Fort Pickens, on the northwestern end of Santa Rosa Island, had been held by Federal troops since Florida seceded in January. Confederates had sought to capture the fort ever since, and General Braxton Bragg, commanding Confederate troops at nearby Pensacola, finally developed a plan for a surprise attack.
Bragg selected Brigadier General Richard H. Anderson to lead the 1,200-man assault force, which consisted of selected companies from Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The troops began boarding the C.S.S. Ewing and transports towed by the Neaffie around 10 p.m. on October 8. The vessels shuttled them to their attack point across Pensacola Bay.
Around midnight, Anderson’s force landed on Santa Rosa Island four miles east of Fort Pickens. Two hours later, they began marching under cover of darkness in three columns. The first column was to advance along the north beach, the second to advance along the south beach, and the third to advance in between the other two. A force trailed the columns to destroy Federal batteries, armaments, defenses, and camps in their wake.
After two hours of hard marching along the sandy terrain, the first Confederate column encountered Federal pickets, who fired on them and ruined their element of surprise. Even so, Colonel Harvey Brown, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens, rejected a report stating that Confederates had landed and driven in one of his outposts.
The attackers met stronger resistance as they came upon the camp of the 6th New York Zouaves, about a mile east of the fort. However, the Confederates drove the Federals off with a bayonet charge and burned the camp. Colonel Brown soon received another report that the 6th New York was under attack. He finally dispatched two companies under Major Israel Vogdes and directed the east-facing artillery batteries to prepare for action.
Several of Vogdes’s Federals became lost in the darkness, with Vogdes himself taken prisoner. The Federals tried to set up a defense behind a sandy hill, but overwhelming enemy numbers drove them out. The Confederates occupied the 6th New York’s camp, but Anderson realized that with dawn approaching, his men could not overcome the massed artillery facing them and capture the fort. He ordered a withdrawal back to the transports.
Meanwhile, Brown dispatched more Federals under Major Lewis Arnold to support the force formerly led by Vogdes. Arnold’s men attacked the Confederates as they boarded the boats. The Confederates repulsed the attacks, but many were killed or wounded by sniper fire as the transports tried getting off the island. Many other Confederates were captured after missing the call to retreat while tending to wounded comrades.
The Federals sustained 67 casualties (14 killed, 29 wounded, and 24 captured) and the Confederates lost 87 (18 killed, 39 wounded, and 30 captured). The Confederate effort to capture Fort Pickens failed.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 6, Chapter 16. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.