Tuesday, January 4, 2011

January 4, 1861 - The Mysterious Telegram & the Arsenal

Officers Quarters of the Arsenal
This is part of a daily recounting of the military aspects of the secession of Florida from the Union, which took 150 years ago this month.

January 4, 1861

The situation in Tallahassee grew very tense on January 4, 1861. A national day of prayer had been called and the churches of the city joined in, although many of the most determined secessionists refused to participate as they believed it was being done at the call of the abolitionists in New England.

The Secession Convention itself did not meet on the 4th, but there was plenty of discussion of the events sweeping across the South. Alabama seized the Mount Vernon Arsenal north of Mobile that day and Florida leaders contemplated military action as well. A telegram had been intercepted in Atlanta and its contents directed to Governor Madison Perry in Tallahassee. According to the diary of Virginian Edmund Ruffin who had come down to observe the convention, it instructed the three man garrison of the Apalachicola Arsenal in Chattahoochee to destroy more than two tons of gunpowder housed there:

Pre-War Sketch of Arsenal
…A telegraph from the war department at Washington to Pensacola was intercepted, or its contents made known, yesterday at Atlanta, Ga. & made known this morning to the Governor of Fla. It directed the reinforcement of the previous garrisons of the two forts at Pensacola, & the destruction of lbs. 5000 of gunpowder which was unprotected by any garrison in the U.S. Arsenal on the Apalachicola. There was an informal & confidential meting of the members of th Convention with the Governor on this subject -- & I have reason to believe that he was indirectly authorized to occupy the other fort at St. Augustine, & an arsenal that are not garrisoned. 

The actual telegraph has apparently been lost and its contents remain shrouded in mystery, but the information recorded by Ruffin was accurate. The magazines of the facility at Chattahoochee contained 5,000 pounds of vital gunpowder.
The Apalachicola Arsenal, so named because of its proximity to the Apalachicola River, had been built at Chattahoochee in the 1820s and 1830s. A complex of brick buildings built around and facing a central parade ground, it was surrounded by brick walls 9 feet high and 30 inches thick. In addition to the main complex, which covered 4 square acres, there were also two external magazines where the powder itself was stored.

Governor Perry and other pro-secession leaders then convened in Tallahassee knew that the facility and the powder it contained could be vital to state troops in the event of open war with the North. As Ruffin noted, secret meetings were convened and a plan developed to move against not only the facility at Chattahoochee, but other military installations in the state as well.

I'll take a closer look at the Apalachicola Arsenal, where Florida's first military encounter of the war would soon take place, in the next post.

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