"Peculiarly distinguished among the advance guard, where all were distinguished, must be recorded . . . Private J. W. Brown, of Company F, First Georgia Regiment, who, upon hearing the order to fall back, exclaimed, 'I will give them one more shot before I leave,' and while ramming down his twenty-ninth cartridge fell dead at his post." - General Henry R. Jackson in his report of the Battle of Greenbrier River.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The First Shots?

Even before officially declaring itself out of the Union, Florida began moving to secure the military sites within its borders. On January 6, Florida troops took possession of the U.S. Arsenal at Apalachicola, and the next day, Fort Marion in St. Augustine was taken over.

Near Pensacola, First Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer of the First U.S. Artillery, anxiously watched the unfolding crisis. Lt. Slemmer’s commanding officer, Captain John H. Winder, who would become a Confederate brigadier general and be placed in charge of the Confederacy’s prisons, was absent on leave. This left Slemmer in command of U.S. Army posts around Pensacola Bay, which included Forts Barrancas and McRee on the mainland, and Fort Pickens across the bay on Santa Rosa Island. Slemmer began to prepare for trouble.

On the 8th, Slemmer directed that gunpowder stored in the old Spanish Water Battery be moved into Fort Barrancas, and “caused all the batteries to be put in working order.” Late that night nervous sentries guarding Barrancas caught sight of the dark silhouettes of men approaching the gates. The shadowy figures were Florida militia, their purpose unknown. Many historical accounts say that the Union sentries fired upon the trespassers. Lt. Slemmer’s report does not specifically say that shots were fired.

“That night a body of men (about twenty in number) came to the fort with the evident intention of taking possession. The corporal of the guard caused the alarm to be given, upon which the assailants retreated precipitately. The guard was immediately strengthened by half the company, but nothing further occurred that night.”

If the guards did fire their weapons, these shots could arguably be called the first fired in the American Civil War.

Florida would secede from the Union two days later, on January 10. Lt. Slemmer found himself in a situation very similar to Major Robert Anderson’s at Charleston. Like Anderson, Slemmer decided that his posts on the mainland were indefensible with the small force at his disposal, so he ordered the guns of Forts Barrancas and McRee spiked, and transferred his troops out to Fort Pickens. Florida troops took possession of the mainland fortifications on the 12th, and demanded the surrender of the Navy Yard. Without even a hint of resistance, Armstrong turned control of the Yard over to the Floridians. Armstrong would be court-martialed on March 12 for surrendering his post to the Floridians, and was sentenced to be suspended from the service for five years. Lieutenant Slemmer, on the other hand, was acclaimed as a hero throughout the north, and received a promotion to Major as a reward for his actions at Fort Pickens.

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