Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pensacola and the First Shot - Looks like I have created a bit of a stir!

Fort Barrancas at Pensacola Bay, Florida
In case you haven't seen it yet, the Associated Press ran a story this morning quoting me about an incident at Pensacola that I believe constituted the first hostile shots of the War Between the States.

If you haven't seen it yet, I'll post a link at the bottom of this post.

Basically, though, it revolves around a posting I made here at Civil War Florida back on January 6th of this year as part of a month-long series on the military aspects of the secession of Florida.  I'll post a direct link to it at the bottom of the page as well.

To make a long story short, the posting detailed how, on the night of January 8, 1861, U.S. soldiers guarding Fort Barrancas at Pensacola Bay opened fire on a party of shadowy figures they had seen walking onto the drawbridge of the fort. Tensions were very high and rumors were rampant that state forces intended to seize the fort.  Florida's Secession Convention was then meeting in Tallahassee and state forces had already captured the U.S. Arsenal at Chattahoochee and Fort Marion (Castillo de San Marcos) at St. Augustine.

Cannon at Fort Barrancas
With such rumors making the rounds in Pensacola and parties of Southern militiamen known to be moving in the area, Lt. Adam J. Slemmer who commanded at Fort Barrancas placed a sergeant's guard at the gate of Fort Barrancas on the evening of January 8th. The lieutenant commanded a total force of only 46 men, who were then quartered in the Barrancas Barracks, a separate facility near the fort. As a precaution, though, he had moved all of his gunpowder into the magazines of the main fort.

Well after darkness, the men standing guard at Fort Barrancas observed unknown men approaching the drawbridge. This is from Slemmer's official report of the incident:

…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

Scene of the First Shots
By his statement that the corporal of the guard "caused the alarm to be given," Slemmer meant that the U.S. soldiers opened fire. R.L. Sweetman was one of the men on the bridge and he wrote to Slemmer's wife after the war explaining his side of the incident. According to his account, he and a friend had heard that the fort had been evacuated by the Federal troops and they went to investigate. As they walked onto the bridge, soldiers in the fort opened fire on them with muskets. They retreated rapidly into the dark.

Since the AP article was brief and didn't really go into my thoughts about the incident, I thought I would share them with you here.  I hope you'll pass around the link to this posting if you read or hear anyone commenting on the story, as there is a lot of misinformation and - to be honest - rudeness spreading around out there today, as the AP article is appearing in newspapers and other media sites around the world.

First, so far as I know, the gunfire at Fort Barrancas did involve the first hostile shot of the war. The firing there took place hours before cadets from The Citadel opened fire on the supply ship Star of the West at the mouth of Charleston Harbor and, of course, three months before the bombardment of Fort Sumter, also in Charleston Harbor.

There were other incidents along the Mississippi River prior to the firing on Fort Sumter and I've heard of one in Texas that I haven't had time to investigate, but so far as I know at this point, the gunfire at Fort Barrancas on January 8, 1861, was the first.

Visitor Center at Fort Barrancas
I think officers on both sides did their best to downplay the incident at Pensacola Bay. Neither side wanted bloodshed at the moment and Lieutenant Slemmer didn't even file his report until nearly one month later. Southern mention of the incident was very minimal at the time. The Confederacy, in fact, didn't exist and wouldn't be established until February of 1861, so the opening statement of the AP article that the incident involved "Confederate sympathizers" isn't exactly accurate. Florida, in fact, was still part of the United States on January 8th and wouldn't secede for another two days, so basically what happened at Fort Barrancas is that U.S. troops opened fire on U.S. citizens (admittedly, though, ones that favored secession).

It is also true that armed combat, again so far as I know, did not begin until Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 (150 years ago yesterday). There can be no doubt, however, that the Southern states fully expected that their secession would lead to war. This is why Florida moved to begin seizing the state's military installations even before the official vote of the Secession Convention on January 10, and why a standoff was already underway at Charleston Harbor. Armed militia was drilling in the streets of Southern cities and the U.S. Army was moving to consolidate its position and defend what forts and arsenals it could.

I've often pondered over just when one could say that the war actually started. Fort Sumter was the beginning of armed combat, but shots had been fired, military facilities seized and separate countries (the individual states) declared in December of 1860 and January of 1861. A state of war clearly existed from the point that South Carolina took Castle Pinckney and Fort Moultrie in December of 1860 and began mounting guns aimed at Fort Sumter. In Florida, a state of war existed from the moment that Governor Madison S. Perry ordered the seizure of the arsenal at Chattahoochee on January 6th. The same kinds of things were going on in other states and Mississippi even began placing cannon at Vicksburg to block commerce on the Mississippi River.

So it really comes down to a matter of opinion. Military facilities were seized and manned by Southern troops as early as December of 1861. The first hostile shots were fired at Fort Barrancas in Florida on January 8, 1861. The first exchange of fire took place at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. And the first bloodshed of the war took place even after that, as no one was killed in the fight for Fort Sumter.

As an aside, I do believe that more attention should be given to the incident at Fort Barrancas. It was a significant moment in the history of the United Stated and should be better interpreted and remembered and I hope you will agree, whether you choose to call it the "first shot" or not.

Here are the links I promised:

Original Posting:

AP Article:

More about Fort Barrancas:


"Chip" said...

Mr. Cox, I have always understood that my great ancestor was in one of the first incidents of small arms fire, Sam Cook:


Dale said...

Chip, Thank you for the note. The incident you mention took place on May 9, 1861, about four months after the encounter on the Fort Barrancas drawbridge. It was one of the first small arms skirmishes after the bombardment of Fort Sumter.