BOOKS AND AUTHORS: Confederacy Thorn

Wednesday, July 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — The newly formed Confederacy was ready to go to war if the Union tried to reinforce Fort Pickens, defended by only 47 soldiers and 30 untrained sailors, at the mouth of Pensacola Bay in 1861.

Reinforcements had arrived on Feb. 6 but remained aboard a warship anchored in the Gulf of Mexico, unable to disembark under terms of a truce.

Secret orders to reinforce Pickens despite the truce arrived with an unwitting assist from a Confederate general more than two months later after being delayed by Union blunders.

Eighty-eight Union soldiers and 110 Marines finally landed on April 12 only hours after Confederates bombarded another fort in South Carolina. The Civil War had begun at Fort Sumter, not Pickens. Pensacola's role in the conflict and the events leading up to it was largely forgotten.

``If word had gotten down here 36 hours before, the war would have started here,'' historian George F. Pearce says. ``That reinforcement would have been the declaration of war without a shot being fired.''

The University of West Florida professor emeritus has tried to bring Pensacola out from the backwaters of Civil War history with a book published this year by the University Press of Florida. Its title is ``Pensacola During the Civil War: A Thorn in the Side of Confederacy.''

Pearce contends the South's failure to capture Pickens helped the North maintain a naval blockade that strangled the Confederacy. Blockade runners could have used Pensacola's excellent harbor, but they never would have gotten past Pickens' guns.

As a result, the Confederates abandoned Florida's largest city in May 1862, 13 months after the war began. Pensacola's population went from 2,867 to 83 as citizens fled to Montgomery and Greenville, Ala., where officials set up a government in exile, Pearce says.

Union Adm. David Farragut then based his blockading squadron at the Pensacola Navy Yard, now Pensacola Naval Air Station. In August 1864, Farragut led his ships to victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay, giving the famous order, ``Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead.''

Union cavalry conducted raids into Alabama that disrupted railroads between Mississippi and Georgia. Federal troops eventually advanced to the shore of Mobile Bay, winning a major victory at Blakely, Ala., on April 9, 1865, the same day that Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Va.

Pensacola never would have been such a thorn, if the Confederates had been bolder in the beginning, Pearce says.

They did quickly seize the city, navy yard and two forts — Barrancas and McRee — after Florida seceded in January 1861. Union troops, however, got across the bay to Santa Rosa Island aboard a ship and beat the rebels to Pickens, unoccupied since the Mexican-American war.

Maj. William Chase had a vastly superior force of about 800 Florida, Alabama and Mississippi troops under his command but never attacked Pickens, agreeing instead to the truce.

Pearce says he suspected that Chase, who oversaw construction of forts across the Gulf Coast, did not want to see one of his creations destroyed. Brig. Gen. Braxton Bragg replaced Chase in March, but he, too, held back, possibly intimidated by the arrival of more Union warships.

``They had five or six ships out there with hundreds of guns,'' Pearce says.

Confederate commanders got little encouragement from political leaders. Future Confederate president Jefferson Davis said, ``Pickens is not worth one drop of blood,'' Pearce recounts in the book.

The fort, however, was vulnerable as none of its guns faced the island's interior. Six months after the war began, the Confederates finally landed east of Pickens.

By then, New York Volunteers had camped in their path and repelled the Southerners in the Battle of Santa Rosa Island. The South almost certainly would have won the battle if it had been fought before Pickens was reinforced, Pearce says.

An Army reinforcement order had arrived by ship on March 31, nearly two weeks before the attack on Sumter, but the Navy commander was afraid to break the truce without Navy orders.

An officer went by land to Washington for such an order. It was sent by train with another officer, Lt. John Worden, who later commanded the USS Monitor in the first battle of ironclads. Bragg, the Confederate general, let him deliver his secret message to the Union ships. The next day the reinforcements landed undetected until after the fact.

Pearce wrote that Bragg later said he let Worden deliver his message only because he falsely claimed it was of a ``pacific character.'' Worden was arrested in Montgomery as he tried to get back to Washington and held prisoner for seven months.

Historian James J. McPherson called Pickens ``something of a sideshow,'' but Bruce Catton stated it potentially ``offered a case that was fully as explosive as that of Fort Sumter.''

Grady McWhitney, another historian Pearce quoted, concluded ``war came at Fort Sumter only because the Confederates were neither subtle enough nor strong enough to begin it at Fort Pickens.''