Saturday, January 15, 2011

January 15, 1861 - An Engineer Demands the Surrender of the Fort He Built

Col. William H. Chase
January 15, 1861

On this date, 150 years ago, Colonel William H. Chase of the State of Florida demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens at Pensacola, Florida.

It must have been the most unexpected duty of his long military career, as Chase had once supervised the construction of the massive brick fort. A former U.S. Army officer and engineer who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1815, Colonel Chase was of northern birth but had spent much of his career in the Deep South. After supervising the construction of Forts Pike and Macomb in Louisiana, he had arrived in Florida in 1828 where he spent the next seven years directing the construction of Fort Pickens.

Fort Pickens, Florida
Located at the western end of Santa Rosa Island and designed to control the entrance to Pensacola Bay, the huge fort was designed to mount more than 200 pieces of artillery and was to be manned by 1,200 men during siege positions. When Chase arrived at its gates on January 15, 1861, accompanied by Commander Ebenezer Farrand who had just resigned his post in the U.S. Navy, Fort Pickens was manned by fewer than 100 men under the command of Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer:

Listen to me, then, I beg of you, and act with me in preventing the shedding of the blood of your brethren. Surrender the fort. You and your command may reoccupy the barracks and quarters at Barrancas on your simple parole to remain there quietly until ordered away, or to resume the command of the harbor should an adjustment of present difficulties in the Union be arrived at…Consider this well, and take care that you will so act as to have no fearful recollections of a tragedy that you might have averted, but rather to make the present moment one of the most glorious, because christianlike, of your life. - Colonel William H. Chase, State of Florida, January 15, 1865.

Lt. Adam J. Slemmer
Slemmer knew that Chase more than any other officer in the South understood the strengths and weaknesses of Fort Pickens. He asked the colonel how many men he had at his command and Chase replied that he would have 800-900 by that night. It was an overwhelming force, but with sufficient artillery in position the lieutenant knew he might hope to hold the fort against such a militia command. 

He asked Chase to allow him to consider his situation until the next day, when he would give his answer. It was something of a trick on Slemmer's part. His men had been working and standing guard duty day and night for days and were exhausted to the point of collapse. A truce for the night would allow his men to get some desperately needed rest so they would be ready to fight the next day, if necessary. It would also give Slemmer time to consult with the captains of the two U.S. Navy ships still at anchor nearby. Colonel Chase was extremely anxious to avoid bloodshed and so agreed to the request.  

To learn more about Fort Pickens, please visit

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