The Civil War on Pensacola Bay, 1861-1862

by John K. Driscoll, McFarland & Co., 2008, $55

As the secession winter of 1860-61 turned into spring, two sites—Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and Fort Pickens on Pensacola Bay—emerged as potential flashpoints in the deepening crisis between the North and South. As the site of the opening shots of the war, Fort Sumter has justifiably claimed the bulk of attention from historians. Yet to contemporaries, the standoff at Fort Pickens loomed as dangerous as the one in Charleston. The confrontation on Pensacola Bay and the role of Fort Pickens in the opening stages of the war are given full treatment in John Driscoll’s carefully studied and closely argued The Civil War on Pensacola Bay, 1861-1862.

Driscoll introduces his topic with an overview of the history and topography of Pensacola Bay, whose deep harbor and proximity to Mobile, Ala., New Orleans and the West Indian trade routes led to its selection as the site of the southernmost Navy yard in the United States. A series of fortifications were constructed to protect the installation, the key being Fort Pickens on the barrier island Santa Rosa. As Florida moved rapidly toward secession, U.S. Artillery Lieutenant Adam Slemmer made the key decision to transfer his small detachment from the mainland bastions to Pickens. His action foiled designs by Florida state and Confederate forces to capture the strongpoint, simultaneously denying them full use of Pensacola Bay. Slemmer was aided by the naval vessels that sheltered under the fort’s guns, and scouted the bay to intercept Rebel landing parties and Southern ships. With both sides hoping to avoid blame for initiating hostilities, the so-called “Fort Pickens truce” was negotiated. Southern authorities undertook not to attempt to attack the fort, which they hoped would fall instead from a lack of supplies, and Federal authorities pledged not to reinforce it. When Braxton Bragg arrived to assume command of the gathering Confederate forces at Pensacola in March 1861, he upheld the truce, partly because he had no siege artillery. Bragg’s cautious attitude offset serious deficiencies in Federal command in the bay, caused by officious, sometimes absurd, squabbles between Union Army and Navy officers over protocol, rank and orders.

The situation changed rapidly at both Sumter and Pickens after the Lincoln administration assumed office. While Fort Sumter was given priority, Slemmer’s thin command at Fort Pickens was reinforced. Despite the landing of additional Union forces, which effectively ended the “truce,” Bragg waited seven months before launching a weak attack against the fort that accomplished little. The Federals retaliated by bombarding Confederate fortifications on the mainland. Pensacola slid into backwater status as Bragg’s forces were shifted to Tennessee and Virginia. The Confederates then evacuated Pensacola and its fortifications, burning or destroying whatever they could not carry off. Shortly afterward, Northern forces from Pickens sailed across the bay and took control of the town and its installations.

The Civil War on Pensacola Bay, 1861-1862 is attractively produced and profusely illustrated, but it lacks a good map of the area, which would be beneficial. The partial map on the cover is inadequate to the task. Driscoll’s clear, even writing and his mastery of source material has been sabotaged by poor editing. Too many run-on paragraphs, some extending over three pages, often turns reading from a pleasure to a slog.

All the same, this is an important contribution to the study of an often-overlooked theater of the war.


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here