Tag Archives: Fort Pickens

The Fall of Pensacola

May 10, 1862 – Confederate forces abandoned a key naval base on the Gulf of Mexico after holding out against a powerful Federal threat for over a year.

Earlier this year, Major General Braxton Bragg had led most of the Confederates stationed at Pensacola and Mobile west to reinforce General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Army of Mississippi. Colonel Thomas M. Jones of the 27th Mississippi began directing the withdrawal of the remaining forces. On May 7, Jones received word from Brigadier General John H. Forney, commanding the Confederate Department of Alabama and West Florida, that a Federal naval fleet was approaching to threaten Mobile.

Jones quickly prepared to lead his Confederates out of Pensacola to reinforce Mobile. Abandoning Pensacola included “the destruction of the beautiful place which I had labored so hard night and day for over two months to defend, and which I had fondly hoped could be held from the polluting grasp of our insatiate enemies.”

Pensacola Navy Yard | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Pensacola Navy Yard | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederates in the area had held out for over a year against the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens, as well as various threats from the Gulf Blockading Squadron. The Federals had already destroyed the Pensacola Navy Yard’s dry dock as well as portions of Fort McRee protecting the town.

The evacuation began on the 9th. The Confederates burned the navy yard, destroying the unfinished ironclad C.S.S. Fulton and all other ships that had been under construction. In addition, the troops burned Fort McRee, the marine hospital and barracks, factories and mills, and warehouses filled with lumber and cotton.

That night, Federals stationed across Pensacola Bay saw the fires in the town and determined that the Confederates were evacuating. Brigadier General Lewis G. Arnold, commanding the Western District of the Federal Department of the South, sent his chief of staff across the bay to accept Pensacola’s surrender.

By dawn on May 10, about 1,000 Federals landed to occupy the town. Commander David D. Porter stated, “The Rebels have done their work well. The yard is a ruin.” However, the navy yard was soon rebuilt and used as an important supply base for the Federal blockading fleet in the Gulf of Mexico.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 8; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 168; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 150; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 209; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 574; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77

Federal Attack on Pensacola Bay

November 22, 1861 – Colonel Harvey Brown, commanding the Federal garrison at Fort Pickens on Florida’s Gulf coast, directed a preëmptive attack on Confederates seeking to take back the fort.

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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 “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, forcing her 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.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 85; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 142-43; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77

The Invasion of Santa Rosa Island

October 9, 1861 – A Confederate assault failed to dislodge Federals from Fort Pickens on Florida’s Gulf coast.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

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 stating 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.

Combat on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Combat on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Several of Vogdes’s Federals became lost in the darkness, with Vogdes himself taken prisoner. The Federals tried establishing 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.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 86; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 125; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 219; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77; The War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Vol. VI, Ch. 16, p. 438-63

Breaking the Fort Pickens Truce

April 12, 1861 – Federal Lieutenant John L. Worden delivered President Abraham Lincoln’s order to break the unofficial truce with local Confederates by reinforcing Fort Pickens, Florida.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Pickens lay two miles offshore from Pensacola, surrounded by Confederates under Brigadier General Braxton Bragg. The Confederates had seized nearby Forts Barrancas and McRee, as well as the Pensacola Navy Yard. Pickens held great importance because it had access to the best harbor and naval repair yard besides Norfolk, Virginia, but Bragg’s men threatened to starve out the Federal garrison at the fort if more supplies and reinforcements did not arrive.

Through Worden, Lincoln directed that soldiers, artillery, and supplies be transferred from the naval squadron of U.S.S. Brooklyn, Sabine, St. Louis, and Wyandotte to the fort. 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. Bragg responded: “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 reinforced before morning. It cannot be prevented…” The strengthening of Federal defenses compelled the Confederates to cancel plans to invade Santa Rosa Island.

The next day, Confederate authorities apprehended Lieutenant Worden near Montgomery as he was returning to Washington by train. However, they caught him too late to prevent him from delivering Lincoln’s order to reinforce Fort Pickens and blockade the harbor. Worden was ultimately released due to lack of evidence.

Meanwhile, Confederate officials received a dispatch stating the Federals “have violated their agreement. Reinforcements 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 boat reconnoitering.”

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. 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.

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Sources

  • Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 8
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17-18
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 34-36
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 22-23
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 56-61
  • Longacre, Edward G, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 264-65
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q261

Working to Reinforce Fort Pickens

April 6, 1861 – President Abraham Lincoln learned that his order to reinforce Fort Pickens in Pensacola Bay, Florida had not been obeyed.

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lincoln had intended to resupply both Forts Pickens and Sumter. On April 1, he signed a secret executive order dispatching the U.S. navy’s most powerful steamer, Powhatan, to the Navy Department. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had intended to place Powhatan in Gustavus V. Fox’s fleet going to Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but Secretary of State William H. Seward had different plans for the ship.

Seward hoped that reinforcing Pickens could be done without provoking hostilities, and once done, it could allow him to save face on his pledges to evacuate Sumter by lobbying Lincoln to stop the expedition to that fort. Seeking to add Powhatan to Montgomery C. Meigs’s fleet going to Pickens, Seward placed an order to divert the steamer into a pile of other documents requiring Lincoln’s signature.

Welles issued orders on the 5th for Powhatan, Pawnee, Pocahontas, and the revenue cutter Harriet Lane to proceed to Fort Sumter on Fox’s mission. However, he was unaware that Seward had ensured that Powhatan would not be part of the Sumter expedition. The Federals at Fort Pickens had an informal truce with surrounding Confederates since January, but Lincoln considered that voided when Confederates began laying siege to Fort Sumter.

The next day, Lincoln learned that the commander of the naval squadron offshore from Pickens had refused to break the informal truce, which relied upon the Federal pledge not to reinforce the fort. Lincoln responded by ordering Lieutenant John L. Worden to travel overland as a secret messenger to Fort Pickens and deliver orders for the offshore squadron to land reinforcements.

Lincoln also learned that Powhatan had been diverted from Pickens to Sumter. He directed Seward to change it back to Sumter, and Seward reluctantly complied. However Lieutenant David D. Porter, commanding Powhatan, refused to obey because the order had been signed by Seward, not the president. Thus, Powhatan prepared to leave New York as part of Meigs’s mission to Pickens, along with transport ships Atlantic, Baltic, and Illinois. Meigs’s expedition would not arrive at Pickens before Fox’s arrived at Sumter.

Brigadier General Braxton Bragg, commanding Confederates at Pensacola, requested permission from Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker to prevent any Federal attempt to reinforce Pickens. Walker granted Bragg permission on the 8th, warning the general that a Federal attack was imminent.

Lieutenant Worden arrived two days later with explicit orders for Federal naval officials to land troops at Fort Pickens. Worden assured General Bragg that he had been sent from Washington to deliver a “verbal message of a pacific nature” to the Federal commander of Fort Pickens. Bragg, unaware of the reinforcement order, granted Worden permission to meet with the garrison in the fort.

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Sources

  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 32-34
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6120, 6131-43
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 20
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 52-55
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 58
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161

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: Wikimedia.org

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

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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Sources

  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-33
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 31
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6109-20
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 18
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 50, 52
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 268-70
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77
  • White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War

Fort Sumter: The Lincoln Administration Vacillates

March 21, 1861 – Special Federal agent Gustavus V. Fox arrived at Charleston, South Carolina to assess the situation at Fort Sumter.

On March 20, the Confederate envoys seeking to negotiate a peaceful settlement of disputes over Federal property on Confederate soil (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) telegraphed Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard at Charleston. The envoys asked if the Federals were preparing to evacuate Fort Sumter, as Secretary of State William H. Seward had pledged on the 15th. Beauregard replied that the Federals were building defenses and showed no sign of evacuating.

Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, intermediary between the Lincoln administration and the Confederate envoys, brought this news to Seward. The secretary assured both him and fellow Justice Samuel Nelson that the administration’s policy would be peaceful coexistence with the Confederacy, and any delay in evacuating the fort was unintentional. Seward did not reply to two notes written by Campbell accusing him of overreaching his authority and vacillating. Meanwhile, officials released some correspondence between Seward and the Confederate envoys to the press, which caused indignation in the North.

Gustavus V. Fox | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Gustavus V. Fox | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Fox reached Charleston the next day. South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens, skeptical of Fox’s mission but reluctant to spark a diplomatic issue by expelling him, permitted Fox to visit the Federal troops at Fort Sumter and notify Washington of their condition. Permission depended “expressly upon the pledge of ‘pacific purposes.’”

Confederates escorted Fox to the fort in the harbor. Unbeknownst to them, Fox used the visit to gather intelligence on how best Sumter could be resupplied. The escorts tried preventing Fox from meeting privately with Major Robert Anderson, commanding at Fort Sumter. Fox could only hint to Anderson that help may be on the way. After touring the fort, Fox informed Lincoln that Sumter could be reinforced by sea.

As Lincoln approved Fox’s reinforcement plan and authorized Fox to assemble a transport fleet in New York, Seward again assured Campbell that Fort Sumter would be evacuated. This helped ease Confederate fears that the Federals may try reinforcing the garrison.

Two more Federal agents, Colonel Ward Hill Lamon and General Stephen A. Hurlbut (both Illinois friends of President Lincoln), met with Governor Pickens and General Beauregard in Charleston on the 25th. Lamon conceded that reconciliation was impossible and said he was authorized to arrange for Sumter’s evacuation. He asked Pickens to allow a Federal warship into Charleston Harbor to evacuate the Federal garrison, but Pickens refused, asserting that permitting a foreign war vessel to enter the harbor could compromise his state’s sovereignty.

The men agreed that the Federals could be evacuated aboard a regular steamship, which Lamon said that Major Anderson preferred anyway. The meeting ended with Lamon expressing hope that he could return in a few days to direct the evacuation. Meanwhile, Fox continued assembling a naval fleet to reinforce Fort Sumter, despite Lamon’s pledge and Anderson’s strong urging to evacuate the fort.

In Washington, Republican Lyman Trumbull of Illinois introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that “it is the duty of the President to use all means in his power to hold and protect the public property of the United States.” A Republican caucus met with Lincoln and warned him that surrendering Sumter would be disastrous for the new party.

Lincoln continued consulting with advisors about the mounting crisis. Hurlbut returned from Charleston on the 27th and reported: “Separate Nationality is a fixed fact… there is no attachment to the Union…positively nothing to appeal to.” Hurlbut opined that any effort to resupply Fort Sumter would be considered an act of war; even “a ship known to contain only provisions for Sumpter (sic) would be stopped and refused admittance.” Reinforcing Hurlbut’s opinion, Governor Pickens notified delegates to the South Carolina Convention that 600 men were needed to defend the Charleston Harbor forts.

On March 28, Lincoln received a message from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott advising him to abandon both Forts Sumter and Pickens (in Florida). Scott noted that he and his officers had already assumed Sumter would be evacuated, but the “evacuation of both the forts would instantly soothe and give confidence to the eight remaining slave-holding States, and render their cordial adherence to the Union perpetual.” Scott acknowledged that Lincoln would have the final say.

The idea of abandoning both forts shocked Lincoln, but he concealed his emotions until after holding an official state dinner. Then he summoned his cabinet officers into an emergency meeting, where they expressed “blank amazement” as Lincoln read Scott’s dispatch.

Postmaster General Montgomery Blair accused Scott of playing politics, especially since the Confederates could not possibly seize Fort Pickens by force. In a reversal of their vote two weeks ago, four of the six officers present (Secretary of War Simon Cameron was absent) now supported reinforcing Sumter, with only Seward and Interior Secretary Caleb B. Smith opposed. The cabinet unanimously supported reinforcing Pickens.

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Sources

  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4752, 4776-88, 4847-59
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133, 135
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 31
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6053-64
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 46
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 51
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 269
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 53, 56
  • White, Howard Ray (2012-12-18). Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks. Kindle Edition), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War

Fort Sumter: The Seward Intervention

March 15, 1861 – Secretary of State William H. Seward took it upon himself to discuss the Fort Sumter situation and other pertinent matters with Confederate envoys despite President Abraham Lincoln’s instruction not to do so.

The three Confederate commissioners whom President Jefferson Davis had appointed to establish relations with the Lincoln administration (Martin J. Crawford, John Forsyth, and A.B. Roman) arrived in Washington in early March. The men had authorization to negotiate the Federal withdrawal from Forts Sumter and Pickens, and to discuss compensating for U.S. property claims in Confederate states.

The commissioners issued a written request to meet with Lincoln and Seward in person. While awaiting a reply, they communicated with various pro-southern politicians in Washington. On March 13, Lincoln ignored pressure from his cabinet by instructing Seward to not receive the envoys because negotiating with them would acknowledge the Confederacy as a sovereign nation, not simply a region in rebellion. Such an acknowledgement would mean that secession was valid, something Lincoln had rejected in his inaugural address.

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward | Credit: Wikispaces.com

Two days later, Seward wrote a letter to the Confederate envoys that he listed as “filed” but never sent. Meanwhile, Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell (a pro-Confederate) asserted that in a meeting with fellow Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson, Salmon P. Chase, Edward Bates, and Seward, Nelson told the men that the executive branch of the Federal government could not coerce the southern states into returning to the Union without committing major constitutional violations.

Seward explained his dilemma: Lincoln had banned him from meeting with the Confederate envoys, which outraged southerners; but if he defied Lincoln and met with the envoys, he would outrage northerners. Nelson suggested allowing Campbell to act as an intermediary.

Seward met with Campbell on the 15th and informed him that the administration could not meet with the envoys because the Federals would soon abandon Fort Sumter, and “The evacuation of Sumter is as much as the Administration can bear.” As Campbell began writing a letter to Davis, he asked Seward, “And what shall I say to him on the subject of Fort Sumter?” Seward said, “You may say to him that before that letter reaches him—How far is it to Montgomery?” Campbell said, “Three days.” Seward replied, “You may say to him that before that letter reaches him, the telegraph will have informed him that Sumter will have been evacuated.”

Campbell also contended that Seward assured him that “the condition of Pickens was satisfactory, and there would be no change made there.” This information delighted the Confederates, unaware that Seward had no authority to give such assurances.

When Campbell relayed this news to the envoys, Crawford requested a written pledge, and Seward responded by pledging that Sumter would be evacuated within days and no change would be made at Pickens. In exchange, Seward asked the Confederacy to refrain from embarrassing the new administration by making any further demands. The envoys agreed by not following up on their request to obtain a personal interview.

Meanwhile President Lincoln, unaware of Seward’s interaction with Campbell and the envoys, held a cabinet meeting on the 15th. He requested his officers’ written opinions on the question: “Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort-Sumpter (sic), under all the circumstances, is it wise to attempt it?”

The cabinet officers submitted their responses the next day. Seward naturally opposed resupplying Sumter due to his secret dealings with the Confederates. He said that such an action would “provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war,” and “I would not provoke war in any way now.”

Secretary of War Simon Cameron opposed resupplying Sumter because military officials advised it was “perhaps, now impossible to succor that fort, substantially, if at all.” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles opposed resupply for military and political reasons. Attorney General Edward Bates and Interior Secretary Caleb Smith also opposed such an action.

Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase supported resupplying Sumter, but only if it would not provoke a war. Only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair supported unconditional resupply. He contended that southerners believed “that the Northern men are deficient in the courage necessary to maintain the Government.” Provisioning the fort could “vindicate the hardy courage of the North and the determination of the people and their President to maintain the authority of the Government.” He also said that “measures which will inspire respect for the power of the Government and the firmness of those who administer it” could prompt southern unionists to resist the Confederacy. Blair urged Lincoln to implement the plan submitted by naval officer Gustavus V. Fox.

With five cabinet officers opposed to resupplying Fort Sumter and just two in favor, Lincoln opted to make no decision yet, instead holding more meetings and drafting a memorandum listing the pros and cons of provisioning the fort.

On the 18th, Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote to South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens informing him that Brigadier General P.G.T. Beauregard’s command over Charleston had been expanded to Beaufort and vicinity. Davis shared Pickens’s concern for the safety of the South Carolina coast, particularly Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter. He told Pickens that although he doubted “the enemy would retire peaceably from your harbor,” Davis hoped the Federals would evacuate Sumter on their own.

The next day, special agent Gustavus V. Fox left Washington to study the situation at Fort Sumter and determine whether the garrison could be resupplied. Fox’s mission conflicted with Seward’s assurances to the Confederate envoys through Justice Campbell that Sumter would soon be evacuated.

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Sources

  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 4682-752, 4776
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 133-35
  • Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 6019
  • Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 45-46
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 17-18
  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 340-43
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 49-50
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 268
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 55

The Florida Secession

January 8, 1861 – While the Florida State Convention considered secession at Tallahassee, Federal troops garrisoning Fort Barrancas at Pensacola fired on and repelled potential secessionists approaching them.

The Florida convention had assembled in the first week of January. During that time, Florida militia had seized Apalachicola Arsenal and Fort Marion at St. Augustine. Federal troops resisted attempts to take Fort Barrancas and Barrancas Barracks on the 8th, but two days later the convention delegates voted 62 to 7 in favor of secession. This made holding the positions untenable.

Florida Flag of 1861 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Florida Flag of 1861 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lieutenant Adam G. Slemmer, anticipating an attack on Barrancas, spiked his cannon and transferred his Federal garrison of 81 soldiers and sailors to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island at the mouth of Pensacola Bay. That same day, 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 secessionists’ hands.

Florida militia seized Fort Barrancas, Barrancas Barracks, and Fort McRee on the 12th. In addition, U.S. Flag Officer James Armstrong surrendered the Pensacola Navy Yard. State militia then demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens, but Slemmer refused. When the governors of Florida and Alabama reiterated the demand for surrender, Slemmer responded, “A governor is nobody here.” Slemmer also rejected surrender demands on the 15th and 18th.

Meanwhile, Federal troops under Captain John M. Brannan occupied Fort Taylor at Key West. This provided the U.S. Navy with a strategically important coaling station. A few days later, Federals led by Major Lewis G. Arnold also took up positions at Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas, off Key West.

On January 24, a Federal squadron consisting of U.S.S. Brooklyn, Sabine, Macedonia, and St. Louis left Fort Monroe, Virginia with 200 reinforcements for Fort Pickens near Pensacola. President James Buchanan had issued cautious orders for the ships to go to Pickens but not to land troops unless secessionists showed hostility toward them.

Five days later, the so-called “Fort Pickens Truce” went into effect. This was an informal agreement under which the Navy Department ordered the U.S. Marine detachment aboard U.S.S. Brooklyn not to land as long as secessionists showed no hostility toward the Federals in the fort. Brooklyn stopped within sight of Santa Rosa Island. This “truce” was like that involving Fort Sumter, but in Pickens’s case the Federals could have landed beyond the range of the Florida guns but agreed not to do so.

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Sources

  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 128-29
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 9-12
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 23, 25-27, 29
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 266
  • Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 276-77
  • Wikipedia: Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War