Colonel Harvey Brown, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens on Florida’s Gulf coast, directed a preemptive attack on Confederates seeking to take back the fort.
Since their failed invasion of Santa Rosa Island in October, General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates had surrounded Fort Pickens, according to Brown, “with batteries and daily arming them with the heaviest and most efficient guns known to our service–guns stolen from us–until they considered this fort as virtually their own, its occupancy being only a question of time.”
Brown worked with Flag Officer William McKean, commanding the Gulf Blockading Squadron, to drive the Confederates out of their nearby positions along Pensacola Bay at Forts McRee and Barrancas, and the Pensacola Navy Yard. At 9:55 a.m. on November 22, the steamers U.S.S. Niagara and Richmond, aided by artillery from Fort Pickens, opened a massive bombardment.
The Confederates quickly abandoned the navy yard, but the Federal vessels could not get any closer than 2,000 yards due to shallow waters. Meanwhile, Confederate artillery began responding with their four-mile line of batteries facing Fort Pickens. The Confederates in Fort McRee sustained a tremendous shelling. A soldier in the 1st Alabama at Pensacola wrote:
“On one occasion, simultaneous volleys raked the outer walls and parapets of the fort (McRee), wrapped it with flames of bursting shells, sent huge timbers and massive pieces of concrete flying through the air, swept away the flagstaff and demolished a section of wall on the right. As dimly seen from our position the whole structure seemed to bulge and sink to the earth in one general conflagration and gigantic heap of ruins.”
By 3 p.m., the Federals had disabled all of Fort McRee’s batteries while keeping up their fire on Fort Barrancas and the navy yard as well. Confederate gunners at Barrancas hit the Richmond twice, killing one and wounding eight, before the ships withdrew for the night. Brown then ordered the firing from Pickens suspended, ending the action for the day.
Bragg reported that because of “the number and caliber of guns and weight of metal brought into action it will rank with the heaviest bombardment in the world,” making the fight “grand and sublime. The fire of the enemy, though terrific in sound and fury, proved to have been only slightly damaging, except to McRee.” Bragg noted that fire from the Niagara and Richmond had “much greater accuracy, the fort and garrison of McRee suffered more.” The Confederates sustained 21 casualties (one killed and 20 wounded).
The Federals resumed their bombardment the next day without the Richmond, which had been put out of action. The Niagara and the guns from Fort Pickens opened on the three main Confederate positions, shooting the flags away from Forts McRee and Barrancas by noon and pummeling both the shore batteries and the lighthouse. The Niagara tried getting closer but became a prime target herself, and she was forced to withdraw under heavy fire.
That afternoon, Federal gunners began firing hotshot (i.e., heated cannonballs), burning most of the nearby town of Warrington to the ground. Firing ended at nightfall, with the Confederates still holding all their fortifications despite suffering heavy damage. Federals had fired about 5,000 rounds over 28 hours. Both sides combined sustained eight men killed.
Bragg congratulated his troops on what he called a victory over the enemy: “We have crippled his ships and driven them off, and forced the garrison of Fort Pickens, in its impotent rage, to slake its revenge by firing into our hospital, and burning the habitations of our innocent women and children, who had been driven there from by an unannounced storm of shot and shell.”
Brown acknowledged that the bombardment had failed to drive the Confederates out of their menacing positions near Fort Pickens. However, he announced that “the attack on ‘Billy Wilson’s’ camp (i.e., the Confederate invasion of Santa Rosa Island), the attempted attack on my batteries, and the insult to our glorious flag have been fully and fearfully avenged.”
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- Stanchak, John E. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.