Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More on the Seizure of the U.S. Arsenal at Chattahoochee


Here is another excerpt on the January 6, 1861, capture of the U.S. Arsenal at Chattahoochee from my recent book, The Early History of Gadsden County:


- Excerpt -
There has long been confusion by historians over the identity of the officer ordered by Governor Perry to seize the arsenal. Published versions of official U.S. reports identify him as “Colonel Dunn,” while several 20th century writers gave his name as either “Dunn” or “Duryea.” It is easy to understand how the name “Gunn” might have been transcribed as “Gunn” during typesetting, but the source of the name “Duryea” is a mystery.

Since there was neither a “Colonel Dunn” nor a “Colonel Duryea” in Florida at that time, efforts to track down the commander of the operation have proved frustrating. A careful examination of sources from the time, however, leaves no doubt that the officer in question was Colonel William J. Gunn, a Quincy resident and the commander of the 7th Regiment. Dr. Charles Hentz, a Quincy physician, confirmed this in his diary when he wrote:

On Saturday night, Jan. 5 – Col. W.J. Gunn returned from Tallahassee with sealed orders, which when opened were found to contain commands from Gov. Perry to seize the Arsenal at Chattahoochee. Whereupon the drum was beat soon after supper, & the Young Guard with Gunn, Lieut. Col. Porter Scott Col. Stockton, Gillis (advocate), Robt. Booth (Surgeon), went off, in hacks, carriages &c, & took possession of the Arsenal for the State of Florida.

A well known Gadsden County military unit, the “Young Guards” eventually became Company G of the 1st Florida Infantry. The sight of their distinctly non-military departure from Quincy in carriages and hacks on the night of January 5, 1861, must have been fascinating.

The men reached Chattahoochee on the morning of the 6th and at 7 a.m. approached the gates of the arsenal. The post was then held by only Ordnance Sergeant Edwin Powell and three soldiers and Gunn and his men were able to march through the gates without firing a shot. Unsure of what to do, Sergeant Powell refused to turn over the keys to the magazines and armory and requested permission to telegraph superiors. Gunn agreed and the sergeant soon dispatched a brief message to Captain Maynadier in Washington from the Chattahoochee telegraph office:

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.

Dunn did not try to force the issue, but gave Powell time to wait for a reply from Washington. No reply came. Powell then tried to mail a letter to Washington requesting instructions and enclosing a copy of the governor’s orders to seize the facility, but was told that the mail would not be delivered. Colonel Gunn then telegraphed Tallahassee for further instructions and was ordered by Governor Perry to compel the delivery of the armory and magazine keys. When told of these orders by Gunn, Powell delivered a moving address to the militiamen that had assembled in the arsenal compound:

Officers and soldiers: Five minutes ago I was the commander of this arsenal, but in consequence of the weakness of my command, I am obliged to surrender – an act which I have hitherto never had to do in my whole military career. 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. You see that I have but three men. These are laborers, and cannot contend against you. I now consider myself a prisoner of war. Take my sword.

Powell handed his sword to Captain Jones of the Young Guards, but in the chivalrous spirit of those pre-war days, Jones returned it to him with a flourish. “Dear sir,” he is said to have remarked, “take your sword; you are too brave a man to disarm.” The assembled militiamen then gave “three cheers for the gallant Powell.”

Contrary to his apparent expectation, Powell and his three men were allowed to leave Chattahoochee. They went first to Quincy, where he dispatched another telegraph to Captain Maynadier explaining his situation:

I beg leave to state that I telegraphed this morning from Chattahoochee, and finding that I could get no answer, I came to this place and thought probably I might get an answer from you by writing from here. I informed you that the Florida troops had taken possession of the arsenal, and my force being so weak I was unable to offer any resistance. I mailed a copy of the governor’s order, &c., this morning at Chattahoochee, but finding that it would not be forwarded on account of the excitement – they have taken all the public property in spite of all I could do – I refused giving up the keys, but the governor telegraphed to the commanding officer to insist on the delivery of the same, and I was compelled to give them up. I would be pleased to receive advice as to what disposition I shall make of myself and men.

Powell and his men continued on to St. Augustine, arriving just in time for the military facilities there to be seized by state troops as well.
Information on the seizure riveted the readers of Southern newspapers and as the news spread, so did exaggerated claims of the amount of material seized. The Savannah and Macon newspapers soon reported, for example, that the arsenal had contained “500,000 rounds of musket cartridges, 300,000 rifle cartridges, and 50,000 lbs. of gunpowder.” This was a significant exaggeration of the actual amount, reported by Captain Maynadier as 173,476 musket cartridges and around 5,000 pounds of gunpowder. Never the less, the larger figure has been inaccurately used by many modern historians.
The Federal government made no immediate reaction to the seizure of the arsenal, largely because it was followed by similar acts in Pensacola, St. Augustine and Fernandina. Militia troops and volunteers flooded to Chattahoochee in the event of an effort to reclaim the facility by U.S. troops, but no attack came and the soldiers were soon sent home.
Florida seceded from the Union on January 10, 1861, four days after the taking of the U.S. Arsenal at Chattahoochee.
- End of Excerpt -




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