Having learned from an intercepted telegram of orders from Washington for the tiny four man garrison of the Apalachicola Arsenal, a U.S. facility in Chattahoochee, Governor Madison S. Perry of Florida ordered state militia troops to seize the complex.
Built in 1834-1839, the arsenal was an impressive compound of brick buildings arranged around a four-square acre parade ground. These structures included an armory, tower, officer's quarters, barracks, workshops and storage facilities, all connected and surrounded by a 9-foot high, 30-inch thick brick wall. There were also two external magazines where gunpowder was stored. These were located outside the main wall, apparently for safety purposes. The name of the facility came from its proximity to the Apalachicola River, not from the city of Apalachicola at the mouth
Receiving his orders in person from Governor Perry, Colonel William Gunn of the 7th Regiment, Florida Militia, returned to his home in Quincy on the night of the 5th and called out the Quincy Young Guards, a company in his regiment. Leaving immediately for Chattahoochee in a long parade of horse drawn carriages, the men arrived outside the arsenal during the night.
Marching through the gates at 7 a.m., the state troops took possession of the compound but found Ordnance Sergeant Edwin Powell unwilling to hand over the keys to the armory and magazines. When ordered to do so by Gunn, he requested permission to telegraph his superiors in Washington. Hoping to avoid violence, the colonel agreed:
The arsenal has been taken possession of by the State this morning, 7 o'clock. My forces too weak to defend it. I have refused keys of magazine and armory. Answer with instructions.
Powell received no reply to his telegram and it is unclear if it was immediately delivered. He then requested permission to send a letter to Washington, with a copy of Governor Perry's orders enclosed, but was told that it would not be delivered. Unwilling to take responsibility for giving up the keys to the magazines and armory, he continued to refuse Gunn's demands.
Unsure of what to do, the colonel telegraphed the governor to explain the situation. Perry replied with direct orders for the Young Guards to compel the surrender of the keys. Gunn explained the situation to Powell, who then addressed the formation of militiamen drawn up on the parade ground:
Officers and Soldiers: Five minutes ago I was the commander of this arsenal, but in consequence of the weakness of my command, I am obliged to surrender - an act which I have hitherto never had to do in my whole military career. If I had a force equal to or even half the strength of your own, you would never have entered that gate until you walked over my dead body. You see that I have but three men. These are laborers, and cannot contend against you. I now consider myself a prisoner of war. Take my sword.
The state officers quickly returned Powell's sword to him and according to eyewitnesses the assembled troops gave "three cheers for the gallant Powell."
Florida had taken its first military action of the war with the dramatic but bloodless seizure of the Apalachicola Arsenal. With its capture, the state took possession of more than 5,000 pounds of gunpowder and 173,000 prepared cartridges, as well as a 6-pounder cannon and a few dozen antiquated muskets.
To learn more about the arsenal, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/arsenal1.