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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Major Chase Versus
Lieutenant Slemmer

A Profile of William Chase
From 1829 until his death in 1870, Maj. William Chase of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put his energies into developing the town of Pensacola and planning for its defense. He boosted Pensacolaís economy by creating industries such as brick kilns and dredging plants as the offshoots of military contracts. He supported the use of a Pensacola bank as a depository of federal building funds and also helped to create a new bank, of which he became a major stockholder. By the 1830s he was a landowner, a leading real estate promoter, and president of the board of directors of the Alabama, Florida & Georgia Railroad Company. As part of his military command, Chase also helped to plan and build U.S. defenses on the Gulf of Mexico, including the four Pensacola forts.

Business affairs briefly took Chase away from Pensacola in 1854, but in 1861 when the Southern states had decided to secede from the Union and civil war seemed imminent, he returned to Pensacola as commander of the Florida contingent of Southern troops. By using surprise, deception, and overwhelming superiority in force, Southern troops bloodlessly occupied the Pensacola navy yard and found Fort Barrancas, Fort McRee, and the Advanced Redoubt already abandoned by Lt. Adam Slemmer. Chase also hoped to take control of Fort Pickens because it controlled access to the harbor of Pensacola. The Union soldiers at Fort Pickens knew this as well as Chase did, however, and they refused to turn the key fort over to the Southerners. They knew that even though the Southerners might control the other forts, they could not use the bay as long as the Union held Fort Pickens. On January 15, 1861, Chase went to Fort Pickens in person to try to persuade Slemmer to surrender. When he was unsuccessful, Chase reported to Confederate President Jefferson Davis that in order to take Fort Pickens troops would have to scale the walls. That action would guarantee a loss of life and would bring on civil war. Chase left things as they were for the time being.

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.

Fort Pickens, January 15, 1861
Chase: I have come on business which may occupy some time, and, if you have no objection, we had better go inside to your quarters.
Slemmer: I have objection, and it could hardly be expected that I would take you into the fort.
Chase: As I built the fort and know all its weak and strong points, I would learn nothing new by going in, and had no such object in proposing it.
Slemmer: I understand that perfectly, but it would be improper for me to take you in; and, however well you have known the fort before, you do not know what it now contains, nor what I have done inside.
Chase: That is true and I will state my business here. It is a most distressing duty to me. I have come to ask of you young officers, officers of the same army in which I have spent the best and happiest years of my life, the surrender of this fort. I would not ask it if I did not believe it right and necessary to save bloodshed; and fearing that I might not be able to say it as I ought, and in order, also, that you may have it in proper form, I have put it in writing and will read it. [Chase then takes the manuscript from his pocket and begins to read, but, after reading two or three lines, his voice shakes, and his eyes fill with tears. He stamps his foot and says] I canít read it. Here Farrand, you read it. [He hands the paper to Commander Ebenezer Farrand.]
Farrand [takes the paper and remarks]: I do not have my glasses. [He then passes the paper to Lieutenant Jeremiah H. Gilman.]
Gilman [who had chosen to stand by the Union, reading for Chase]: I have full powers from the governor of Florida to take possession of the forts and navy yard in his harbor. I desire to perform this duty without the effusion of blood. You can contribute toward this desirable result, and in my judgment, without sacrifice of the honor of yourself or your gallant officers and men. Now, as commissioner on the part of the governor of the State of Florida, I request the surrender of Fort Pickens and the public property it contains into my hands, to be held subject to any agreement that may be entered into between the commissioners of the State of Florida and the federal government at Washington.... If the Union now broken should be reconstructed Fort Pickens and all the public property passes peacefully under federal authority. If a Southern Confederacy separates itself from the Union would it not be worse than folly to attempt the maintenance of Fort Pickens or any other fortified place within its limits?
Slemmer: Colonel, how many men have you?
Chase: Tonight I shall have between eight and nine hundred. Slemmer: Do you imagine you could take this fort with that number?
Chase: I certainly do. I could carry it by storm. I know every inch of this fort and its condition.
Slemmer: With your knowledge of the fort and of your troops, what proportion of them, do you imagine, would be killed in such an attack?
Chase [shrugging his shoulders]: If you have made the best possible preparation, as I suppose you have, and should defend it, as I presume you would, I might lose one-half my men.
Slemmer: At least, and I donít believe you are prepared to sacrifice that many men for such a purpose.
Chase: You must know very well that, with your small force, you are not expected to, and cannot, hold this fort. Florida cannot permit it, and the troops here are determined to have it; and if not surrendered peacefully, an attack and the inauguration of civil war cannot be prevented. If it is a question of numbers, and 800 is not enough, I can easily bring thousands more.
Slemmer: I will give this letter due consideration...I will give you my answer tomorrow morning.
[Pause, Confederates exit stage. Then Farrand returns--this time with his glasses on--stating he has received a letter (from Slemmer) addressed to Chase, which he reads:]
Farrand: Under the orders we now have from the War Department, we have decided...that it is our duty to hold our position until such a force is brought against us as to render it impossible to defend it, or until the political condition of the country is such as to induce us to surrender the public property in our keeping to such authorities as may be delegated legally to receive it.
We deprecate as much as you or any individual can the present condition of affairs, or the shedding of the blood of our brethren. In regard to this matter, however, we must consider you the aggressors and if blood is shed that you are responsible therefore.

From Jeremiah H. Gilman, "With Slemmer in Pensacola Harbor," in Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1, 1887, 30-31.

Questions for Reading 2

1. If you were Major Chase, would you have attacked the Union soldiers at Fort Pickens? Why would Chase have felt concern over the fate of Fort Pickens?

2. Why would Lieutenant Slemmer have felt obligated to protect the fort? List reasons why he should not have surrendered Fort Pickens.

3. Do you think that under different circumstances the men involved in this incident might have been friends?

4. When do you think loyalty to country supersedes personal loyalties?

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