Conventional wisdom says the first shots of the Civil War came at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, but 156 years ago this week, they may well have come in Pensacola.
As 1861 opened, everyone knew that war was on the horizon. South Carolina had seceded from the Union just weeks earlier on December 20, little more than a month after Abraham Lincoln’s election as president. With ordinances of secession under debate in several other Southern states, local militias across the south had begun to seize federal property and fortifications.
In Pensacola, Union forces were stationed at the Navy Yard (present-day Naval Air Station Pensacola), and at nearby Fort Barrancas, while Forts McRee and Pickens in the harbor were unmanned. At Barrancas, 32-year-old First Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer of Pennsylvania was in command, with company commander Captain John Winder — a future Confederate general — away on leave. Lt. Slemmer commanded a garrison of just 51 men.
“The first gun in the war fired on our side”
On January 8, Slemmer outlined the situation at Barrancas in a letter to his superiors:
Later that night, a group of local men tried to take Fort Barrancas, likely thinking it was unoccupied. Slemmer’s second-in-command, Lt. Jeremiah H. Gilman, later recounted the events:
Slemmer abandons Barrancas for Pickens
With tensions reaching a fever pitch, new orders arrived for Lt. Slemmer from Washington:
The same day, Citadel cadets occupying a battery in Charleston, South Carolina fired upon the Union steamer Star of the West, and Mississippi joined South Carolina as the second state to secede.
As soon as he received the order, Slemmer sprung into action, opting to abandon Fort Barrancas in favor of the more defensible Fort Pickens. Having received similar orders, Commodore James Armstrong at the Navy Yard promised Slemmer use of the USS Wyandotte the same day to move his men and supplies. Armstrong’s second-in-command, however — a secessionist — worked to delay those orders, and the Wyandotte did not make it down to Barrancas until the following morning.
A state of war in Pensacola
On January 10, as delegates from across Florida were voting in Tallahassee to secede, Slemmer and his men worked to move as much equipment, provisions, ammunition, and powder as possible across the bay to Fort Pickens. With no time to move the heavy guns pointed at the bay, Slemmer ordered the guns spiked as Union troops evacuated to Pickens.
Two days later, Slemmer and Gilman watched the U.S. flag come down at the navy yard across the bay as the 66-year-old Armstrong surrendered without resistance. Armstrong would later be court-martialed on charges of neglect of duty, disobedience of orders and conduct unbecoming of an officer. A five-year suspension ended Armstrong’s Navy career in disgrace.
An uneasy peace developed between Union and Confederate forces over the months to come. Slemmer’s garrison of 51 men and 30 sailors worked around the clock to shore up Fort Pickens’ defenses as rebel forces completed the railroad between Pensacola and Montgomery, Ala. and mounted dozens of heavy guns at Barrancas, the navy yard, and Fort McRee. Despite the ever-present threat of attack and several Confederate attempts to bribe Slemmer’s men into surrendering the fort, Slemmer held out until being reinforced in April.
By the fall, the cease-fire had eroded. Determined to take Fort Pickens, the Confederates landed 1,200 men on Santa Rosa Island on October 9 and marched on the fort. Both sides took casualties in the ensuing Battle of Santa Rosa, but the Union successfully held Fort Pickens, and would continue to do so for the duration of the war. Seven months later, as Union forces recaptured New Orleans, the Confederacy burned what they could and abandoned Pensacola.