In a daring raid 155 years ago this week, Union soldiers crossed Pensacola Bay under cover of darkness and set fire to the Confederate schooner William H. Judah.
At least six men died in the September 14, 1861 skirmish that ensued, marking the first deaths of the American Civil War in Florida.
Days earlier, the Judah had successfully run the Union’s blockade of Pensacola, entering the harbor and docking at the Pensacola Navy Yard. The yard and Fort Barrancas had been seized by Confederates earlier that year after Union forces evacuated across the bay to Fort Pickens. The fort, located at the western end of Santa Rosa Island, would become the only southern fortress to remain in Union control for the duration of the war.
The Gulf Blockading Squadron was commanded by Union flag officer William Mervine aboard the U.S.S. Colorado, a three-masted steam screw frigate anchored off Fort Pickens. After watching the Navy Yard for several days, Mervine became convinced that the Confederates planned to outfit the Judah as a privateer — a privately-owned contract warship, essentially. He was right: the rebels had outfitted the Judah with four broadside cannons and a pivot gun.
Just before midnight on September 13, four boats carrying around 100 Union officers, sailors, and marines cast off from the Colorado, bound for the Navy Yard. The risky mission required the boats to slip unnoticed past Confederate-held batteries at Fort McRee, opposite Pickens, and Fort Barrancas, nearer to the yard. Pulling against the tide using oars that were muffled to minimize noise, it took the raiding party more than three and a half hours to reach their destination.
As the boats approached the Judah, they were finally spotted by the ship’s crew. Mervine recounted what happened next in his official report:
As those aboard the Judah began to set fire to the ship, another Union detachment was looking to complete a secondary objective: the spiking of a cannon at the southeast end of the Navy Yard. A Union lieutenant and gunner found the cannon, a ten-inch Columbiad, and quickly overpowered the lone Confederate manning it. The pair then disabled the cannon and carried off its tompion — the piece that plugs a cannon’s muzzle when not in use — as a souvenir.
By the time the Union raiding party made it back to their boats and pushed off into the bay, two Union sailors and one marine had died in the violence. Eleven other Union sailors and marines were mortally or severely wounded. At least three Confederates were dead, though Admiral Mervine reported that “our officers are confident the number is much larger.” No official record of Confederate casualties exists.
The Judah burned to the water line, coming free from her moorings and drifting westerly down the coastline to Fort Barrancas, where what was left of the ship slipped beneath the surface. The final resting place of the wreck has never been pinpointed; after multiple dives to locate it in 2010, 2011, and 2012, University of West Florida archaeologists concluded that whatever is left of the Judah may be lost to history, having likely been destroyed by channel dredging operations over the past century and a half.
The tale of the Judah raid was eagerly reported by Northern newspapers, and the men who carried it out received commendations and praise. “The whole country is indebted for one of the brightest pages that has adorned our naval record during this rebellion,” wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. “The expedition will give renown not only to those who were immediately concerned in it, but to the navy itself. It will inspire others in the service to emulation. Its recital hereafter will thrill the heart with admiration.” In his The Naval History of the Civil War, legendary admiral David Dixon Porter called the Judah raid “without doubt the most gallant cutting-out affair that occurred during the war.”