|Barrancas: The First Shots Fired
in the Rebellion
by Walter Giersbach
The firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston's harbor traditionally marks the
opening salvos of the Rebellion. But before this assault on April 14, 1861,
there was another battle—the first shots of the Civil War—hundreds of
miles to the south in Florida.
On Jan. 8, 1861, United States Army guards repelled a group of men intending to
take Fort Barrancas in Pensacola Harbor. Historians say that this event could
be considered the first shots fired on Union forces in the Civil War. 
Fort Barrancas, located on a barrier island, was one of four fortified areas
that marked the southern defenses. Fort Barrancas has been a site for harbor
fortifications since 1763, when the British built a fort. The Spanish captured
Pensacola from the British in 1781 and constructed their own fortification on
the site, calling it San Carlos de Barranca. The Spanish word barranca
means bluff, which fairly describes the location of the fort.
The United States began constructing fortifications at Pensacola in the 1820s,
when Pensacola Bay was chosen as the site for a Navy Yard. Along with Fort
Barrancas, which defended the Navy Yard, there were Fort Pickens and Fort
McRee, both located on islands at the entrance to the bay. (Fort McRee has been
completely destroyed by the shifting sands of the barrier island it was located
on.) The Advance Redoubt, near Fort Barrancas, was an infantry fort, designed
to stop overland movement of enemy troops toward the Navy Yard.
Fort Pickens was the largest installation that fortified Pensacola Harbor.
Constructed between 1829-1834, Pickens was located at the western tip of Santa
Rosa Island, just offshore the mainland. Construction was supervised by Colonel
William H. Chase of the Corps of Army Engineers. Using slave labor, the fort
used over 22 million bricks and was designed to be impregnable. Ironically,
Chase was later appointed by the State of Florida to command its troops and
seize for the South the very fort he had built.
That the defensive positions were of critical importance was realized by both
the Union and the Confederacy. On Jan. 5, Senator Yulee wrote from Washington
to Joseph Finegan at Tallahassee, "The immediately important thing to be done
is the occupation of the forts and arsenals in Florida." Union soldiers in
Florida occupied the Apalachicola arsenal at Chattahoochee, containing a small
number of arms, 5,000 pounds of powder and about 175,000 cartridges; Fort
Barrancas, with 44 cannons and ammunition; Barrancas barracks, where there was
a field battery; Fort Pickens, equipped with 201 cannons with ammunition; Fort
McRee, 125 seacoast and garrison cannons; Fort Taylor in Key West, with 60
cannons; Key West barracks, 4 cannons; Fort Marion, with 6 field batteries and
some small arms; and Fort Jefferson on the Tortugas.
Sen. Yulee pointed out, "The naval station and forts at Pensacola were first in
consequence." There was then on the mainland one company of Federal artillery,
commanded by John H. Winder, later to be promoted to general in the Confederate
service. On account of Winder's absence Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer was in
At the time of the Secession,
Fort Pickens had not been occupied since the Mexican War. Lt. Slemmer,
responsible for the U.S. forces at Fort Barrancas, decided that in spite of its
dilapidated condition, Pickens was more defensible than any of the other posts
in the area. His decision was accelerated around midnight of Jan. 8 when his
troops repelled a group of men intending to take the fort. In consolidating his
position, Lt. Slemmer destroyed over 20,000 pounds of powder at Fort McRee,
spiked the guns at Barrancas, and evacuated his 80 troops to Fort Pickens.
Because of his tactical thinking, Fort Pickens remained in Union hands
throughout the Civil War.
A native Pennsylvanian, Adam J. Slemmer was graduated from West Point in 1850
as brevet second lieutenant 1st Artillery. He was promoted to first lieutenant
in 1854. Lt. Slemmer was in charge of the small artillery garrison quartered at
Fort Barrancas when the Secession crisis occurred. With an under-manned
garrison far from Washington, Lt. Slemmer considered his situation at Fort
Barrancas to be untenable. The naval establishment, consisting of a minimal sea
force and the Navy Yard, was under Commodore James Armstrong. Both Slemmer and
Armstrong had been told that an attempt to seize the military works would be
made as soon as the Florida politicians should declare that State's
secession—and secession was imminent. Federal posts in Florida and Alabama had
already been seized, and hostile troops were gathering at Pensacola.
Lt. Slemmer decided to concentrate his forces to defend only one fort, and
moved his four score troops on Jan. 10 to the greater security of Fort Pickens,
then unoccupied. That was the date in which the Florida Convention passed the
Ordinance of Secession. On the same morning, about 500 insurgents of Florida,
Alabama and Mississippi appeared at the gate of the Navy Yard and demanded its
surrender. Commodore Armstrong was powerless, for three-fourths of the 60
officers under his command were disloyal.
Commander Ebenezer Farrand was among the insurgents who demanded the surrender,
and Flag-Officer Renshaw immediately ordered the National standard to be pulled
down. The post, with ordnance stores valued at $156,000, passed into the hands
of the authorities of Florida. The insurgents took possession of Forts
Barrancas and McRee.
Two days later, on Jan. 12,
Florida and Alabama troops took the mainland bases and demanded that Lt.
Slemmer surrender Fort Pickens. That night, a deputation went to the fort,
consisting of Captain Randolph, Major Marks and Lieutenant Rutledge. They
demanded the peaceable surrender of Pickens to the governors of Alabama and
Florida, but Slemmer declined to recognize the authority of those officials.
Lt. Slemmer held his position until an informal agreement, or "truce," was
established between President Buchanan's Administration and Florida. The terms
were that Southern troops would not attack Pickens so long as Union troops
remained aboard nearby ships and did not reinforce the fort.
The two vessels in the harbor, the Supply and Wyandotte,
steamed out under the truce, but remained in the possession of the United
States officers. The 80 men under Slemmer at Fort Pickens remained defiant. The
following night, a small party of armed men from the mainland reconnoitered on
the island and a few shots were fired from the fort.
On Jan. 15, Col. W. H. Chase, a U.S. Army officer of Massachusetts who had
worked on building the forts and was thoroughly familiar with Pensacola Bay's
defenses, visited Fort Pickens in company with Capt. Farrand. Chase was in
charge of all insurgents in that region and Farrand had been second in command
at the Navy Yard. Chase obtained an interview with Slemmer and tried to
persuade him to "avoid bloodshed" by quietly surrendering the fort. Col. Chase
said in conclusion, "Consider this well, and take care that you will so act as
to have no fearful recollections of a tragedy that you might have avoided; but
rather to make the present moment one of the most glorious, because
Christian-like, of your life." Slemmer, it can be said, did make that a
"glorious moment of his life" by refusing to give up the fort.
Nothing remained to the State forces except to make an assault. But the Florida
senators in Washington and other representatives, including Senator Jefferson
Davis, telegraphed advising that no blood should be shed.
On Jan. 18, another demand was made for the surrender of the fort, and this too
was refused. A siege of that stronghold was begun.
In the meantime, the government
in Washington was sending reinforcements to Forts Taylor and Jefferson. On Jan.
21, Capt. Israel Vogdes, with a company of artillerymen, was ordered to sail on
the sloop-of-war Brooklyn to reinforce Fort Pickens. On being informed
of the overt act violating the truce, Senator Mallory telegraphed to a Mr.
Slidell that it would doubtless provoke an attack upon the fort by the force of
1,700 men assembled under Col. Chase. Slidell urged that President Buchanan be
informed that Fort Pickens would not be molested if reinforcements were not
sent. Capt. Vogdes was then instructed not to land his men unless hostilities
were begun. Lt. Slemmer, deprived of the promised aid of the naval
establishment, was now left to his own resources. The fort was one of the
strongest on the Gulf Coast. There were 54 guns in position and provisions for
five months, but the garrison consisted of only 81 officers and men.
The situation remained tense, with Capt. Vogdes' men on shipboard off Santa
Rosa island, and the Alabama and Florida volunteers on shore engaged in
strengthening their defenses. On Feb. 11, Lt. Slemmer protested against the
erection of a battery that he observed volunteers working at. Col. Chase
promptly answered that the erection of batteries was not aiming at an attack on
Fort Pickens, yet he would give orders for its discontinuance. 
Several days after the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, Capt. Vogdes was
ordered by General Winfield Scott to land his company, "reinforce Fort Pickens,
and hold the same until further orders." With that order, the conditions of
existing peace were broken.
Capt. Vogdes requested the cooperation of Capt. Adams, who commanded the fleet,
to help him make a landing. Adams refused, saying his instructions forbade such
action so long as there was no aggressive movement on the part of the
In the meantime, General Braxton Bragg took command at Pensacola on Mar. 11 and
ordered the resumption of work on the batteries. He informed the Federal
commander that this action was justified "as a means of defense, and especially
so under the threats of the new Administration."
The number of insurgents at Pensacola increased rapidly, and the Lincoln
Administration resolved to send relief to Fort Pickens. A small squadron was
dispatched from New York for the purpose. Navy Lieutenant J.L. Worden was sent
overland to Pensacola with orders to Capt. Adams, in command of the vessels off
Fort Pickens, to throw reinforcements into that work immediately.
Lt. Worden reached Pensacola on Apr. 10. On his overland trip, Worden had
observed the war fever and preparations. Fearing arrest, he acquainted himself
with the contents of the dispatches and then tore them up. He frankly told Gen.
Bragg that he was sent by his government with orders to Capt. Adams, and that
they were not written, but oral. Bragg gave the lieutenant a pass for his
Fortunately, Worden's message was delivered in the nick of time for Bragg was
on the point of attacking the fort. The reinforcements were thrown in and the
plan was foiled. Worden returned to Pensacola, and was permitted to take the
train cars for Montgomery, Alabama. At that moment, Bragg was informed by a spy
that Fort Pickens had been reinforced. Mortified by his stupid blunder in
letting Worden pass to and from the squadron, he telegraphed the Confederate
government at Montgomery that Worden had practiced "falsehood and deception" in
gaining access to the squadron, and recommended his arrest.
Lt. Worden was seized on Apr. 15, put in jail, treated with scorn by the
Confederates, and kept a prisoner until the following November when he was
exchanged. Lt. Worden, whose timely delivery of orders to Capt. Adams foiled
Gen. Bragg's attack, had become the first prisoner-of-war held by the
insurgents. Worden later distinguished himself in command of the Monitor
at Hampton Roads,
A few days after the reinforcement of Fort Pickens, two vessels appeared
bearing several hundred troops and ample supplies under Col. Harvey Brown.
After four months defending Fort Pickens in the face of enemy guns, Lt. Slemmer
and his small band of troops were worn by fatigue. They were relieved and sent
to Fort Hamilton, New York, to rest. The grateful population of New York
honored them. The President gave Slemmer the commission of major, and afterward
of brigadier; and the New York Chamber of Commerce struck a series of bronze
medals as presents to the commander and men of the brave little garrison.
Reinforcements continued to be sent to Fort Pickens and the number of the
insurgents intended to assail it also increased, until, in May, they numbered
over 7,000. But events of very little importance occurred in that vicinity
during the ensuing summer. As a result of Slemmer's actions, Pensacola remained
a major Union stronghold throughout the war.
Timeline of Early 1861 (6)
Jan. 6 – State troops seize the Arsenal at Apalachicola
Jan. 7 – State troops seize Fort Marion at St. Augustine
Jan. 8 – Lt. Slemmer's troops repel insurgents from Fort Barrancas
Jan. 10 – Florida passes its Ordinance of Secession; Lt. Adam Slemmer transfers
Union troops from Barrancas Barracks to Fort Pickens
Jan. 12 – State troops seize the Pensacola Navy Yard, Fort Barrancas, Fort
McRee, and Barrancas Barracks. Confederate officials demand the surrender of
Jan. 14 – U.S. forces garrison Fort Taylor
Jan. 18 – Confederate officials again demand the surrender of Fort Pickens
Jan. 18 – Union troops garrison Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas
Footnotes and Bibliography
1. Tulane University,
2. From the personal research of Andy Bennett,
3. Tulane University
5. Tulane University
6. E History, http://www.ehistory.com/uscw/library/periodicals/ahotcw/section05/130.cfm
8. E History,
Copyright © 2005 Walter Giersbach.
Written by Walter Giersbach. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Walter Giersbach at:
About the Author:
Walter Giersbach has an abiding interest in the Civil War and New England history. Two great-grandfathers served, respectively, in 1864-66 with the 7th Regt. Vermont Volunteers and in 1861 with Connecticut’s 2nd Artillery. Four sets of maternal ancestors were also caught up in King Philip’s War of 1675-76. Walt's career was in corporate communications before returning to creative writing. He has had a number of short stories and articles published and is working on a novel. He lives in Manchester, NJ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published online: 01/30/2005.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.