Saturday, January 8, 2011

January 8, 1861 - The First Shots of the Civil War

Drawbridge of Fort Barrancas
January 8, 1861

It is a little known fact that the first hostile shots of the Civil War were actually fired on the drawbridge of a Florida fort on the night of January 8, 1861.

The incident at Fort Barrancas near Pensacola took place three months before Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter and one day before cadets from The Citadel fired their cannon at the relief ship Star of the West at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. It is also interesting to note that the gunfire came from U.S. troops, not Southern forces.

Fort Barrancas (right) and Water Battery
Fort Barrancas was one of four strong U.S. forts built during the antebellum era to defend Pensacola Bay and in particular the Pensacola Navy Yard. A brick fortification, it was located on the mainland across the bay from Fort Pickens and Fort McRee. On the eve of the Civil War, the only U.S. troops at Pensacola were quartered in Barrancas Barracks, which stood near the fort. Commanded by Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, they were from Company G, First U.S. Artillery.

Slemmer was devoted to the Union cause and, having heard that troops from Florida and Alabama were moving to seize the fort, he took steps on January 8, 1861 - 150 years ago today - to prepare Fort Barrancas for defense. The gunpowder from the fort's Water Battery was moved into the main citadel, the cannon were prepared for action and a sergeant's guard was placed in the fort that night. Slemmer also took the additional precaution of having the drawbridge raised.

Cannon at Fort Barrancas
The move came just in time, as in the night the guard saw mysterious intruders appear on the opposite side of the drawbridge:

...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. - Lt. Adam J. Slemmer, U.S. Army

The "alarm" reported by Slemmer was actually given by opening fire on the intruders. The musket shots were the first hostile shots of the Civil War and were fired 150 years ago tonight.

One of the men against whom the fire was directed was R.L. Sweetman of Mobile, Alabama. He later described how he and a friend had heard that the fort had been evacuated by U.S. troops and went to investigate. They had just come up on the platform leading to the raised drawbridge when soldiers in the fort opened fire on them. They quickly retreated and according to his account no one was injured. Slemmer reported that there were 20 men in the party.

If you would like to read more about this incident, please visit You can learn more about Fort Barrancas by visiting

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