Surprise Attack at Santa Rosa Island!

Wednesday, October 9, 1861

Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s plan to surprise and capture Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida had taken shape. The 1,200 troops had landed on Santa Rosa Island, four miles east of the fort and had driven in a few Union pickets. Union Col. Harvey Brown, commanding at Pickens, had received and dismissed a warning about the landing.

Leading the invasion was Mexican War veteran, General Richard H. Anderson, who devised to split his command into three prongs. The First Battalion was to quickly march along the north beach, while the Second was to move along the south beach, never more than a mile from each other. The Third Battalion was to take the middle where the island grew wider as they drew closer to the fort.

Following in the rear was a demolition crew ordered to inflict whatever destruction they could upon captured works, batteries, buildings and camps.

The Battalions marched through unforgiving and difficult sand for two hours before coming upon a Union picket who fired a wild, harmless shot at the advancing Rebels. This unfortunate soldier was quickly brought down by someone in the First Battalion.

With the element of surprise gone, Anderson ordered the Third Battalion to cover the ground between the First and Second. On the north side of the island, the invaders met more resistance from pickets of the 6th New York Zouaves, camped a mile east of the fort.

As they drove the pickets in or shot them down, they soon came to the camp itself, which had contained nearly 300 Union soldiers. Without the support of the other two Battalions, the First charged, bayonets drawn, but found the camp almost deserted. The tents and buildings were soon in flames.

Meanwhile at the fort, Col. Brown had received word of musket fire from the camp and ordered Major Israel Vogdes to hurry to the camp with two companies of men. He also ordered the artillery facing east to be manned to turn back the Rebels.

Despite the fire from the torched camp, the night was incredibly dark. Major Vogdes command of 100 US Regulars marched from the fort in the direction of the camp. As they approached, a company was deployed as skirmishers, but was soon lost in the darkness. Vogdes himself, riding in front of his men, became lost and captured. A Rebel officer called to the Union troops to surrender as their commander had been taken prisoner. A few shots were taken at the officer as the Union force took up a defensive position behind a hill of sand. Greatly outnumbered, they were forced back into an exposed position where the Rebel fire cut them down.

By this time, the entire Confederate force had gathered at the old Zouave camp. General Anderson, noticing that dawn was soon on the horizon, realized that he couldn’t take the batteries between the camp and the fort, let alone the fort itself. He called for his Rebels to return to the boats. The men helping the wounded at the field hospital, however, never heard the call.

Fearing that all was not going well, Col. Brown at Fort Pickens, ordered two more companies of Regulars, under Major Lewis Arnold, to aid Major Vogdes. They arrived on the scene of the fight as the Confederates were pulling back. Shielding their movements, they (probably through a bit of luck) found themselves at the Rebel disembarkation point. There, a large rowboat was quickly being filled with Confederate soldiers. The two Union companies opened fire upon the floating Rebels with little effect.

Soon, news reached Major Arnold that the Rebels were heading for two steamships farther up the island. Beating them to the punch, he hid his command in some thicket to await their approach. As they came in range, Arnold’s men opened upon the Confederates, but, being greatly outnumbered, they were driven back. Still, as the Rebels boarded their ships, the Union men were able to take potshots at them. When one of the ships broke down, forcing the other to tow it to safety, the Rebels crowded on the desks received several volleys from the Union men behind sand embankments.

Finally, General Anderson and his men got away, leaving behind 18 killed, 39 wounded and 30 captured (most of the captured were tending to the wounded at the field hospital and did not hear the call to retire). Col. Brown’s Union troops lost 14 killed, 29 wounded and 24 captured, including Major Vogdes.1

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p438-463. []
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Surprise Attack at Santa Rosa Island! by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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