The Fort Pickens Dispute

March 31, 1861 – The commander of U.S.S. Brooklyn received President Abraham Lincoln’s order to reinforce Fort Pickens.

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit:
Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit:

Located on Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens commanded Pensacola Bay in the Florida panhandle. A Federal garrison was stationed in Pickens, with a Federal naval squadron offshore that included the warship U.S.S. Brooklyn. There had been a tacit agreement under which the Confederates guarding the Pensacola Navy Yard would not threaten the Federals if the garrison at Pickens was not reinforced.

On the day after his inauguration, President Lincoln issued a verbal order to break the truce by landing 200 reinforcements from Brooklyn to resupply and reinforce Pickens. This was part of Lincoln’s inaugural pledge to “hold, occupy, and possess” Federal property. Moreover, Lincoln hoped that by landing troops, he could avoid another dispute like Fort Sumter and coerce the Confederacy into firing the first shot of a potential conflict.

Lincoln learned six days after delivering his verbal executive order that it had not been obeyed. He furiously reiterated the order to General-in-Chief Winfield Scott in writing, and the next day Scott sent a vessel to execute the directive. Captain Henry Adams, commanding Federal naval forces at Pensacola, either directly disobeyed Scott’s order or obeyed a superior’s order to ignore Scott’s instruction. This defiance was based on the tacit agreement to stand down if the Confederates showed no aggression.

Meanwhile, new Brigadier General Braxton Bragg organized a unified Confederate command at Pensacola. When he received news indicating the Federals may try reinforcing Pickens, he prohibited the transfer of any further supplies from either the fort or the naval squadron offshore. Confederates also seized U.S.S. Isabella at Mobile, Alabama. The vessel carried supplies for the Federal fleet at Pensacola.

On the 18th, four runaway slaves appeared before the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens. According to the commander, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, the fugitives were “entertaining the idea” that the Federals would “protect them and grant them their freedom.” Slemmer returned them to their owners under guard, acting in accordance with Lincoln’s pledge in his inaugural address to enforce fugitive slave laws.

The standoff at Pickens continued through March. While Lincoln’s cabinet was split over whether to abandon Fort Sumter, they were unanimous that Pickens should be held. Attorney General Edward Bates urged Lincoln to hold the fort “at all hazards.” Secretary of State William H. Seward agreed, stating that it should be held “at every cost.” In addition, Seward worked to save face after his dubious involvement in the Fort Sumter situation by trying to get Lincoln to send a relief expedition to Pickens.

Seward arranged a White House meeting on March 29 with Lincoln and Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, army engineer heading construction of the new U.S Capitol dome. Seward hoped to have Meigs organize the expedition. Lincoln acknowledged the informal truce at Pensacola; he also said he had issued executive orders to reinforce Pickens, but since he had heard nothing since, the orders must have “fizzled out.”

Lincoln then agreed to allow Meigs to organize an expedition to Fort Pickens. Thus, two expeditions were being organized simultaneously: Fort Sumter, a naval expedition led by Gustavus V. Fox and supported by Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Postmaster General Montgomery Blair; and Pickens, an army expedition led by Meigs and supported by Seward.

When the commander of U.S.S. Brooklyn received Lincoln’s order on the 31st, he refused to obey because the order had been signed by General-in-Chief Scott without clearance from the Navy Department. Meanwhile, General Bragg assembled 5,000 Confederates to invade Santa Rosa Island before Pickens could be reinforced.



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