While the Federal garrison at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor was awaiting reinforcement or evacuation in the winter and spring of 1861, a similar drama was playing out in Pensacola, Florida. Three forts provided defense for the U.S. Navy Yard there; Forts Barrancas and McRee on the Florida mainland, and Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island in Pensacola Bay. Company G of the 1st U.S. Artillery manned the defenses of the Navy Yard, a small force adequate for peace time but not enough to hold the yard against any large scale attack.
In January 1861, with the top two officers away on leave, Company G was under the command of 1st Lieutenant Adam Slemmer. Early in the month, reports reached Slemmer that troops from Florida and Alabama were preparing to capture the Navy Yard and the forts guarding it. Slemmer decided that his small force would be easily overwhelmed on the mainland, and on January 10th, Company G withdrew to Fort Pickens. January 10th was also the day Florida seceded from the Union. The garrison consisted of just 81 men, including 30 sailors. Two navy ships that had not surrendered when the Navy Yard was seized were also present off the coast of Santa Rosa Island. The fort itself was in poor condition, having not been occupied since the Mexican War. Slemmer immediately put the men to work strengthening his defenses.
On January 12th, the Navy Yard surrendered to Florida state troops without a shot being fired. Later that day, four men came over to the island, said they represented the governors of Alabama and Florida and demanded “a peaceable surrender of this fort”. Slemmer replied “I am here by authority of the President of the United States, and I do not recognize the authority of any governor to demand the surrender of United States property”. The conference was over quickly.
Another surrender demand was issued January 15th and was again refused, as was a third demand on January 18th.
On February 9th, the U.S.S. Brooklyn arrived with reinforcements. However, the administration of President James Buchanan had entered into an agreement with Florida authorities that neither side would do anything to change the military status quo. Brooklyn remained at Fort Pickens, but did not land any troops.
When the new administration of President Abraham Lincoln took over, it was decided that action would be taken to hold Forts Sumter and Pickens. In early April, Navy Lieutenant John Worden was sent overland through the south to Pensacola to pass on orders to Brooklyn’s captain to land the troops and reinforce Fort Pickens. Worden carried no written orders in case he was searched and had committed everything to memory. The Confederate commander at Pensacola, Major General Braxton Bragg, was unaware of Worden’s mission and permitted him to visit the fort. On April 12th, war broke out in Charleston as the Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. That same day, Fort Pickens was reinforced as the troops from Brooklyn finally landed.
Additional reinforcements arrived later in the month. Lieutenant Slemmer’s command was relieved and sent north in May.
Confederate forces landed on Santa Rosa Island in October 1861 in an attempt to take the fort, but were repulsed. Fort Pickens remained in Union hands throughout the war. The Confederate Army abandoned Pensacola in mid May 1862.
“Fort Pickens. Facts in Relation to ther Reinforcement of Fort Pickens in the Spring of 1861” by Gideon Welles. The Galaxy, Volume 11, Issue 1, January 1871.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Volume I, Part 4, and Series I, Volume VI, Part 16. U.S. War Department, Washington D.C. 1880-1901.
“With Slemmer in Pensacola Harbor” by J.H. Gilman. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I. Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Johnson, eds., 1887-88. Reprint. Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle.