered seven miles away in the town of Pensacola. When the bombardment ended late on November 23, little had been gained or lost by either side. At Fort Pickens, one man had been killed by enemy fire and two guns had been disabled (one had burst from too much use). The Confederates did not suffer many casualties or loss of equipment either, despite the fierce bombardment. Fort McRee was heavily damaged, however.

The Union army obtained control of Pensacola’s harbor in May 1862--not as a consequence of the battle, but through the Confederates’ decision to abandon the harbor and remove more than 10,000 of their soldiers from the region beginning in February. The Union forces took control of the deserted navy yard and the nearby forts, and they held Pensacola for the remainder of the Civil War. All the forts defending Pensacola’s harbor once again flew the U.S. flag, and their defenders saw limited fighting during the rest of the Civil War. Instead, the forts acted as an important base of operations for raids into Florida and Alabama and as a prison for military and political prisoners.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why was Pensacola Bay considered an important prize in the Civil War?

2. Why did the Union forces believe it was vital to hold control of Fort Pickens?

3. How did the role of Fort Pickens during the war differ from its original purpose?

4. How were events in the Pensacola area just before the outbreak of the Civil War similar to those at Fort Sumter? How were they different? (Use a U.S. history textbook for background information on Ft. Sumter.)

5. How did the Union army finally gain full control of Pensacola Harbor?

Reading 1 is compiled from Edwin C. Bearss, "Historic Structure Report, Fort Pickens, Historical Data Section, 1821-1895, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Florida-Mississippi," U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1983; Randy F. Nimnicht, "Fort Pickens" (Escambia County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1971; and Anne Castellena-Dudley, "Fort Barrancas Historic District" (Escambia County, Florida) National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1978.

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