Sunday, January 23, 2011

January 23, 1861 - A Deserter's Account of Fort Pickens

Inside Fort Pickens by an officer, 1861
This is part of a month-long series on the Secession of Florida, which took place 150 years ago this month.

January 23, 1861

Southern newspaper readers were fascinated on this date today by the unique observations of a deserter from Fort Pickens at Pensacola. Although the identity of the man was not given, his account of the strength of the fort appeared in the Richmond Daily Dispatch 150 years ago today:

Fort Pickens, with 200 U. S. soldiers, and mounting 212 guns, is commanded by Lieut. Slimmer, a native of New England, who refuses to surrender. A deserter of it says: 

Land Face of Fort Pickens
Under the protection of its immense batteries the ships of an enemy could make good their harbor in the Bay of Pensacola, or if they did not care to run the risk from shore batteries, which could not be in very dangerous range, they could land forces and supplies on the fort to the eastward on Santa Rosa Island, which is some forty miles long, and thus throw in reinforcements and rendezvous even an army at the fort without interruption, unless of a force intrenched on the island itself, in the rear of the fort — which, however, is almost if not quite as defensible from rear as front. If we are to have war, the seizure of this stronghold is, of course, of the first importance, for unless it is occupied by us it will secure to the enemy a base of operation along our whole Gulf coast, and keep open a road right into the heart of the South, which cannot be obstructed by any fixed fortifications.

Officer's Sketch of Fort Pickens, 1861
If it is to be seized by direct power of arms, it will not be by a force coming under its guns from the water approach. It must be stormed by a sudden attack from a heavy force concentrated on the island to the eastward, which will take it with a Zouave-like rush in double quick time — pouring into it in such numbers as to at once overpower every chance of resistance on the part of the garrison. Though done in the night, and with the quickest movement, and though escaping loss from the batteries in the approach, the work at the walls will be a bloody business if the garrison have a mind to make it so.

The commander has committed the same act of hostility that Anderson did at Moultrie, but we do believe that he will soon surrender the fort, as the commandant at Baton Rouge did the arsenal, on the grounds of the presence of an overwhelming force, and the plea of avoiding useless blood shedding. He is reported to have said he would not fire on his countrymen. We do not believe that he will. 

The editor's belief that Lieutenant Adam Slemmer in Fort Pickens would not fire on Southern forces does not coincide with the statements provided by the officer himself in his reports to Washington, D.C. He planned to defend the fort by all means at his disposal and was fully prepared to shed the blood of any attacking force to do so.

To learn more about Fort Pickens, please visit

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