GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Fla. — A raid 150 years ago by Confederate sympathizers on a Union fort at what is now Pensacola Naval Air Station was likely little more than an ill-planned and drunken misadventure, perhaps ended by one soldier’s warning shot — and a blank one, at that.
But don’t tell Pensacola residents that the Jan. 8, 1861, skirmish meant nothing — the event is the stuff of legend in this military town. Some even claim the clash was the Civil War’s first, three months before the battle on April 12, 1861, at South Carolina’s Fort Sumter, which is widely recognized as the start of the war.
Dale Cox, the unofficial historian for the Florida Panhandle chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, wrote on his blog that he considers the Pensacola shot the first of the Civil War, saying in an interview that it marked the first time federal troops fired toward Confederate agitators.
“It is an interesting bit of history and I’d like to see Pensacola get more recognition for all of its Civil War history,” he said.
As 1861 dawned, the Union was falling apart. Abraham Lincoln’s election as president the previous November had many Southerners convinced he would ban slavery after taking office that March. South Carolina had seceded on Dec. 20 and other states were about to, including Florida.
Amid the turmoil, about 50 federal troops under the command of Lt. Adam J. Slemmer encamped at Fort Barrancas, at what is now Pensacola Naval Air Station. The fort of arched brick passageways and tunnels overlooks the turquoise waters and white-sand beaches of Pensacola Bay.
On the night of Jan. 8, the men had raised a drawbridge around the fort, which dated to when Spain controlled Florida, because of growing tensions in the surrounding Naval yard, said historian David Ogden, a ranger at Gulf Islands National Seashore.
According to Slemmer’s report, just after midnight, guards heard footsteps outside and challenged the intruders and heard no response, Ogden said. Slemmer made no mention of shots being fired.
It wasn’t until after the war ended in 1865 that one of the would-be intruders, R.L. Sweetman, wrote to Slemmer and later to Slemmer’s widow and made reference to the blank shot fired at Fort Barrancas as the war’s beginning.
“In his letter, Sweetman said something like ‘Your husband can claim that he commanded the post where the first shot was fired,’ ” Ogden said.
The letter sparked the local legend that continues to this day — and plays into Pensacolans’ belief that their city has been cheated by history. They also claim Pensacola and not St. Augustine, Fla., is the oldest city in North America, based on Pensacola’s original founding in 1559 by the Spanish, compared with 1565 for its Atlantic coast rival. But Pensacola was destroyed by a hurricane two years after its initial founding and the Spanish didn’t return until 1698 — St. Augustine never went out of existence.
“We Americans like to be the first and the biggest and the tallest, and Pensacola has this perennially underdog status,” Ogden said with a laugh.
Ogden and others said it’s a stretch to say what happened at Fort Barrancas started the Civil War — the would-be attackers, a small group of drunken and rowdy locals, left as soon as the warning shot sounded — if there ever was one. The National Park Service has marked some anniversaries of the incident with candlelight tours of the fort.
“I’ve gotten in trouble with locals before who have wanted to make a bigger deal out of this,” Ogden said.
Hours after the Pensacola incident, another pre-war clash took place in South Carolina — cadets from The Citadel military academy manning a battery on Morris Island fired on the steamship Star of the West as it tried to resupply 200 federal troops at Fort Sumter. The cadets forced the steamship to turn back and others consider that action the first shots of the war, not the larger fight that happened at Fort Sumter three months later.
“You can get real far down in the weeds about all of this,” said Winfred B. Moore Jr., The Citadel’s dean of humanities and social studies. “The truth is that what happened on April 12, 1861, at Fort Sumter had far, far greater significance than all of these events that came before.”
On Tuesday, booming cannons marked the 150th anniversary of the war’s outbreak as hundreds of people watched a re-enactment of the Confederate bombardment of Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor — widely credited with plunging the young nation into a war that dragged on four years and claimed more than 600,000 lives. Union troops surrendered after about 34 hours of bombardment, Lincoln and the Confederates issued calls to arms, and fighting soon commenced.
Moore said it was almost inevitable that the war would begin in South Carolina despite efforts and attempts in Florida and elsewhere to avert hostilities.
“But there are a lot of Civil War stories to be told and a lot that have never been adequately told and it’s understandable why people who live close to the history want to give it proper recognition,” he added.
And Civil War history did happen in Pensacola.
Across the bay from Fort Barrancas lies Fort Pickens, where Union troops fended off Confederate attacks for four years and kept Pensacola Bay open to federal ships throughout the war.
On a recent afternoon, Rudy Ynostrosa of Pensacola and his 12-year-old son Nicolas made their way through the maze brick tunnels and stairways that comprise Fort Pickens. Ynostrosa said he has long heard that the war’s first shots were fired in his hometown.
“It always amazes me that this was a Union fort and it was out here in the heart of the South,” he said.