Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Reinforcement of Fort Pickens - 150 Years Ago Today

Fort Pickens
On April 12, 1861, as Confederate fire rained down on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, orders reached the U.S.S. Sabine, off Pensacola Bay, to reinforce Fort Pickens.

Located at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, the massive fort controlled the entrance to Pensacola Bay. It was the largest of the harbor fortifications and despite repeated demands for its surrender, Fort Pickens remained in the hands of the U.S. Army. On the mainland and across the harbor entrance at Fort McRee, the growing Confederate army of General Braxton Bragg had been placing cannon after cannon in anticipation of an eventual showdown with the Federal troops on Santa Rosa Island. That showdown had been delayed, however, by an agreement with the previous administration in Washington, D.C., known as the "Fort Pickens Truce."

Tower Bastion at Fort Pickens
The truce agreement held that so long as the U.S. made no move to reinforce Lt. Adam J. Slemmer's tiny command in Fort Pickens, Southern forces would make no move to attack the fort. The truce had held for three months even as the men of both sides prepared for battle. By temporarily averting bloodshed at Pensacola Bay, however, it resulted in the first shot of the real war being fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina on the morning of April 12, 1861.

As the day progressed, previously dispatched orders were hand delivered to the ships off Fort Pickens by Lieutenant John Worden:

Sir: I have the honor to inform you that immediately on the receipt of your order by Lieutenant Worden, on the 12th instant, I prepared to re-enforce Fort Pickens. It was successfully performed, on the same night, by landing the troops under Captain Vogdes, and the marines of the squadron under Lieutenant [John C.] Cash. No opposition was made, nor do I believe the movement was known on shore until it was accomplished. - Captain H.A. Adams, U.S.S. Sabine, April 14, 1861.

Civil War Cannon a Fort Pickens
Headed by Commander Charles H. Poor, the reinforcement of the fort took place under the cover of darkness on the evening of April 12, 1861. Boats from the Federal ships off the harbor entrance accurately landed the troops despite the dark and the absence of the guiding light of the lighthouse. When the sun rose the next morning, Fort Pickens had been strongly reinforced and any possibility of success that could be achieved by a Confederate effort to storm the fort had been all but ended.

The violation of the Fort Pickens Truce by the U.S. Government ended the tense but peaceful standoff at Pensacola Bay. Just as the bloodless bombardment of Fort Sumter had done at Charleston, the bloodless landing of reinforcements at Fort Pickens brought about the opening of the War Between the States at Pensacola Bay.

Fort Pickens today is a shadow of its former self. Time and the elements have ravaged the old fortress on Santa Rosa Island, but it remains one of the most significant and fascinating of the Civil War historic sites in Florida. Now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and managed by the National Park Service, along with Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt on the mainland, it is open to the public daily. To learn more, please visit www.exploreosuthernhistory.com/fortpickens1.

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