The Seizure of the Pensacola Navy Yard
by David Ekardt
On September 2nd the rebels tried to move a floating dry dock which became grounded in the bay between the Navy Yard and Fort Pickens. A night time raiding party rowed out to the dry dock and set it ablaze as they were afraid that the Confederates would arm it and turn it into a floating artillery battery.
The officers of the fleet decided to make another attempt at attacking the rebels. They tried to convince Colonel Brown to join in a night time attack on Fort McRee. Brown was constantly in fear of an attack on his fort, and would not allow his troops to join in the attack. The Naval officers then decided to make another attempt at destroying the Judah and the largest gun the Confederates had at the Navy Yard, a 10-inch Columbiad. Four boat loads of Marines and sailors under the command of Lt. John Russell USN, and 1st Lt. Edward Reynolds USM set off on the night of September 13th. Silently they rowed past the encampment of Braxton Bragg’s 6,000 man army.
The force split up with two boat loads going towards the Judah , while the other two made for the big gun. The boats approaching the Judah were just yards from the ship when the alarm was raised. Men on board the ship and shore sprang to life, as the first shot was fired from the six-pounder in the lead boat. The attackers threw flaming tar balls onto the deck of the ship and fought their way on board. In the ensuing close combat, they drove off the defenders. Under heavy fire from the wharf, the raiders spread turpentine-soaked wood shavings around the ship and set it ablaze.
Braxton Bragg would not let this go unanswered. During the night of October 8th, approximately 1200 Confederate troops landed on Santa Rosa Island, about four miles from the fort. They advanced in three columns up the narrow island and surprised the encampment of the 6th New York Zouave troops. The rebels drove the New Yorkers back towards the fort, but lost the impetus of their surprise as they slowed down to loot the tents and supplies of the Yankees. The alarm was raised in the fort, and troops came pouring out to join in the melee. The New Yorkers rallied and together they pushed the attackers back. By daylight the battle was over with the Confederates pulling away from the island. Marines from the ships off shore had been landed to augment the defenders however they arrived too late to join the fight.
The last real engagement between combatants occurred on November 22 and 23 as Colonel Brown ordered his guns to open fire on a ship entering the Navy Yard. The shore line lit up with cannon fire as the Confederate guns returned fire on Fort Pickens. For the rest of the day, and into the night and most of the next day, the guns of Fort Pickens, and the Union gunboats unleashed a heavy fire onto the Confederate forts, Navy Yard and gun emplacements. The Union guns fired over five-thousand rounds while the Confederates fired over one thousand rounds. The conflagration was heard up to one hundred and twenty miles away, while the concussions over the bay waters killed thousands of fish that washed ashore. Several of the buildings in the Naval Yard were set ablaze by the cannon fire. General Dick Anderson, Braxton Bragg’s second-in-command was in charge when the firing started, and ordered his guns to respond. Bragg removed him from command when he returned for the waste of shot and powder. Fort McRee was reduced to rubble by the guns of the USS Niagara and the USS Richmond. The ships were able to fire upon a side of McRee that had not been reinforced or armed.
The next morning, Marine Lt. Mclane Tilton and eighteen Marines were sent ashore to reconnoiter the situation. They found the Navy Yard and gun emplacements abandoned and burning. Other sailors and Marines were sent ashore along with some of the troops from the island to try to extinguish the flames.
The long contest had ended, and the Navy had regained its crucial facilities, and restored their honor. The southern forces were never able to make full use of the Navy Yard facilities. The long standoff by a small number of Northern forces had kept a much larger force of badly needed troops tied up for over a year. The Yard was rebuilt and served the ships of the Gulf Blockading Squadrons for the rest of the war.