Battle of Santa Rosa

Braxton Bragg

Emerging Civil War welcomes guest author Caleb Pascoe

In the predawn hours of October 9th, 1861, just over 1,000 Confederates on steamers and
barges crossed Pensacola Bay, hoping to catch the Union troops stationed on Santa Rosa Island by surprise. Nine months earlier Union troops had retreated across the bay, from Fort Barrancas and the Pensacola Navy Yard, to Fort Pickens, receiving reinforcements sometime after. In retaliation for the Federal troops burning of the Judah, a ship being outfitted as a Confederate privateer, General Braxton Bragg, the Confederate Commander of southern forces around Pensacola at the time, made the choice to launch an attack against the Federals. On October 7th, Bragg ordered 16 volunteers to be selected from each company in his army for an undisclosed mission. The men were to be ready “to march at any moment, with sixty rounds of cartridges.”1 That moment would come soon enough, for on the evening of October 8th, Bragg ordered the just over 1,000 soldiers to march to the Navy Yard, where they boarded the steamer Time headed for Pensacola.

General Richard Anderson was given command of the expedition. While the troops were
in route to Pensacola they were divided into three battalions. One under command of Colonel James R. Chalmers, another under Colonel J. Patton Anderson, the final under the charge of Colonel John K. Jackson. There was also a company of men armed with knives, pistols, spiking implements, and tools for burning and destroying buildings. The goal of the Confederate mission was not to capture Fort Pickens as some have claimed, but to destroy the camp of the 6th New York Volunteer Infantry, known as Wilson’s Zouaves, and spike the cannons of the batteries outside the fort. The men reached Pensacola at 10 P.M. and began the transfer of troops to the steamer Ewing and employed the steamer Neaffie to assist with the pulling of the troop laden barges. The men set out for Santa Rosa just after 12 A.M.

Most of the Zouaves were asleep in their camp to the east of Pickens, along with their
commander Colonel Wilson, as the Confederate troops under General Anderson disembarked around four miles east of the fort. Splitting his command into three columns, Anderson assigned Colonel Chalmers to march his column along the northern beach of the island. Colonel Anderson was to advance along the south beach, and Colonel Jackson was to march in rear of Chalmers and move his command to the middle of the island once the enemy was engaged. So it was easily said, but the uneven sandy nature of the ground made it a toilsome march. At about 3:30 A.M. men in Jackson’s column were fired upon by one of the pickets of the 6th New York Regiment. The battle of Santa Rosa Island had begun.

Santa Rosa Map

The Union picket was quickly dispatched and General Anderson ordered Jackson to move
his men forward to the center of the island and advice on the enemy. Colonel Jackson, having ordered his troops to fix bayonets and advance, shot down and drove the Union pickets back to their camp, known as Camp Brown. By this time, Colonel Wilson woke up to a nightmare. He formed his reduced regiment of 250 men on the camp parade ground in front of the camp hospital, and sent an orderly to inform Colonel Harvey Brown, the Union commanding officer at Fort Pickens, of the attack. Meanwhile, Colonel Jackson’s men had reached the camp, completely taking the Zouaves by surprise. Confederate troops immediately went to work setting fire to the camp tents. Pine boughs, laid in between the tents for shade, made the camp a tinderbox. Colonel Henry Clayton, commander of the 1st Alabama Infantry regiment recalled, “We fired a volley and with a deafening yell rushed into the camp. The rascals had fled to the fort-leaving guns, clothing, etc. behind. We put fire to the tents-burned everything.”2 Now the New Yorkers could see their enemy clearly by the light of their burning camp. They could also see the rebel troops that were flanking them on both sides. With Confederates firing into their front and left flank, and marching on their right flank, the New Yorkers broke and ran. Colonel Wilson managed to rally some of his men for a stand, but upon hearing of the retreat of the rest of their comrades, they broke completely. The 6th fell back to batteries Lincoln and Totten, just to the east of Fort Pickens.

Back at Fort Pickens, Colonel Brown had been awoken by reports of musketry in the
direction of his namesake camp. He immediately ordered the drum beaten and Major Israel Vodges to march out and meet the enemy with Company E. Third U.S. Infantry, and Company A. First Artillery. While passing battery Lincoln at about 4:30 A.M. in route to Camp Brown, Vodges was reinforced by company G. of the 6th New York, which had been stationed at battery Lincoln. Throwing the New Yorkers out on his right flank to act as skirmishers, Vodges and his command made their advance to strike the Confederate force.

After their attack, the southern troops began to loot the burning camp. Colonel Chalmers’s
and Anderson’s column came up to the camp at this time, having skirmished sharply with pickets of the 6th New York and having driven them away while Jackson’s column attacked the camp. The men under Chalmers and Anderson joined in the looting of Camp Brown. Daylight was now approaching, and General Anderson, realizing that time, surprise, and momentum needed to accomplish the mission had been lost, and not wanting to risk the safety of the steamers which were his only line of escape, ordered his troops to fall back to the ships and barges. Just prior to this decision made by General Anderson, a cannon was fired off from the Navy Yard across the bay, a signal from General Bragg for retreat.

Confederate Assault on Camp Brown

Meanwhile, Company G of the 6th New York had gotten separated from the rest of Major
Vodges command in the darkness and sand dunes during the march. Company G was not seen again until the end of the battle. The lack of cover on his right flank was disastrous for Vodges. After marching past the smoldering remnants of Camp Brown, Vodges’s men were alarmed by a large body of men to their right and rear flank. Not certain if they were friend or foe, Vodges wheeled his command around to the right to face the strangers. Shortly after this maneuver, Vodges was captured by what was revealed to be Confederate troops. In the darkness, Vodges’s men had marched passed the retreating southerner’s left flank, and the Yankees were now between them, and their means of escape. The command now fell to Captain Hildt, and after refusing a surrender request made by a rebel officer, he formed his men on a sand ridge to his front. “After some very effective firing form this point,”Hildt’s men suffered withering fire from the Confederates and were forced to fall back to the northern beach of the Island. “Here we lost most that we had killed,”4
said Colonel Clayton.

Their escape route now being clear, the Confederate troops made their way to the
steamers as light began to cut the darkness. At 5 A.M. Colonel Brown ordered Major Lewis Arnold to take Company C. Third U.S. Infantry and Company H. Second Artillery and support Major Vodges. Having reached Captain Hildt just after the fiercest fighting, Major Arnold lead the combined Union force in pursuit of the fleeing Confederates. The Confederate troops managed to board their ships in good order, but the Neaffie had a hawser stuck in one of its propellers, and in an attempt to help Neaffie, Ewing lost the barges it was towing, and they needed to be recovered. During this struggle the Union troops under Hildt and Arnold caught up with the southerners. Formed on the reverse slope of a sand ridge, the Federal troops pored their fire into the soldier laden barges and steamers, lying down on the reverse slope to load, and rising to fire. “The fire of the men was deliberate and well delivered into the crowded mass on the steamers and flats in
tow,”5 recalls Arnold. It was under this fire that General Anderson was struck in the left elbow by a bullet. Soon enough however, the steamers got underway, and out of range of rifled muskets, and with that, the battle of Santa Rosa Island, was over.

When the smoke cleared the Confederates had suffered 18 killed, 39 wounded and 30
captured, according to General Anderson. The Union troops lost 14 killed, 29 wounded and 24 captured according to Colonel Brown. Through both sides claimed victory, the most valuable thing either side came away with was experience. For the southern troops engaged at Santa Rosa Island, this experience would prove priceless when they were shipped north to Mississippi, and fought in the woods and fields around a small farm church by the name of Shiloh.

Caleb Pascoe is a 22 year old student, completing his last semester as an undergraduate at the University of West Florida. He says he has been interested in the Civil War since he was a kid and hopes to go on to receive a Masters Degree in History, specializing in early American history. Caleb’s ultimate goal is to one day be an American history author and run for political office.


Scott, Robert N., comp. The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Vol. 6. Series 1. Washington: G.P.O., 1882.

Rice, Gary . “Battle of Santa Rosa Island.” HistoryNet. October 20, 2016. Accessed July 2017.

Pearce, George F., Pensacola during the Civil war: a Thorn in the Side of the Confederacy. Gainesville: University Pr Of Florida, 2008.

1 Pearce, Pensacola during the Civil war: a Thorn in the Side of the Confederacy.

2 Ibid.

3 Scott, The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

4 Pearce, Pensacola during the Civil war: a Thorn in the Side of the Confederacy.

5 Scott, The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

2 Responses to Battle of Santa Rosa

  1. It is indeed refreshing to encounter such a well written article about “sleepy Pensacola… where the Civil War almost began.” There is so much about Pensacola that Civil War historians ignore; but the primary acquisition of benefit to Braxton Bragg and his men during their time on the Gulf Coast, as revealed by the author: experience. Santa Rosa Island was a rare nighttime contest, executed on a moonless night, and as reported, a raid. Confederate attackers are said to have worn white armbands during the raid to help identify friend from foe. And after accomplishing the objective — giving a bloody nose to haughty New Yorker, Billy Wilson — the attackers departed, taking with them an unexpected prize: Major Israel Vogdes, the Fort’s Chief of Artillery.
    James Chalmers, Patton Anderson and John K. Jackson took their well trained, experienced troops north a few months later, and at Shiloh came excrutiatingly close…
    An excellent video, featuring the late J. Earle Bowden of Pensacola News Journal is to be found on YouTube post of 10 MAR 2012, “The Battle of Santa Rosa Island.”
    Thanks to Caleb Pascoe for drawing back the curtain, just a little.

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