Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 13, 1861 - The First Exchange of Fire of the Civil War

Land Face of Fort Pickens
This is part of a month-long daily series on the secession of Florida.

January 13, 1861

The fall of the Pensacola Navy Yard on the morning of the 12th and the demand for the surrender of their own post that evening were causes for great alarm among the U.S. soldiers and sailors sheltered within the walls of Fort Pickens.

Concerned that militia forces might try to move on the fort under shelter of darkness, Lieutenant Adam Slemmer ordered his men to prepare for battle:

At 12 o’clock at night the men were paraded and told off to the different batteries in anticipation of an attack, slow-match lighted, with lanyards and port fires in hand ready to fire. No signs of an attack; night very dark and rainy. We still labored on the 13th strengthening our position, and at night threw out sentinels beyond the glacis. Men stood at the guns as on the night previous. - Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, U.S. Army, February 5, 1861.

Santa Rosa Island near Fort Pickens
No attack materialized, but Florida and Alabama militia was nevertheless active in the sand dunes east of the fort on Santa Rosa Island. As darkness fell, scouting parties moved up near the fort to observe what Slemmer and his men were doing. This led, on the night of January 13, 1861, 150 years ago tonight, to the first exchange of gunfire of the Civil War:

Night very dark and rainy. On the night of the 13th a body of some ten men were discovered evidently reconnoitering. A shot was fired by them, which was returned by the sergeant. They then retreated. Nothing more could be seen of the party that night. - Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, U.S. Army, February 5, 1861.

No one was injured on either side, but the firing was indicative of how tense the situation at Pensacola Bay was becoming. Slemmer and his tiny command of fewer than 100 men were besieged in a massive fort designed to be manned by 1,200 men in the event of a siege. On the Southern side, war fever was growing and the state forces were almost to a man ready to attack. 

To learn more about Fort Pickens, please visit

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