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Wednesday, January 8, 2014


Period illustration of Ft. Pickens, Pensacola Harbor, Florida

Lt. Adam Jacoby Slemmer, U.S. Army,
photo taken by Mathew Brady appeared
in Harper's Weekly.
BATTLE OF FORT BARRANCAS--Around midnight on January 8, 1861, an unknown number of men attacked Fort Barrancas, one of the forts guarding Florida’s deep water Pensacola Harbor and Navy Yard.  Federal guards (Company G, First U.S. Artillery) under the command of U.S. Army Lt. Adam Jacoby Slemmer fought off the attack.  That skirmish is arguably the first “battle” of the American Civil War.   The more dramatic and well-known cannonade against Ft. Sumter happened later on April 12, 1861. 

Two days later (Jan. 10), Florida officially succeeded from the Union.  It was then Lt. Slemmer, a West Point graduate, made a unilateral decision that of the Union forts surrounding the mouth of the harbor, Ft. Pickens on the Western end of Santa Rosa Island was the largest and most defensible even though it had not been occupied since the Mexican War of 1845.  Nonetheless, he moved his 80 men (51 soldiers, 30 sailors) to Ft. Pickens, but not before he exploded 10,000 tons of gunpowder at Ft. McRee and destroyed the cannons at Ft. Barrancas.

When Rebel emissaries approached Pickens and announced, "We have been sent by the governors of Florida and Alabama to demand a peaceable surrender of this fort," Slemmer replied, "I am here by authority of the President of the United States, and I do not recognize the authority of any governor to demand the surrender of United States property--a governor is nobody here."

Map of Pensacola Harbor and location of Ft. Pickens, Ft. McRee, Ft. Barrancas and U.S. Navy Shipyard, 1861
Slemmer refused two more demands for surrender even though his garrison was cut off from mainland supplies and was effectively under siege. When word reached Washington via a returning supply ship from Ft. Pickens, President James Buchanan dispatched a warship with 200 reinforcements, which arrived off Santa Rosa Island on January 29. There it anchored without landing the troops under order from Buchanan for the men to stay aboard ship unless sucessionist forces attacked the fort.

Despite repeated Confederate saber rattling, Fort Pickens was one of the few Southern forts to remain in federal control throughout the Civil War.

Lt. Slemmer’s, a native Pennsylvanian, was soon promoted to Major and then became Brigadier General of Volunteers and on November 29, 1862 he was severely wounded in the Battle of Stones River, a Union victory.  The wound and typhoid fever ended his on field Civil War duty.  He continued his war effort in administrative posts. After the war he was commissioned Lt. Col. of the 4th U.S. Infantry.  He died in 1868 as commander of Ft. Laramie from lingering effects of typhoid fever contracted during the Civil War.

--Library of Congress.
--Edwin Cole Bearss, "Civil War Operations," pp. 125-65; Parks, et. al., Pensacola.  [Bearss, an ex US Marine veteran of WWII, has served as chief historian for the National Parks Service, 1981-94.  He is an award winning Civil War author/historian/tour guide and lecturer.  He lives in Virginia.
-- War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington, 1880-1901), series 1, vol. 1, 445.

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