ECW Weekender: Fort Pickens

ECW Weekender-Header

Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Sean Michael Chick

I took a trip down to Pensacola with my girlfriend two weeks ago, intent on checking out the beach before it became crowded. I also wanted to look at some of the historical sites. First on my list was Fort Pickens. My love for old fort started with a surprise trip to Fort Niagara in 2008. My preference is for forts that are not super famous and are off the beaten path.

Fort Pickens was always a geographically an obscure place. The fort was built on Santa Rosa Island, intended to guard the entrance to Pensacola. Constructed from 1829-1834, it was overseen by Colonel William Henry Chase. He used slave labor from across the gulf south, in particular skilled slaves from New Orleans. Slaves, who were sometimes paid for work done outside the home or plantation, saw nothing from this labor. The owners reaped all the rewards.

Fort Pickens was basically abandoned after the Mexican-American War. It suffered fire damage in 1858. The main outpost at Pensacola was Fort Barrancas. Yet, Fort Pickens would become the flashpoint of the secession crisis. Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, commander at Fort Barrancas, came under attack on January 8, 1861, when local militia tried to seize the fort at midnight. The attack was repelled without losses, and for many these were truly the first shots of the war. But neither side was willing to fight just yet and no blood had been shed. Slemmer decided to leave Fort Barrancas for the more defensible Fort Pickens, much like Robert Anderson had done in shifting from Fort Moultrie to Fort Sumter on December 26, 1860.

On January 10 Florida seceded and Slemmer destroyed over 20,000 pounds of gunpowder at Fort McRee, spiked the guns at Barrancas, and evacuated with 51 soldiers and 30 sailors to Fort Pickens. Chase, now commander of the Florida militia, demanded Slemmer’s surrender. Slemmer was defiant. When Chase said he might storm the fort, although he would lose half his force, Slemmer declared that Chase would not be willing to make the sacrifice.It appeared likely that if war would not start at Fort Sumter it may start at Fort Pickens.

Florida was far less bellicose about Fort Pickens than South Carolina was about Fort Sumter, but it was telling that the two fort stand offs occurred in the two most pro-secessionist states. When William Gist, South Carolina governor, asked the Southern states if they would secede if Lincoln won the election, only Florida answered with an unequivocal yes. At any rate, the elderly Chase seemed unwilling to attack and Senator Stephen Mallory worked out an informal arrangement with James Buchanan in which Florida would not attack the fort as long as the federal government did not reinforce it. On March 9, Chase was replaced with Braxton Bragg.

Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, did not want war. He advised that Lincoln take a soft tone in his first inaugural address and abandon Fort Sumter. Fort Pickens was easier to defend and better provisioned. It would also be easier to resupply from the sea. Mostly, Seward wanted to avoid a conflict that would be sure to bring the upper South into the nascent Confederacy. If the Confederacy attacked Fort Pickens, it would be later in the year, and perhaps after tensions cooled. Arguably, Seward was too clever by half. One part of his scheme to reunite the nation was to seek war with Britain and Spain.

Fort Pickens, once an abandoned outpost, was now a point of importance, but the war would not come there. Seward was overruled. War would come to Fort Sumter. On April 12, 1861, the same day Fort Sumter was shelled, the U.S. Navy began landing reinforcements at Fort Pickens.

Fort Pickens remained fixed in the public conscious throughout 1861. There were some bombardments, and even a sortie against the fort, but it remained in Union hands for the whole war. The Union hold on Fort Pickens was one of the few Northern victories in 1861. It was chronicled in the newspapers, particularly Frank Leslie’s Illustrated. After greater victories at Mill Springs and Fort Donelson, the fort was largely forgotten. Slemmer never became a hero. Indeed, he suffered such a grievous wound at Stones River that he never again saw combat.

Fort Pickens today is no longer a flashpoint. Indeed, the fort was, outside of 1861, simply another coastal fortification, today showing signs of the curious Endicott era. It is no longer the pawn of Seward or Davis and no longer the point where the war almost began. Fort Pickens will forever be a place that was almost pivotal, almost synonymous with the start of America’s greatest and bloodiest war.

Today, it is rarely as visited as Fort Sumter, a place I finally saw in December 2015. Both forts have that half-abandoned look and spectacular vistas of the sea. Fort Sumter’s museum is much better, but Fort Pickens gives you more time and room to explore. Indeed, few forts have been this fun to simply move around in. The whole time I kept thinking “the war almost began here.” There are good reasons why it did not and certainly the chances were low. But if Anderson had surrendered or not left Fort Moultrie, then all eyes would have turned here.

Such places, where great things almost happened, are said to have a lonely, almost forlorn feeling, as if the fort might make the “I could have been a contender” speech from On the Waterfront. Yet, Fort Pickens does not have that feeling. The long road to the fort is lined with fishing, camping, swimming, and a stunning view of the Gulf of Mexico. The nearby forest has a primordial, almost Dinosaur era, appearance. Throughout the fort people freely explored, laughed, and posed for pictures. Without going into the museum one would never know that this place almost saw the start of America’s greatest tragedy.

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