Saturday, January 8, 2011

January 8, 1861 - Fort Barrancas and the First Shots of the War

Fort Barrancas

This is part of a month-long series on the military aspects of Florida's secession from the Union, which took place 150 years ago this month.

January 8, 1861

Contrary to popular debate, the first shots of the War Between the States were fired neither at Fort Sumter or on the relief ship Star of the West. In reality, the first real shooting of the war took place at the sally port (gate) of Fort Barrancas on Pensacola Bay on January 8, 1861, 150 years ago today.

Barrancas Post, a sprawling military complex adjacent to the brick fort that is preserved today, provided quarters for the only U.S. troops assigned to Pensacola Bay in January of 1861. The soldiers were from Company G, 1st U.S. Artillery, and were commanded by Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, who was fiercely devoted to the Union cause. The total strength of his force was only 46 men.

Powder Magazine at Fort Barrancas
Aware, as he reported 150 years ago today, that state troops from "Florida and Alabama intend taking possession of the fortifications in this harbor," Slemmer began to consolidate his position at Fort Barrancas. On the morning of January 8th he had his men move all of the gunpowder from the magazines in the Water Battery, an older Spanish work once called Bateria de San Antonio, into the primary magazines of Fort Barrancas. He had his men put the cannon into working order and, fearing that a move against the fort might come in the night, he stationed a sergeant's guard in the fort and had the drawbridge raised.

Slemmer's move came just in time:

Scene of the First Shots
…That night a body of men (about twenty in number) came to the fort with the evident intention of taking possession. The corporal of the guard caused the alarm to be given, upon which the assailants retreated precipitately. The guard was immediately strengthened by half the company, but nothing further occurred that night. - Lt. Adam J. Slemmer, U.S. Army, February 5, 1861

What the lieutenant did not mention in his report was that the guard gave the "alarm" by actually firing on the men seen on the opposite side of the bridge. It is unclear how many shots were fired, but the sound of the muskets brought reinforcements running and caused the mysterious intruders to withdraw.

After the war, R.L. Sweetman of Mobile, Alabama, informed Slemmer that he had been one of the men seen at the drawbridge that night. According to his version of events, word had reached parties of volunteers and militia forming in the area that the U.S. troops had evacuated Fort Barrancas. He went with a friend to see if the report was true, only to encounter the fire of the guards at the gate of the fort. No one was injured, but he and his comrade quickly ran to safety. 

The incident at Fort Barrancas took place one day before cadets from the Citadel opened fire on the relief ship Star of the West at the entrance to Charleston Harbor and two days before the State of Florida officially seceded from the Union. The sergeant's guard had fired the first known shots of the Civil War, three months before Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter. 

Fort Barrancas is now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a national park area that stretches from Florida to Mississippi. It is located near the Museum of Naval Aviation and is open to the public daily. To learn more, please visit


Edd Jobs said...

I'm a bit disappointed that the 150th anniversary of the first shots fired in the Civil War have gone largely, if not entirely, unremarked on in the press and on the Web. Even here in Pensacola, the home of Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens, I saw no mention of the anniversary or of any commemorative events in the local paper or on the local news.

Dale said...

It is a shame, isn't it? I know there was an event at Fort Barrancas to mark the anniversary, but lack of coverage is sadly pretty typical. One of the reasons I started this page and my main site,, is to try to share information with people that wasn't readily available.