Sunday, January 16, 2011

January 16, 1861 - The Growing Focus on Two Forts

January 16, 1861

Fort Sumter (NPS Photo)
As the middle of January passed, it became obvious that the military attention of both North and South was beginning to focus on two key forts: Fort Sumter in South Carolina and Fort Pickens in Florida.

The two fortifications had much in common. Both stood on islands that commanded the entrances to key Southern harbors, both were held by Union forces while state militia troops had occupied surrounding works and both were named for famous South Carolinians.

Fort Sumter, named for General Thomas Sumter of the American Revolution, stood on a man-made island inside the entrance to Charleston Harbor. Designed for multiple tiers of cannon, the fort controlled a long stretch of the channel that led into the harbor. With Fort Moultrie, Castle Pinckney and Fort Johnson, it was part of a harbor defense system that was designed to prevent an attacking navy from reaching Charleston. As long as it remained in U.S. hands, however, it bottled up the harbor and had the potential to prevent Southern commerce and warships from moving in and out of Charleston. It was incomplete in 1861, although construction had been underway since 1827. To learn more about Fort Sumter, please visit

Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens, named for General Andrew Pickens of the American Revolution, stood on the western end of Santa Rosa Island at the entrance to Pensacola Bay. It had two levels for artillery and, with Fort McRee opposite the inlet to the bay and Fort Barrancas on the mainland, was designed to prevent enemy warships from entering Pensacola Bay or approaching the vitally important Pensacola Navy Yard. It had a key advantage over Fort Sumter in that it was located directly on the Gulf of Mexico instead of on a man-made island in the bay. Like the South Carolina fort, however, as long as it remained in Union hands, Pensacola Bay was effectively closed to Southern use. To learn more about Fort Pickens, please visit

An attack on either fort would lead to the outbreak of civil war. In mid-January it appeared that the first spark might ignite at Fort Pickens, where on January 16, 1861, 150 years ago today, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer of the U.S. Army refused a second demand that he surrender the fort to a growing force of state militia. The government in Washington, D.C., was faced with the issue of whether to attempt to reinforce either fort or both forts, with the realization that doing so might well ignite the war they hoped to prevent.

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