Fort Pickens lay two miles offshore from Pensacola, garrisoned by a small Federal force. Reinforcements were on nearby U.S. warships, but an unofficial truce was in effect under which the Confederates would not attack the garrison as long as it was not reinforced. The fort was surrounded by Confederate forces under Brigadier General Braxton Bragg. They had seized nearby Forts Barrancas and McRee, as well as the Pensacola Navy Yard.
Pickens was very important to the Lincoln administration because it had access to the best harbor and naval repair yard in the South besides Norfolk, Virginia. As such, President Abraham Lincoln had dispatched Lieutenant John L. Worden to deliver orders to break the unofficial truce and land the troops from the ships to secure the fort before Bragg knew what was happening.
Bragg allowed Worden to go through the Confederate lines to board the U.S.S. Brooklyn after Worden assured him that his visit was of a “pacific” nature. Through Worden, Lincoln directed that soldiers, artillery, and supplies be transferred from the naval squadron of the Brooklyn, Sabine, St. Louis, and Wyandotte to the fort. The Brooklyn moved behind Santa Rosa Island to disembark 200 Federal soldiers under Colonel Harvey Brown at Pickens’s rear. Inside the fort, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer transferred command of the garrison to Brown. The “Fort Pickens Truce” that had been in effect since January 29 was no more.
Confederates could not prevent the Federal landing due to its location. When word reached Confederate officials at Montgomery that the Federals might try reinforcing Pickens, Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker telegraphed General Bragg to warn him: “Lieutenant Worden, of U.S. Navy, has gone to Pensacola with dispatches. Intercept them.” Bragg replied that it was too late: “Mr. Worden had communicated with fleet before your dispatch received. Alarm guns have just fired at Fort Pickens. I fear the news is received and it will be re-enforced before morning. It cannot be prevented…”
The next day, Bragg reported: “Re-enforcements thrown into Fort Pickens last night by small boats from the outside. The movement could not even be seen from our side, but was discovered by a small reconnoitering boat.” Bragg further reported on the 14th that Captain Henry Adams, commanding the Federal naval fleet, confirmed that “re-enforcements have been placed in Fort Pickens, in obedience to orders from the United States Government. Lieutenant Worden must have given these orders in violation of his word. Captain Adams executed them in violation of our agreement.”
The strengthening of Federal defenses compelled the Confederates to cancel plans to invade Santa Rosa Island. Confederate authorities apprehended Worden near Montgomery as he was returning to Washington by train. Worden thus became the first prisoner of war in the conflict. However, they caught him too late to keep him from delivering Lincoln’s order to reinforce Fort Pickens and blockade the harbor. Worden was ultimately released due to lack of evidence.
This news outraged the Confederates, who considered Federal forts to be state property on loan to the Federal government. To reinforce Pickens was to invade sovereign territory with foreign troops, an act of war. President Jefferson Davis, not expecting the Lincoln administration to commit such a dubious act, lamented that he did not order Confederates to attack Pickens along with Fort Sumter.
Within a week, a second naval relief expedition led by Lieutenant David D. Porter’s U.S.S. Powhatan arrived at Pickens to land more reinforcements. The Powhatan had flown a British flag to deceive nearby Confederates. Federal presence in the Pensacola area now totaled 1,000 troops and four warships. Colonel Brown soon established headquarters at Pickens as the commander of the new Federal Department of Florida. The Federals would maintain this stronghold for the rest of the war.
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- Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
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