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 A Matter of Honor
The Seizure of the Pensacola Navy Yard

by David Ekardt
Copyright September 2005

January 12,1861, the United States Navy suffered one on the most humiliating incidents in its history, the surrender of the Warrington Naval Yard in Pensacola, Florida. But, one year later, the Navy would recoup its honor by recapturing the facility. 


   Trouble was brewing in the nation since before Abraham Lincoln was elected, and matters came to a head in December 1860 when South Carolina and Mississippi seceded from the Union . Florida followed suit on 10 January, 1861 . The events that followed the secession of Florida can be considered the first actions of the War Between the Sates.

   Just a few days prior to formal secession, Governor Madison Perry of Florida directed state militia units to start seizing federal property in the state. When a unit approached the Federal Arsenal at Chattahoochee and demanded entrance, the civilian workers willingly turned over the facility to the troops.  Likewise, a unit showed up at Fort Marion in Saint Augustine and the lone soldier on duty wisely turned over the keys to the fort.

   But a real coup for the state, which truly had the potential for armed conflict with the United States Navy, came in the attempt to take over the forts and naval facilities in Pensacola . The Naval Yard was equipped to supply, service, and build naval vessels for the fleet. It was the most important prize in Florida .   

   The Naval Yard and the entrance to Pensacola Bay were protected by a series of forts. Fort Barrancas , Fort McRee , and the advanced redoubt, were on the mainland. Fort Pickens was located across the bay on Santa Rosa Island . These forts were manned by a small company of fifty men under the command of Lieutenant Adam Slemmer.  During peace time as this was, only a small contingent of men was kept on duty to maintain the facilities. Had there been a war footing prior to this, the forts would have been fully manned.

   On the night of January 10, 1861 , men from the state militia approached Fort McRee , and by accounts, at least two shots were fired to ward them off.  The next day, Lt. Slemmer, determined to protect what he could, gathered his men from Fort Barrancas and Fort Mcree , dumped twenty thousand pounds of gunpowder into the bay, and spiked the guns. Then with the aid of thirty sailors, moved all the remaining supplies across the bay to Fort Pickens .

   The Naval Yard personnel were put on alert, with the Marine guard of forty men kept under arms. The Marine guards at the main gate were instructed to fire warning shots in case of trouble. At the time there were only about thirty sailors on duty along with civilian workers.

   On January 12, 1861 , a force of Florida and Alabama militia under the command of William Henry Chase, the man who had overseen the construction of the forts before he had retired, headed for the Naval Yard.  At a pre-arranged time, secessionist naval officers forced the Marine guards at the gate to allow the rebel force to enter the facility. Chase and his officers met with Captain James Armstrong, commander of the base, who surrendered the facilities. Marine Captain Josiah Watson was summoned to Armstrong’s office and was ordered to have his men surrender their weapons.  The Marines were not in favor of surrendering their weapons and accouterments and did so only after much persuasion and direct orders from Armstrong.  Eventually they stacked arms. The militia forces gathered on the parade deck after securing the Marines in a warehouse. They had been advised to lock them up prior to lowering the U. S. flag.  Chief William Conway was ordered to lower the flag. However, when he was chastised by one of the sailors for giving consideration to obeying that order he refused to do so.  The militia raised a flag that was described as “a yellow rag with one star”, which was replaced a few days later with a flag fashioned from a U.S. flag. The blue field with stars was removed and replaced with a blue field with one large white star.

   For his action, Chief Conway was later honored for his refusal to lower the national colors.  Conversely, two months later, Commodore Armstrong was court-martialed for surrendering the Navy Yard. He was convicted of neglect of duty, disobedience of orders, and conduct unbecoming an officer. He was suspended from duty for five years with loss of pay for half of that period.

   The next day, the Marines and sailors were permitted to leave on the U.S.S Supply which had been transferring supplies from the Yard to Fort Pickens before the takeover. Captain Watson and his wife departed for Mobile to take the land route to Washington DC , while his men went aboard the USS Supply bound for Washington . Lt. Slemmer’s family was permitted to gather their belongings and board the ship also. That same day, a deputation requested Lt. Slemmer to surrender Fort Pickens , which he adamantly refused to do. With the USS Wyandotte, the USS Brooklyn, and the USS Macedonian standing by, there was enough force to prevent an armed attempt to take the fort.

   President Buchanan and Florida Senator Stephen Mallory reached an agreement on January 21, 1861 , to prevent bloodshed. As long as the Federal government did not land troops on Santa Rosa Island to reinforce Fort Pickens , no attempt would be made by the militia to take the fort by force. The situation stayed amiable enough for the occupants of the fort to get supplies from the naval yard stores, and even go into town for supplies, mail and to use the telegraph. The same agreement covered the re-supply of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor .

   As this period of non-aggression lasted, more troops arrived in the Pensacola area, eventually bringing the troop strength up to 6,000-8,000 men. These units had such colorful names as, the Eufaula Rifles, Eufaula Pioneers, Perote Guards, the Alabama Rifles, the Guards of the Sunny South, the Tallapoosa Rifles, the Red Eagles, and the Rough and Ready Pioneers. Braxton Bragg arrived on the scene to take over command from Chase who went on to command Florida troops elsewhere. During this time the Confederates fortified the shore from the Navy Yard to Fort McRee , a distance of four miles. They mounted several heavy guns along the fortifications, all bearing on Fort Pickens .

   When Lincoln took office in March, he authorized reinforcements to go to Fort Pickens ; however they ended up staying on board ship due to the truce. Finally, on April 12th, after a flurry of contradictory orders, the Marines of the USS Brooklyn, USS Sabine, USS Wyandotte, and the USS St. Louis, numbering about one hundred-twenty were ordered to go ashore to bolster the defenders of the fort. Along with them were the seventy-five men of Battery “A”, 1st U.S. Artillery along with their guns and horses. In his exuberance to be the first ashore, Marine drummer George Gardner stepped overboard when he thought they were in shallow water. Surprised to be in over his head, he held his drum tight, used it as a float and as he kicked his way to shore.

   On April 17th, The USS Powhatten along with the transport ship the Atlantic , arrived on the scene. Colonel Harvey Brown and approximately one thousand men were ferried ashore. The Marines were sent back to their ships until April 23rd, when Brown, after seeing movements of a number of rebel ships, hastily called for the Marines, believing that there was an imminent attack on his position in the offing. The Marines stayed for a month helping to improve the defenses of the garrison. Until May 27th, they pitched in, each man having to fill and place forty sandbags a day.

   A reporter from the New York Times present for the early days there reported on the Marines:

“The Marine Guard of the Wyandotte gunboat has been sent ashore on Rosas Island to do picket guard for the tired-out garrison there. Let me here name one bright spot in the Navy. It is the Marine Corps. Extra loyalty in trying times seems to be a characteristic-I had nearly said peculiarity-of Marines everywhere….America should call them ‘National’ because when every other branch of the country’s service has black spots in it, the Marines loom out in moral grandeur-true, unreproachable and brave. I am delighted to see the papers, and to learn from private letters that the corps at home is just as its representatives are here. Oh, that we had ten thousand Marines!”

   Throughout the months of the standoff, Colonel Brown called the Marines ashore to bolster his troops. Brown grew nervous with every unusual movement of Confederate troops ashore, and every rumor that reached him about an enemy attempt to land on the island.

   The next several months dragged on with dysentery setting in on the fort’s inhabitants.  A lack of rain prevented the refreshing of the water in the cisterns which caused the outbreak. Scurvy from the lack of fresh vegetables also ravaged the troops. The first excitement came on August 3rd when five boats of Marines and sailors rowed out from the USS Colorado and USS Niagara to attempt to burn the Judah , a schooner that was being fitted out at the Navy Yard. The guard was alert and gave the alarm when the boats were spotted. Several rockets and an illumination balloon were sent aloft illuminating the area. The boat crews pulled off, and returned to the ships without casualties.

   On September 2nd the rebels tried to move a floating dry dock which became grounded in the bay between the Navy Yard and Fort Pickens . A night time raiding party rowed out to the dry dock and set it ablaze as they were afraid that the Confederates would arm it and turn it into a floating artillery battery.

   The officers of the fleet decided to make another attempt at attacking the rebels. They tried to convince Colonel Brown to join in a night time attack on Fort McRee . Brown was constantly in fear of an attack on his fort, and would not allow his troops to join in the attack. The Naval officers then decided to make another attempt at destroying the Judah and the largest gun the Confederates had at the Navy Yard, a 10-inch Columbiad.  Four boat loads of Marines and sailors under the command of Lt. John Russell USN, and 1st Lt. Edward Reynolds USM set off on the night of September 13th. Silently they rowed past the encampment of Braxton Bragg’s 6,000 man army.

   The force split up with two boat loads going towards the Judah , while the other two made for the big gun. The boats approaching the Judah were just yards from the ship when the alarm was raised. Men on board the ship and shore sprang to life, as the first shot was fired from the six-pounder in the lead boat. The attackers threw flaming tar balls onto the deck of the ship and fought their way on board. In the ensuing close combat, they drove off the defenders. Under heavy fire from the wharf, the raiders spread turpentine-soaked wood shavings around the ship and set it ablaze.

   Meanwhile the other two boat crews found their objective virtually unguarded. One defender was killed as they landed. The attackers spiked the Columbiad, removed its tompion and shoved off into the night. As they withdrew under heavy fire from the Navy Yard, they kept up a spirited return fire from the boat guns, cutting into the defenders with grape shot. Two sailors died and a total of twenty sailors and Marines were wounded. An undetermined amount of Confederates were killed and wounded. The raid was a success, and the Judah was totally destroyed.

   Braxton Bragg would not let this go unanswered. During the night of October 8th, approximately 1200 Confederate troops landed on Santa Rosa Island , about four miles from the fort. They advanced in three columns up the narrow island and surprised the encampment of the 6th New York Zouave troops. The rebels drove the New Yorkers back towards the fort, but lost the impetus of their surprise as they slowed down to loot the tents and supplies of the Yankees. The alarm was raised in the fort, and troops came pouring out to join in the melee. The New Yorkers rallied and together they pushed the attackers back. By daylight the battle was over with the Confederates pulling away from the island. Marines from the ships off shore had been landed to augment the defenders however they arrived too late to join the fight.

   The last real engagement between combatants occurred on November 22 and 23 as Colonel Brown ordered his guns to open fire on a ship entering the Navy Yard. The shore line lit up with cannon fire as the Confederate guns returned fire on Fort Pickens . For the rest of the day, and into the night and most of the next day, the guns of Fort Pickens , and the Union gunboats unleashed a heavy fire onto the Confederate forts, Navy Yard and gun emplacements. The Union guns fired over five-thousand rounds while the Confederates fired over one thousand rounds. The conflagration was heard up to one hundred and twenty miles away, while the concussions over the bay waters killed thousands of fish that washed ashore. Several of the buildings in the Naval Yard were set ablaze by the cannon fire. General Dick Anderson, Braxton Bragg’s second-in-command was in charge when the firing started, and ordered his guns to respond. Bragg removed him from command when he returned for the waste of shot and powder. Fort McRee was reduced to rubble by the guns of the USS Niagara and the USS Richmond. The ships were able to fire upon a side of McRee that had not been reinforced or armed.

   Things quieted down with the smaller Union force afloat and entrenched on Santa Rosa Island keeping the larger force of Confederates tied up and out of the fight towards the west. Finally, the government in Richmond decided to move Bragg’s troops west where they could be put to better use. On May 9th, 1862 in the dead of night the remaining troops that had not been siphoned off from the defense of the Navy Yard, set fire to what was left of the buildings and supplies before marching out of town. 

   The next morning, Marine Lt. Mclane Tilton and eighteen Marines were sent ashore to reconnoiter the situation. They found the Navy Yard and gun emplacements abandoned and burning. Other sailors and Marines were sent ashore along with some of the troops from the island to try to extinguish the flames.

   The long contest had ended, and the Navy had regained its crucial facilities, and restored their honor. The southern forces were never able to make full use of the Navy Yard facilities. The long standoff by a small number of Northern forces had kept a much larger force of badly needed troops tied up for over a year. The Yard was rebuilt and served the ships of the Gulf Blockading Squadrons for the rest of the war.


Side note: Most people do not associate chemical warfare with the Civil War, however it almost became part of the contest at Pensacola . A Confederate soldier, Isham Walker of the 9th Regiment of Mississippi Volunteers developed a plan to use chemical warfare to kill all the troops in Fort Pickens and the men of the fleet. He wrote to the War Department detailing his plan. He suggested using two manned balloons tethered by two miles of copper wire to be carried aloft over the fort out of range of the guns. From a safe height, they would drop poisonous bombs into the fort and onto the ships of the fleet. He and friend Sam Benton of Tennessee , a ‘practical balloonist’, would be able to accomplish this at a mere cost of twelve hundred dollars for the balloons, copper wire and chemicals. The bombs would have black powder and a ‘subtile’ poison that was ‘innocent’ until ignited, poisoning the atmosphere for several rods in every direction. Although this plan was never put into action over Fort Pickens , there are accounts of the Confederates dropping bombs of various types over Union troop during the Siege of Richmond.


The Gulf Blockading Fleet Records from Cornell University

United States Marines in the Civil War by David Sullivan

The Fort Barrancas Story by David Ogden

The Fort Pickens Story by Thomas Muir Jr. and David Ogden

Pensacola in the Civil War from the Pensacola Historical Society

Photographs from Pensacola : The Civil War Years by Norman W. Haines Jr.

Library of Congress Map Collections

The Life of a Civil War Soldier Excerpts from the  HISTORY OF THE FIRST REGIMENT ALABAMA VOLUNTEER INFANTRY, C. S. A. 
from  www.Pbrla.com

Bio-Warfare on Fort Pickens from  www.brla.com

Pensacola Beach Residents & Leaseholders Association

Flags of the Confederacy  www.Confederate_flags.org

Fort Sumter and Fort Pickens  www.tulane.edu/~sumter/


Elevation of Marine barracks, Pensacola, Florida
(Marine Corps Museum, Quantico, Virginia)
Marines, sailors, and artillerists reinforce Fort Pickens,
April 12, 1861 (NA Photograph 127-N-526608)

Landing the reinforcements for Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island,
April 12, 1861 (NHC Photograph NH 7374)
A cannoneer’s view of Fort Pickens from Fort Barrancas

Attacker’s view of Fort Pickens

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