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1861: January

[ Secession | First shots | Pensacola ]



The national crisis which had been building for decades (cf. page on causes of the Civil War) had come to a head at the end of 1860, the result of the intense negative reaction by those in the South to the election of Abraham Lincoln on November 6th. On December 20th, South Carolina voted to break its bonds with the United States, voting to secede from the Union. The state demanded that the U.S. government turn over its forts in Charleston Harbor, but Major John Anderson was instructed to stay put, though he did move all his troops to the most defensible position, Fort Sumter.

The clamor for secession, which had been heard from the more radical elements in the South in the years leading up to 1861, now became more universal and with South Carolina's example, conventions on secession were called in six other southern states: Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. By the end of the month, all of these states but one had voted to secede from the Union, and that one voted for secession on February 1st. Four other Southern states met to consider whether they too should hold secession conventions (all would eventually secede).

While neither the out-going Buchanan nor the in-coming Lincoln administration recognized the legitimacy of these secession acts, those in the South believed that their states were now sovereign entities, totally independent from the United States. To them this meant, of course, that any U.S. forts in their states now should be turned over to the state governments.

After its vote for secession, South Carolina had demanded that Forts Moultrie and Sumter be turned over to its jurisdiction, but other Southern states acted even before they had officially seceded. On January 3rd, Georgia militia seized Fort Pulaski, at the mouth of the Savannah River (it was held only by an artillery sergeant and a caretaker), the following day Alabama militia seized the federal arsenal near Mobile, and on January 6th, Florida militia did likewise to the arsenal near Appalachiacola.

Good-by to Sumter
Meanwhile, Anderson and his men established themselves in Fort Sumter, sending their loved ones to safety in the north, and the Charlestonians fortified the positions around the harbor. Each side settled down to wait to see what transpired; what did come to pass was the first shots of the war.

The first shots

Firing on Star of the West
Though war was not yet declared, the first shots of what would become the Civil War were fired in January 1861. The federal government did not recognize South Carolina's secession, so it had no intention of giving up its position in Charleston Harbor. Thus General Winfield Scott decided he should send supplies and reinforcements to Fort Sumter. In order not to inflame further the already raw feelings of the South Carolinians, Scott sent the supplies in a merchant marine vessel, the Star of the West, instead of in a naval transport.

This cosmetic approach was to no avail, for on January 9th, as the Star of the West approached Charleston Harbor, cadets from the Citadel--the military college of South Carolina--who were stationed on Morris Island, opened fire upon the ship. In face of this cannon shot, and additional fire from Fort Moultrie, the Star of the West came about while still a mile and a half from Fort Sumter and withdrew back to New York Harbor.


Fort Pickens
The shots fired at the Star of the West were the first shots fired with intent to harm, but the day before, on January 8th, there may have been an even earlier shot fired by Union troops defending Pensacola Bay. There were three federal forts which had been constructed near the mouth of the bay, designed to protect this strategic bay and its federal naval yard. These included Fort Pickens at the end of Santa Rosa Island, and facing it on the mainland, Forts Barrancas and McRee. By the beginning of 1861, there was only a company of about 50 U.S. soldiers in the area, stationed at Fort Barrancas, under the command of Major John H. Winder.

Though Florida did not officially secede until January 10th, local militia seized a U.S. arsenal in the state on January 6th and rumors reached the federal troops at Pensacola that troops from Florida and Alabama would soon attempt to take over the Florida fortifications. Major Winder was then absent (he would later join the Confederate army) and the acting commander was Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer. Slemmer, in a later report, wrote that early in the morning of January 8, "a body of men (about twenty in number) came to the fort with the evident intention of taking possession. The corporal of the guard caused the alarm to be given, upon which the assailants retreated precipitately. The guard was immediately strengthened by half the company, but nothing further occurred that night."

Supposedly one of these "assailants" wrote to Slemmer after the war to say that he and his friends had heard that the federal troops had already evacuated the forts and so they decided to take a look. He wrote that they were fired on by the guards and then immediately took flight. Slemmer did not report any firing that night, but perhaps that was what he meant by the alarm being given. Even if a shot was fired, it probably was fired as a warning shot, not with intent to harm. So, this may have been the first "shot" of what would become the Civil War, though its significance remains doubtful.

Two days later, on January 10th--the same day Florida seceded from the Union--and after having removed what supplies and ordinance he could and destroyed the rest, Slemmer moved his troops across the entrance of the bay to Fort Pickens. Almost immediately rebel troops took over the navy yard and Forts Barrancas and McRee. However, Slemmer's foresight and initiative enabled the Union to hold on to Fort Pickens throughout the war, retaining control of Pensacola Bay.

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