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Crisis at Pensacola

Pensacola, Fla., with the deepest harbor on the Gulf coast, was home to the Pensacola Navy Yard. At the beginning of 1861, only 82 men in Company G of the 1st U.S. Artillery were stationed there. Three forts protected the harbor–Barrancas and McRee on the mainland, and Fort Pickens, a stone and masonry structure unoccupied since the Mexican War, on Santa Rosa Island.

The Union commander at Pensacola, 1st Lt. Adam Slemmer, knew Florida was about to secede from the Union and assumed the state would try to seize U.S. forts and property. On January 10, 1861, the day Florida seceded, Slemmer, on his own initiative, destroyed the guns at Barrancas and McRee and moved his men to Fort Pickens on the tip of narrow, 40 mile long Santa Rosa Island. Slemmer’s men were aided by the navy’s commissary ship, Supply, which then sailed for New York with the officers’ families. The state’s forces immediately occupied McRee and Barrancas, captured the navy yard, and demanded Slemmer surrender Pickens.

The situation in Pensacola, like the Fort Sumter crisis happening in Charleston Harbor at the same time, was a powder keg ready to explode and ignite a civil war. 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.”

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, 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.

Fascinating Fact: At Pensacola a stalemate, called the Fort Pickens Truce, lasted until April 12, when news arrived of the bombardment of Fort Sumter.