Sunday, January 9, 2011

January 9, 1861 - Drama at Pensacola Bay

1861 Map showing the Forts at Pensacola Bay
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 9, 1861

The morning of January 9th found Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer of the U.S. Army worried about his situation at Fort Barrancas and his authority to put his men into a position that would be easier to defend. The firing of shots on the drawbridge the previous night and rumors of state troops preparing for a move on the post placed him in a critical situation.

His fears over his authority were relieved when a letter arrived from Lieutenant Colonel George W. Lay in Washington, D.C.:

The General-in-Chief directs that you take measures to do the utmost in your power to prevent the seizure of either of the forts in Pensacola Harbor by surprise or assault, consulting first with the commander of the navy-yard, who will probably have received instructions to co-operate with you. - Lt. Col. George W. Lay, January 3, 1861.

Fort Pickens
Slemmer went immediately to the Pensacola Navy Yard with his second in command, Lieutenant J.H. Gilman, to meet with Commodore James Armstrong, who informed him that he had received orders to assist in any way possible. The lieutenant explained that he had decided to move his command over to Fort Pickens, a more easily defended position due to its isolation on S nta Rosa Island, and requested assistance in the form of transport, supplies and men. The commodore agreed and promised to send the U.S.S. Wyandotte to the Barrancas wharf at 1 p.m. 

Lieutenant Slemmer then returned to Fort Barrancas and made plans for his evacuation of that post:

At 10 o’clock a.m. I came with the greater part of my command, Company G, First Artillery, to Fort Pickens to mount guns and make necessary preparations for defense, leaving Lieutenant Gilman at Barrancas Barracks with the remainder to make necessary arrangements for removal. At 1 p.m. Lieutenant Gilman, seeing no signs of the promised assistance, called to see the commodore, and was informed by him that the only assistance he could afford would be to furnish some provisions and take the command over…. - Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, U.S. Army, February 5, 1861.

Fort Pickens
Slemmer and his men went back over to Fort Barrancas and he and Lieutenant Gilman went again to the Navy Yard where Commodore Armstrong relented and told them he would follow through with the original plan. It was promised that the Wyandotte would be at Barrancas by 5 p.m.

Slemmer now returned to Fort Barrancas where his men worked feverishly to move as many supplies as possible to the wharf. 5 p.m., however, came and went with no appearance by the Wyandotte

Determined to go through with the move to Fort Pickens with or without assistance from the Navy, Slemmer kept his men working until midnight when a heavy fog descended on the bay and made it impossible for any movement across to the island to take place that night.

Learn more about Fort Pickens at www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortpickens1

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