The Museum of Southern History
Preserving the History, Ideals and Chivalry of the South.
4304 Herschel St., Jacksonville, Florida 32210
The Battle of Pensacola (Santa Rosa Island (Ft. Pickens)
Pensacola’s history is tied closely tied to Pensacola Bay. Recognized as one of the best harbors on the Gulf coast, many battles have been fought over who would control the bay. The last fight was in October 1861 and it was the beginning of the War Between the States. The government had built four major fortifications beginning in 1829. Ft. Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, Ft McRee (named after Major William McRee, one of the Army's first engineers) on the opposite side of the harbor entrance, Ft. Barrancas on the mainland (currently located on the Naval Air Station in Pensacola) near the Navy Yard, and behind Barrancas, the Advanced Redoubt, which was completed in 1859.
Seacoast forts were generally so dominant that simply their presence was enough to discourage any conflict. It was generally unnecessary to station troops in the forts because of their dominance and therefore, most of the forts in the south were taken over by Confederate forces without the need to fight. The situation in Pensacola, however, was somewhat different as there were U. S. Army troops currently in Pensacola with orders to defend the forts. The Federal troops were moved from Ft. Barrancas to Ft. Pickens on 10 January 1861. Confederate volunteers had been assembling in Pensacola and two days after Florida seceded on 12 January, they seized the Navy Yard and the facilities on the mainland. They demanded the surrender of Ft. Pickens but the Federal commander Lt. Slemmer refused, saying he would not surrender the fort as long as he could defend it.
An agreement of truce had been reached in Washington between William H. Seward and Pensacola native Stephen Mallory, a Senator from Florida, who would later become the Confederate Secretary of the Navy. Instructions were sent to the Confederates not to attack Ft. Pickens saying it was “not worth one drop of blood.” Federal reinforcements were sent from New York to Ft. Pickens early in February of 1861. Since landing the troops would break the truce the Federal forces remained offshore for ten weeks.
There were cannons at the fort entrance which were loaded and manned but for the next several weeks the agreed upon truce prevailed. As long as the federal government did not reinforce Ft. Pickens, the Confederates agreed not to attack the fort. Ships from Mobile and New Orleans continued to bring more Confederate forces to Pensacola.
Confederate General Braxton Bragg had been sent to Pensacola to take command. When President Lincoln learned that Ft. Pickens had not been reinforced, he sent Lt. John Warden, who later commanded the U.S.S. Monitor when it met the C. S. Merrimack, as his personal messenger. Warden traveled by train from Washington to Pensacola and because of the truce in place was allowed to pass in order to deliver the message from President Lincoln to send in reinforcements thus violating the agreement and starting the war. The first reinforcements landed 13 April at 2:00 a.m. This was done at almost the same time as the truce was violated by Federal forces at Ft. Sumter, South Carolina.
Even more reinforcements landed a few days later and command of Ft. Pickens was given to Colonel Harvey Brown. It was Brown who informed the troops at Ft. Pickens that Ft. Sumter had surrendered after a gallant defense and that the war had begun. Ft. Pickens was now a lonely outpost deep in enemy territory, yet there would be no fighting at Pensacola for many months as Bragg trained his recruits and Brown built gun batteries around Ft. Pickens.
In September, Brown tried to provoke Bragg into a fight. The first attempt was the burning of an expensive floating dry dock in the harbor. But Bragg was unmoved as he had been advised that he was not to attempt to attack the fort.
The Confederates began mounting cannons on a ship at the Navy Yard, in full view of Federal forces. On the night of 13 September about 100 Federal sailors and marines quietly rowed boats into the harbor, surprised the guards at the Navy Yard and burned the Confederate ships.
Three Federals and at least one Confederate were killed that night. About three weeks later, a force of over 1,000 Confederates attacked Union camps outside Ft. Pickens. The battle of Santa Rosa Island was fought in the darkness before dawn on 9 October. The camp of the 6th New York Regiment was destroyed before Confederates were forced back to their boats.
Each side lost about 60 men in the fight. Now it was the Federals turn to respond. On 22 November at 10:00 a.m. a signal flag went up at Ft. Pickens to alert the Navy and cannons roared forth from the fort. Two ships began firing at Ft. McRee, and guns from the island rained shot and shell all along the Confederate line to the Navy Yard.
The bombardment continued all day and resumed on the 23. Again, firing all day until the mortars fell silent around midnight. Colonel Brown reported that about 5,000 shot and shell were fired by his guns and the Navy, and about 1,000 were fired from the Confederates. Houses were burned around the Navy Yard and Ft. McRee was in ruins, while Pickens and Barrancas suffered less damage.
Casualties on both sides were light with one man killed and seven wounded on the U.S.S. Niagara. Ft. Pickens had one killed and six wounded when a cannon burst from overheating.
Confederate losses were seven dead and 21 wounded. Windows were shattered in Pensacola and thousands of dead fish were floating on Pensacola Bay, victims of the terrific concussions.
Two days later, Federal losses climbed when two Confederate shells exploded as they were being removed from Ft. Pickens. Five men were killed and seven more were wounded.
The Battle of Pensacola Bay was over. The Confederates withdrew from Pensacola on 8 May 1862 and Federal troops occupied Ft. Barrancas and the Navy Yard the following day. Federal troops continued to occupy Pensacola until the war ended in 1865. Ft. McRee eventually collapsed into the sea, but Ft. Barrancas, the Advanced Redoubt and Ft. Pickens continue to stand.