Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“We’re Number One! We’re Number One!”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 14, 2011

Michael Lynch, blogging at Past in the Present, flags an Associated Press story out of Florida, in which the local SCV camp is pushing to have an extremely minor incident in January 1861 recognized as “the first shot” of the Civil War:

Amid the turmoil [surrounding Florida’s secession], about 50 federal troops under the command of Lt. Adam J. Slemmer encamped at Fort Barrancas, at what is now Pensacola Naval Air Station. The fort of arched brick passageways and tunnels overlooks the turquoise waters and white-sand beaches of Pensacola Bay.

On the night of Jan. 8, the men had raised a drawbridge around the fort, which dated to when Spain controlled Florida, because of growing tensions in the surrounding Naval yard, said historian David Ogden, a ranger at Gulf Islands National Seashore.

According to Slemmer’s report, just after midnight, guards heard footsteps outside and challenged the intruders and heard no response, Ogden said. Slemmer made no mention of shots being fired.

It wasn’t until after the war ended in 1865 that one of the would-be intruders, R.L. Sweetman, wrote to Slemmer and later to Slemmer’s widow and made reference to the blank shot fired at Fort Barrancas as the war’s beginning.

“In his letter, Sweetman said something like ‘Your husband can claim that he commanded the post where the first shot was fired,”‘ Ogden said.

This event, such as it was, occurred a few hours before cadets from the Citadel fired on the steamer Star of the West, attempting resupply of Fort Sumter.

Lookit, I understand historical boosterism, and wanting recognition for one’s own community as having played a crucial part in dramatic, national events. And I recognize that Florida, like Texas, is not really thought of as a “Civil War state” in the mind of the public in the same way that, say, Virginia is. That’s unfortunate, because Florida played an important part in the war, both on land and especially with the Federal blockade. (Full disclosure: my g-g-grandfather and his father served in a Florida old-men-and-boys home guard unit late in the war, and another relative served with Captain Dickison‘s cavalry.) But this “first shot” business is silly. A warning round popped off into the darkness, the “first shot” of the Civil War? Based on a claim made in a single letter, years later? Really? Why would one push this event as the “first shot,” as opposed to the Star of the West incident, or the bombardment of Fort Sumter? Is it merely local boosterism?

Dale Cox, the unofficial historian for the Florida Panhandle chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, wrote on his blog that he considers the Pensacola shot the first of the Civil War, saying in an interview that it marked the first time federal troops fired toward Confederate agitators.

Got it. The Yankees started it.

People love superlatives, to be the first, or the last, or the biggest, or the bloodiest, or. . . well, you get the idea. But sometimes the quest for such distinctions get in the way of good history. Tell the story of Fort Barrancas, for sure — but don’t make yourself look desperate in doing it.


Image: “Fort Barrancas, moon-lite cannon,” by Flickr user divemasterking2000. Used under Creative Commons license.

3 Responses

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  1. Allen Gathman said, on April 14, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    I was looking at the reports about this incident recently. Contemporary reports don’t support the claim that there was shooting, and in any case, nobody seems to have thought at the time that the incident meant that war had begun. Fort Sumter was perceived very differently.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 14, 2011 at 9:14 pm

      I have no particular reason to doubt there was a warning shot fired, though the evidence for it is tenuous. Even if you stipulate that it happened, claiming that as the “first shot” is silly.

      • Allen Gathman said, on April 15, 2011 at 7:44 pm

        Definitely — especially since, whether the shot was fired or not, it had no effect on the state of affairs at the time. It wasn’t reported, and nobody viewed it as opening hostilities.

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