Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January 12, 1861 - Surrender of the Pensacola Navy Yard

Pensacola Navy Yard from the Air
This is part of a month-long daily series on the military aspects of the secession of Florida, which took place 150 years ago this month.

January 12, 1861

The situation at Pensacola took on new dimension 150 years ago today when hundreds of state militiamen and volunteers forced the surrender of the critically important Pensacola Navy Yard.

Established in 1826 as a major naval construction, repair and supply facility for the Gulf of Mexico, the Pensacola Navy Yard was one of the most important naval bases in the South. Commanded by Commodore James Armstrong and defended by U.S. Marines, it was the location of warehouses, an armory, a hospital, wharves, workshops, a dry dock and other facilities. The complex was surrounded by a brick wall.

On the morning of January 12, 1861, 150 years ago today, Commodore Armstrong was informed by a naval officer that a representative of the Governor of Florida was at the east gate of the Navy Yard, accompanied by a regiment of state militia from Florida and Alabama:

…Circumstanced as I was, resistance was worse than a desperate venture. My first act was to secure the signal books and destroy them. This effected, I was confronted by the State’s commissioners, who demanded the surrender of the navy yard. My position was a most painful one. With but twenty-three marines on duty and a mechanical force disaffected and sympathizing with the revolutionists, what show of resistance could I have made, opposed as I was by five or six hundred well-armed and picked troops? - Commodore James Armstrong, U.S. Navy, January 25, 1861.

With no real way of defending the large yard with the Marines at his disposal, Armstrong surrendered and command of the yard was taken by Captain V.M. Randolph of the state forces.  In the inquiry into Armstrong's conduct that was carried out by the navy some time later, the commander of the Marines stationed at the Navy Yard provided a good description of the Southern troops that had taken possession of the facility:

…There were about 650 men in all. They were uniformed companies. All well equipped with muskets and revolvers, except the cavalry, who had the usual arms. Three hundred went to the barracks and were quartered there; one company to the large guard room at the north gate, one company to the assistant surgeon’s house, and the balance, some three companies, went to the Barrancas barracks. One of these three was a horse company. There was one artillery company in the command, but it had no field guns. - Captain Josiah Watson, U.S.M.C., Testimony of February 12, 1861.

William Conway, sketch by William Waud, 1861
The surrender of the yard was not without drama. A U.S. Navy quartermaster named William Conway was ordered to lower the Stars and Stripes that flew over the Navy Yard. To the surprise of all present, Conway refused. According to eyewitnesses, he announced that, "I have served under that flag for forty years, and I won't do it."

Conway was jailed by the secessionist officers, but eventually was released and returned to service. In November of 1861, he was presented with a gold medal from citizens of California and a commendation from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. He was then serving in the Gulf Blockading Squadron, based in key West: 

It gives me pleasure to cause to be delivered to you the accompanying letter and gold medal from your countrymen in California, presented to you as a testimonial of their high appreciation of your noble and patriotic conduct in refusing to haul down the flag of your country when others (your superiors in position) were wanting in fidelity to it.- Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, November 11, 1861.

The surrender of the Navy Yard was watched from a distance by the U.S. soldiers and sailors in Fort Pickens. Lieutenant Adam Slemmer reported watching the flag of the yard go down. Later in the day, he found himself facing a similar demand that he give up his post.

Shortly after retreat was sounded in the fort to end the day's work, four men appeared at the gate of the fort and demanded access as citizens of Florida and Alabama. Among them was Captain V.M. Randolph, who now commanded the Pensacola Navy Yard on behalf of the State of Florida:

I immediately went to the gate, accompanied by Lieutenant Gilman. Mr. Abert, engineer of the yard, presented Captain Randolph, Major Marks, and Lieutenant Rutledge. After a pause, captain Randolph said, “We have been sent to demand a peaceable surrender of this fort by the governors of Florida and Alabama.” To which I replied that I was here under the orders of the President of the United States, and by direction of the General-in-Chief of the army; that I recognized no right of any governor to demand a surrender of United States property; that my orders were distinct and explicit. They immediately withdrew. - Lieutenant Adam Slemmer, U.S. Army, February 5, 1861.

The eventful day of January 12, 1861, came to an end with no further activity.


Daniel R. Weinfeld said...

Can you suggest where to find a map that shows the navy yard, pickens and barrancas?
Very much enjoying your accout!

Dale said...

Thank you for the nice words! Take a look at the post for January 9 and I have a map of Pensacola Bay there. Barrancas is labeled "Ft San Carlos" on the map. This is taken from the old name of the fort, San Carlos de Barrancas, which was used during Spanish times.


D. Weatherly said...

Very nice article. I especially liked that you came to the conclusion that my ancestor, Commodore James Armstrong, had no choice but to surrender since his troops were not only outnumbered but also that he was served by a group of officers mostly sympathic to the Southern cause. Yet James Armstrong, even with his brilliant naval career up until this time, went down in history, as someone who simply gave up, thanks to the politically motivated court martial he had to undergo as a result of this surrender. Armstrong, born 17 Jan 1794 in KY & was appointed a midshipman in 1809, rising thru the ranks over the years. Ready to retire in 1861, he was ordered to Pensacola to defend an difficult position at the age of 67. Shame on the Navy for not clearing his name and giving his rank back!

Dale said...

Thank you very much for the kind words. I agree with you 100% that the commodore was in an untenable position. His second-in-command was clearly in league with the Southern forces and Armstrong had no hope at all of defending the yard. I feel for him because he was a courageous and noteworthy officer. Had his officers been of the same mind, the first battle of the war might well have taken place there.