Tri-City Ledger -

By Kevin McKinley
Guest ColumnistSt 

The Battle of Santa Rosa Island

 

May 31, 2018

Confederate brothers who fought for the Confederacy

By May, 1861 all the players were positioned for the opening battles around the Pensacola area. Since January 1861, peace had been loosely held in place by a gentleman's agreement between the outgoing administration in Washington and local officials. With the resupplying of Fort Pickens and events at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the road to war was now open.

The first salvos of war occurred in early May when the Confederates were attempting to move a large floating dry dock from the Navy Yard to Pensacola. During the move the tow line broke and the dock drifted close to Fort Pickens. Lt. Slimmer had by now been replaced by Colonel Brown, who suspected the dry dock would eventually be armed with cannons and used as a floating battery. He prepared to fire on the floating behemoth but not before the Confederates scuttled it themselves in order to keep it from falling into enemy hands.

Later in the summer, the Confederates would attempt to resurrect the structure but during the evening of September 2, 1861 a small detachment of troops from Fort Pickens burned all that was left of the structure that was above the water line.

More action was to come that September when the Confederates undertook to refit a ship called the Judah as a blockade runner. In the late night darkness of September 14, 1861, one hundred sailors and marines in four boats disembarked the USS Colorado in Pensacola Bay and approached the Judah at around 3:30AM. Confederate sentries peppered the force with musket fire from the ship. After some back and forth between the forces the raiding parties boarded the ship and set her afire. Yet the action came with a price. As the raiding party returned to the Colorado they reported three dead and 13 wounded in the encounter.

In retaliation for the raid on the Judah, Bragg ordered a counter-strike upon the Federal positions on Santa Rosa Island. General Dick Anderson was tasked with organizing 1000 men to make an amphibious landing on Santa Rosa Island and thereafter proceed up the narrow island and through the moccasin laced brackish streams to attack Fort Pickens.

The force departed on October 8, 1861, but because of difficulties did not fully disembark Pensacola until around midnight. The transports Ewing, Time and Neaffie, with a task force of barges and flats, arrived at the landing site which was four miles east of the fort. The men who made up the force were comprised of regiments from Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Georgia.

The Confederate forces were divided into three groups. One to travel on the bay side of the island, the second on the Gulf side and a third to follow behind in order to prevent the enemy from being able to cut the two groups off.

After a march of three miles the force was spotted by Federal pickets just east of the encampment of the 6th Regiment of New York Volunteers. The men of the 6th New York were Zouaves. The Zouaves wore a style of uniform that would most likely be compared to flashy pajamas. These same Zouaves had only recently arrived at Ft. Pickens. Their leaders had kept their destination a secret upon leaving New York and after the destination was disclosed (after rounding the tip of Florida) the men nearly mutinied at the thought of going to such a remote post.

The men had arrived on Santa Rosa Island during one of the driest years on record and the cisterns which collected water were dry. Many of the men drank from the brackish streams and became sick. Now compounding their misery was the Confederate attack.

The Federal Zouave pickets were soon swept away by the charging sea of gray and with sleep in their eyes the men of the 6th New York found the previous quite night was now pierced by the sound of muskets, yelling and the fog of war swirling around them.

The New Yorkers now fled with little more than their trousers in hand and continued westward until they reached the safety of Fort Pickens.

The Confederate troops, soon found themselves overwhelmed by the large amount of items left behind by the retreating federals and soon set about rummaging through their belongings. Soon wholesale burning and looting of the federal camp began.

General Anderson knew this was a dangerous situation in that the Union forces inside the fort were undoubtedly organizing for a counter strike. Anderson soon gathered his men and, with dawn rapidly approaching, discarded his plan to attack the fort itself in that the element of surprise had been comprised. Yet the Union forces would not let it end there.

According to an Atlanta Century article of October 13, 1861; "after the raid the Zouaves fled to Ft. Pickens for safety but soon rallied their Union counterparts inside the installation. The Confederates beat off a counterattack but stopped to plunder the now deserted Union camp. Soon the Union troops returned; this time armed with Enfield rifles. The Confederates thereafter began an organized withdrawal.

Confederate forces filed onto barges which were to be towed by a steamer which was waiting to return them to one of the Confederate forts in the area. Unfortunately, the steamer's propeller became entangled in one of the cables connecting it with the barges. Now the gallant efforts of the Confederates in their earlier raid were quickly turning into a meaningless disaster as the steamer and barges drifted hopelessly in the waters of the bay."

Following the battle, the Confederates reported 18 dead, 39 wounded and 30 missing or presumed prisoners of war. Colonel Brown reported 14 dead, 29 wounded and 24 prisoners. Among the Confederate dead was Capt. R. H. Bradford of Madison, FL. So ended the Battle of Santa Rosa Island and Florida's first major land battle of the war.

Following the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, a major artillery duel occurred on November 22 and 23, 1861. This exchange resulted in major damage to Fort McRee, the water battery close to it, and the destruction of two thirds of Warrington, much of the Navy Yard which included the Navy Hospital. The houses in Pensacola shook under the sound of the guns and it has been said the duel could be heard as far away as Montgomery, Alabama. Immense numbers of dead fish, killed by the concussions, floated to the top of the water in the bay.

During this two day exchange, the Federals fired 5000 rounds of ammunition. The Confederates retorted with 1000 rounds of shells. The Federals suffered little damage but lost two men and 13 wounded.

A second round of artillery battles occurred January 1st and 2nd 1862, which was more accurate and caused extensive damage to the Navy Yard and the Confederate barracks. During this exchange, the powder magazine at Fort McRee was breached, which resulted in the almost total destruction of the fort. By now, the Confederates at Barrancas were suffering from lack of reliable equipment, supplies, low morale and disease.

On the night of May 9, 1862, at the signal of a colored lantern in the distance, the last Confederates to leave Fort Barrancas ignited fires and blew up the powder magazine as they retreated. The Confederates under Colonel Jones had already hurriedly removed most of the artillery to other locations such as Mobile. Some of the supplies were also sent to Brewton, Alabama for temporary storage before being moved onward.

Meanwhile the Union troops at Fort Pickens watched in suspicious awe at the great fires swirling across the bay. The Union forces thereafter began a heavy bombardment that lasted until the dawn of May 10, 1862.

Pensacola itself was surrendered in the early morning of May 10th. Acting Mayor John Brosnaham met a detail of soldiers from Fort Pickens who took the surrender. By the evening of the 10th, a flag rising ceremony had occurred in Plaza Ferdinand. Stephen Mallory's home at 286 North Palafox was thereafter occupied by Colonel William Wilson of the 6th New York Infantry.

As a consequence of the Federal occupation of Pensacola, the Florida legislature authorized Pensacola's Board of Alderman to conduct business outside the corporate limits of the city. Thereafter, from mid-1862 until the end of the war in April 1865, the Pensacola city government operated as a government in exile in Greenville, Alabama.

Today, many of the landmarks from the War Between the States era still remain visible along the Pensacola area sky line. Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens are excellent sites to tour in order to get a feel for what soldiers on both sides endured in the war.

The William Carney Camp Sons of Confederate Veterans will meet August 5, 2013 at 7pm at the Canoe Civic Center in downtown Canoe, Alabama.

 
 

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