A “Grand and Sublime” Duel at Fort Pickens

November 22, 1861 (Friday)

It had been a month and a half since the Rebel surprise attack on Santa Rosa Island and Fort Pickens, near Pensacola, Florida. Since then, an uneasy peace had settled between the Union’s Fort Pickens and the Rebel Fort McRee, each on opposite sides of the channel, nearly a mile and a half apart.

Union commander, Col. Harvey Brown, had felt threatened by the Confederates nearly surrounding Fort Pickens “with batteries and daily arming them with the heaviest and most efficient guns known to our service – guns stolen from us – until they considered this fort as virtually their own, its occupancy being only a question of time.”

Due to this, he was determined to strike a blow against the Confederates at Fort McRee. After a meeting with Naval Flag Officer William McKeen of the Gulf Blockading Squadron, it was decided that Fort Pickens, along with the steamers USS Niagara and Richmond, would assail the Rebel fort.1

At 9:55am, the 10-inch Columbiad at the flag staff of Fort Pickens was fired, under the direction of Col. Brown himself. The shell sailed through the air, exploding over the Confederate steamer Time. With this, every gun in the fort and the batteries outside were brought to bear upon the Rebel navy yard, immediately clearing it.2

Meanwhile, the two US steamers moved into position. Due to the shallowness of the water, however, neither ship could get within two miles of Fort McRee. Nevertheless, both the Niagara and the Richmond opened their broadsides upon McRee and a battery to her right.3

A half-hour after the Union guns opened, the Rebels batteries and forts responded. Though the Union outgunned the Confederates, Fort Pickens received the concentrated fire of nearly four miles of coastline. Still, fire upon McRee by the batteries aboard the steamers was tremendous.

“On one occasion,” wrote a soldier in the 1st Alabama, stationed at Pensacola, “simultaneous volleys raked the outer walls and parapets of the fort [McRee], wrapped it with flames of bursting shells, sent huge timbers and massive pieces of concrete flying through the air, swept away the flagstaff and demolished a section of wall on the right. As dimly seen from our position the whole structure seemed to bulge and sink to the earth in one general conflagration and gigantic heap of ruins.”4

The Niagara and Richmond ceased their firing and pulled into the sound. The guns of Fort Pickens, however, were kept up incessantly, moving from the naval yard to Fort Barrancas and Fort McRee. By noon, all but one of the guns at McRee were silenced and the steamers came back, delivering more shells into the bastion. By 3pm, the final gun at McRee was quieted.5

The duel between Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas, however, continued, each side throwing untold quantities of iron at the other. The Union shot and shell exacted little punishment upon Barrancas and its surrounding batteries, as they were all purposely sunk into the sand for protection.6 Little is mentioned of the effect of Confederate fire upon Fort Pickens.

About 4:20, however, the Richmond took a hit from a Rebel battery, which killed one and injured seven. Ten minutes later, she was hit again, four feet below the waterline by a concussion shell, which blew a hole in the starboard side and she began to take on water. Though the damage wasn’t enough to put her into any real danger, she, along with the Niagara, moved off as darkness was quickly blanketing the scene.7

With the sun below the horizon, Col. Brown ordered a halt to the firing, so the magazines and batteries could be resupplied throughout the night with gunpowder and ammunition. Brown had every intention of continuing the bombardment the following day.8

Darkness also closed the Confederate batteries. General Braxton Bragg, commanding at Pensacola, mused that judging by “the number and caliber of guns and weight of metal brought into action it will rank with the heaviest bombardment in the world.” He called the day “grand and sublime.”

“The fire of the enemy, though terrific in sound and fury,” continued Bragg in his official report, “proved to have been only slightly damaging, except to McRee.” The firing from the Niagara and Richmond, he admitted, came “with much greater accuracy, the fort and garrison of McRee suffered more.”9

Bragg reported his losses at twenty-one wounded, one mortally so, while Union losses for this day were only a handful of wounded, one mortally so.10

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p469. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p473-474. []
  3. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, p780. []
  4. History of the First Regiment, Alabama Volunteer Infantry, C. S. A. by Edward Young McMorries, Brown, 1904. []
  5. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, p780. []
  6. History of the First Regiment, Alabama Volunteer Infantry, C. S. A. by Edward Young McMorries, Brown, 1904. []
  7. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 16, p777; 779. []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p474. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p490. []
  10. Col. Brown reported one killed, seven wounded over the course of the 22nd and 23rd. Major Lewis G. Arnold of the 1st US Artillery mentions a mortal wounding on the 22nd. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p 472; 475; 490. []
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A “Grand and Sublime” Duel at Fort Pickens by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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