Standoff in the Emerald Coast

Standoff in the Emerald CoastUnion troops and secessionist forces jockeyed for position in Pensacola and Fort Walton Beach during the early days of the Civil War
By Jason Dehart

The white beaches and welcoming green waters of the Emerald Coast were not so calming and serene 150 years ago. In 1861, the first tentative shots of the Civil War in Florida were fired in Pensacola, and even Fort Walton Beach saw some action as the war progressed.

In January of 1861, as delegates from across the state gathered in Tallahassee to vote on secession, Florida troops seized federal arsenals and forts within the state. Pensacola was an important naval port. It had no less than five federal installations around the bay. Fort Pickens, on Santa Rosa Island, was the largest but stood unoccupied. Fort McRee, located on the eastern tip of Perdido Key, was likewise empty. Fort Barrancas, located in the heart of the modern-day Pensacola Naval Air Station, sat on the mainland across from Pickens. Like the other posts, it too was unoccupied but several U.S. artillerymen were at Barrancas Barracks nearby. The Naval Yard, meanwhile, was an active facility.

The first shots in anger were fired on Jan. 8., two days before Florida seceded. According to a blog by historian Dale Alan Cox, state forces (there was no “Confederacy” until February ’61) had already taken the U.S. arsenal at Chattahoochee and Fort Marion in St. Augustine. With tensions running high and Southern militia roaming the area, U.S. soldiers guarding Fort Barrancas in Pensacola Bay were jittery. That night, shadowy figures advanced across the drawbridge but disappeared when a sentry spotted them and fired off a warning shot, alerting the tiny garrison at nearby Barrancas Barracks.

“So far as I know, the gunfire at Fort Barrancas did involve the first hostile shot of the war,” Cox wrote in his blog for Explore Southern History. “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.”

Before there was a Confederacy, Southern troops rallied to Pensacola (left) to “evict” U.S. troops from the forts occupying the important harbor. The first shots of the war may have been fired here, rather than in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Photo courtesy Florida Archives

Florida Gov. Madison Starke Perry soon decided to grab all the federal property he could in Pensacola, and troops converged here from not only Florida but Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia. On Jan. 10, 1861, Florida seceded from the Union and two days later the navy yard surrendered to Southern troops. Forts Barrancas and McRee were vacated by the federals. On Santa Rosa Island, the U.S. troops settled in at Fort Pickens and warily watched events unfold around them.

“The eighty-one officers and men in the fort were now all that stood between Florida forces and their complete domination of Pensacola Bay,” wrote the late Stetson University professor John E. Johns in his 1963 book, “Florida During the Civil War.”

Lt. Adam Slemmer, the federal officer in command at Pickens, refused to surrender, and both sides began to prepare for war. The U.S. garrison dug in while the Florida troops drilled and practiced for an assault. On Jan. 13, the U.S. troops exchanged potshots with a landing party sent to scout the fort’s strength, but again there was no actual bloodshed. A couple of days later a truce was called so both sides could sit down and talk over the situation, but again Slemmer refused to leave. Political machinations then ensued in Washington, D.C., during which representatives from Florida agreed with President James Buchanan that there was no need to shed blood over the situation — either in Pensacola, or the similar situation brewing at Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor.

“An attack on these forts, they argued, would play into the hands of the Republicans who desired hostilities to commence before the inauguration of Lincoln,” Johns wrote. The Southern delegation then cabled the Florida commander, Maj. William Chase, that, “The possession of (Fort Pickens) is not worth one drop of blood to us. Bloodshed may be fatal to our cause.”

In his blog for Explore Southern History, Cox writes that he’s often thought about just when, and where, the “first shot” actually occurred. Historians may date the actual “beginning” of the war with the events at Fort Sumter, but other shots had been fired, facilities seized and “separate countries” declared as early as December 1860.

“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 6. 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,” he said. “So it really comes down to a matter of opinion … 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.”

That was the situation until April, when the war began in earnest not in Florida but in South Carolina. That same month, volunteers from Walton and Santa Rosa counties formed the Walton Guards. They pitched camp at a strategic location near East Pass on Choctawhatchee Bay, in what is now Fort Walton Beach. There was no actual “fort” here, but the local troops used a huge temple mound for protection. Since this area was part of Walton County, they called this post Camp Walton. From here the local troops could react promptly to whatever threat approached the bay.

Later that summer Union troops burned the Pensacola dry dock, then torched the Confederate schooner Judah. The Confederates fought back in October when they destroyed a Union camp outside Fort Pickens, but they failed to capture the fort itself. Casualties were high on both sides, and the Battle of Santa Rosa Island “brought a realization of the horrors of war to Florida communities,” Johns wrote.

Back at Camp Walton, the Walton Guards proved so much of a nuisance that in April of 1862, federal troops from Fort Pickens trudged through the Santa Rosa sand and set up a cannon opposite Camp Walton. From here they shelled the defenders. Following that attack, Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg — in overall command of defenses around Pensacola — sent an 18-pounder cannon to Camp Walton for protection. But the camp was later evacuated and its men sent to fight in Tennessee with the First Florida Infantry. The Camp Walton cannon is now on display at the Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park. In May, Pensacola surrendered to Union troops and the navy yard was used as a base for ships of the Union naval blockade. ec