The Florida Secession

Florida was one of the smallest states in the South with only 140,000 people, and half of them were slaves. Nevertheless, Floridians followed the leads of neighboring states Georgia and Alabama by calling a secession convention that assembled at the state capital of Tallahassee. Even before the convention delegates made a final decision on seceding, the Florida militia went into action.

When Governor Madison S. Perry learned that Federal forces planned to destroy the Apalachicola arsenal at Chattahoochee, he ordered Colonel W.J. Gunn to lead his “Young Guards” militia to seize the key installation. Gunn’s force arrived at the arsenal on the 6th and found it guarded by Ordnance Sergeant Edwin Powell and just three soldiers. Gunn demanded surrender, and Powell wired Washington: “The arsenal has been taken possession of by the State this morning, 7 o’clock. My forces too weak to defend it. I have refused keys of magazine and armory. Answer, with instructions.”

The militia took possession and allowed Powell to issue a formal address, which read in part, “If I had a force equal to or even half the strength of your own, you would never have entered that gate until you walked over my dead body…” The Floridians gave Powell three cheers for his bravery, and then seized the arsenal’s stock: some 5,000 pounds of gunpowder and 173,476 musket cartridges.

The next day, Florida militia demanded the surrender of Fort Marion in St. Augustine. When Ordnance Sergeant Henry Douglas, commanding the small Federal garrison, demanded to know under whose authority the demand was made, the Floridians produced Governor Perry’s order to seize the fort and use “what force might be necessary.” Douglas surrendered under protest.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, recognized that other than Fort Sumter, Fort Pickens in Pensacola Harbor was an installation that a Federal garrison should take and hold. Pickens was situated on Santa Rosa Island, at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. Through his staff officer, Scott sent orders to Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, commanding the Federal forts at Pensacola, to prevent Floridians from seizing Pickens “by surprise or assault, consulting first with the commander of the navy-yard, who will probably have received instructions to co-operate with you.”

Slemmer, whose small command was stationed at Barrancas Barracks, received Scott’s orders around the same time he learned that Governor Perry intended to target the harbor next. Slemmer readied his garrison for action, and the Federals repelled a small band of about 20 Floridians that approached the area on the night of the 8th. Slemmer knew the Floridians would surely be back in larger numbers.

At the Florida Convention, anti-secessionists tried to delay a vote, but the secessionist majority overruled them. The delegates voted 62 to 7 in favor of secession. Twenty delegates who cooperated with both Unionists and secessionists went to the secession side for this vote. Tallahassee residents celebrated the result that night with a torchlight parade through the city streets.

When word of the vote reached Slemmer back at Pensacola, he realized his positions were untenable. Anticipating an attack on Fort Barrancas, Slemmer spiked his cannon and transferred his garrison of 81 soldiers and sailors to Fort Pickens. Navy Lieutenant Henry Erben of the commissary ship Supply and some sailors destroyed guns and supplies at nearby Fort McRee to keep them from falling into the secessionists’ hands.

Florida militia quickly seized Fort Barrancas, Barrancas Barracks, and Fort McRee. Also, U.S. Flag Officer James Armstrong surrendered the Pensacola Navy Yard to a militia unit composed of Floridians and Alabamans. Armstrong, a Kentuckian, offered no resistance before surrendering out of fear that he might ignite war. He was later court-martialed and suspended five years for this action.

Now only Fort Pickens remained in Federal hands at Pensacola. When representatives of the governors of Florida and Alabama came to demand his surrender, Slemmer replied “that I was here under the orders of the President of the United States, and by direction of the General-in-Chief of the Army; that I recognized no right of any governor to demand a surrender of United States property; that my orders were distinct and explicit. They immediately withdrew.” Colonel W.H. Chase, commanding the Florida militia assembling outside Pickens, sent a message to Slemmer on the 15th:

“Listen to me, then, I beg of you, and act with me in preventing the shedding the blood of your brethren. Surrender the fort. You and your command may reoccupy the barracks and quarters at Barrancas on your simple parole to remain there quietly until ordered away, or to resume the command of the harbor should an adjustment of present difficulties in the Union be arrived at… Consider this well, and take care that you will so act as to have no fearful recollections of a tragedy that you might have averted, but rather to make the present moment one of the most glorious, because christianlike, of your life.”

After taking a day to think it over, Slemmer issued his reply:

“Under the orders we now have from the War Department, we have decided, after consultation with the Government officers in the harbor, that it is our duty to hold our position until such a force is brought against us as to render it impossible to defend it, or until the political condition of the country is such so as to induce us to surrender the public property in our keeping to such authorities as may be delegated legally to receive it. We deprecate as much as you… the shedding of the blood of our brethren… however, we must consider you the aggressors, and if blood is shed that you are responsible therefor.”

Captain John M. Brannan, commanding Federal troops at Key West, heard a rumor that secessionists were planning to seize the unoccupied Fort Taylor on the other side of town. Brannan informed his superiors that he intended to seize the fort for U.S. use, and then he led his 44 men into the installation on the night of the 14th. This secured Key West and provided the U.S. Navy with a strategically important coaling station for Gulf Coast operations.

Major Lewis G. Arnold’s Federal artillery company occupied Fort Jefferson, a hexagonal structure on the Dry Tortugas, about 50 miles west of Key West. Arnold’s men had been transported there by the steamer Joseph Whitney. The small Federal garrison already at the fort watched the ship approach with anxiety, unsure whether the men aboard were friend or foe until a squadron came ashore on a rowboat to announce their intentions.

Back at Pensacola, Chase received reinforcements and asked Slemmer to surrender a second time (third total). Slemmer consulted with the captain of the nearby U.S.S. Wyandotte and then answered: “In reply to your communication of yesterday I have the honor to state that as yet I know of no reason why my answer to your communication of the 16th should be changed, and I therefore very respectfully refer you to that reply for the answer to this.”

A Federal squadron consisting of the U.S.S. Brooklyn, Sabine, Macedonia, and St. Louis left Fort Monroe, Virginia, with 200 reinforcements for Fort Pickens. President James Buchanan had issued cautious orders for the squadron to establish contact with Slemmer’s Federals but not to enter Pensacola Bay or land troops unless the secessionists showed hostility toward them. When the northern press got wind of the mission, its secret was quickly exposed: “She (the Brooklyn) is ordered to intercept Government vessels heretofore authorized to go into Pensacola and prevent their doing so, in order to obviate trouble–first, by the attempt which the Floridians might make to seize and hold them; and secondly, as consequent upon this State action bloodshed and other serious losses.”

By late January, the so-called “Fort Pickens Truce” went into effect. This was an informal agreement negotiated by Buchanan and Florida Senator Stephen R. Mallory, under which the Navy Department withheld landing U.S. Marines to reinforce Slemmer’s garrison as long as the Floridians showed no hostility toward the Federals in the fort. The Brooklyn arrived to supply Slemmer’s force from the sea side of Pickens. This “truce” was similar to that involving Fort Sumter, but in Pickens’s case the Federals could have landed beyond the range of Floridian guns but agreed not to do so.

Despite the threats of bloodshed and destruction, the standoff at Fort Pickens did not develop into as tense a confrontation as the one over Fort Sumter. Nevertheless, Pickens now joined Sumter as the two symbols of the Federal government’s resistance to disunion.



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