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Constantine Rea:  The Pensacola Campaign

A Lauderdale County Web Exclusive
by Bill White

The Pensacola Expedition

 

By the winter of 1860 the specter of war loomed over the southland. Being aware of the impending, now nearly unavoidable, conflict


Mississippi Governor John J. Pettus

 that was coming Governor John J. Pettus, acting in concert with Alabama Governor Andrew B. Moore assessed their military positions. One weakness that was noted was in the southern, gulf coast areas of the two states. There were thought to be relatively large numbers of Federal forces holding strong points in the Florida panhandle, protecting the waterways of the gulf. Florida had been slow, in the assessment of the agents of the two governors, to shift to a war footing and there was some concern that southern shipping could be greatly inhibited by the Federal positions.

As the sound of sabers rattling began to echo from the hillsides of the south, the Federal authorities had begun a consolidation of their forces in the south. The commander of Fort Moultrie in South Carolina had relocated his troops to Fort Sumter overlooking Charleston harbor. Therefore, when on 6 January 1861, a few Florida troops seize the Arsenal at Apalachicola and Fort Marion at St. Augustine the next day without much resistance, it took no act of Divine Providence for Federal Lieutenant Adam Slemmer to anticipate the next moves to be made by the south. On 12 January, he transferred his U. S. troops from Barancas Barracks to Fort Pickens. That same day, probably before the dust settled on the roads, state troops seize the Pensacola Navy Yard, Fort Barancas, Fort McRee, and Barancas Barracks. A few hours later, Confederate officials demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens.

Slemmer refused.
 


Fort Pickins

His refusal was not unexpected by the Governors. On 8 January 1861 Governor Moore ordered the 2nd Alabama Regiment, commanded by COL Tennant Lomax to the area of the Warrington Navy Yard and of Fort Barancas. Governor Pettus ordered a force of 7 companies to form in Enterprise, Mississippi and proceed to Mobile via the M&O railroad, then on to Pensacola via ship.

Unknown to Governor, unknown, in fact, to anyone except, perhaps, our old friend, Constantine Rea, an eighth company would arrive at Enterprise to depart with the battalion. The Lauderdale county legislator and former editor of the Lauderdale Republican, had, single-handedly assembled and equipped a company of infantry that he had named the Lauderdale Rifles and reported, uninvited, with them to the assembly point on 11 January.

Therefore, assembled at Enterprise and poised to depart on one of the first missions of the War for Southern Independence were the following groups:

1. The Chickasaw Guards from Chickasaw County, William F. Tucker, Captain.
2. The Columbus Riflemen from Lowndes County, Charles H. Abert, Captain.
3. The Lowndes Southrons from Lowndes County, William B. Wade, Captain.
4. The Prairie Guards from Noxubee and Lowndes Counties, J. W. T. Hairston, Captain.
5. The Noxubee Rifles from Noxubee County, George T. Weir, Captain.
6. The Enterprise Guards from Clarke County, John W. O'Ferrall, Captain.
7. The Quitman Light Infantry from Clarke County, J. L. Duck, Captain.
8. The Lauderdale Rifles from Lauderdale County, Constantine Rea, Captain.

There is some disagreement among historians concerning the actual departure dates. One suggests that the battalion departed on 11 January 1861, which would have be premature based on the Governor's order to assemble and depart on 12 January 1861, while an old soldier, who traveled with the group maintains 13 January 1861 as the date of departure, which seems more likely. Regardless of which is correct the battalion would have arrived in Mobile within a few hours, where they were joined by two additional companies from Alabama dispatched by Governor Moore:

9. The Alabama Light Dragoons, Theodore O'Hara, Captain.
10. The South Alabama Rangers, with a gentleman named Ripley, a Lieutenant, Commanding.

Various assorted vessels were obtained at Mobile to transport the troops across Mobile Bay and into Pensacola harbor. The ships, clearly not among the best in the fleet, were most likely civilian freight steamers pressed into service as troop transports and were alternately described as dilapidated or frail. Perhaps, they were barely sea-worthy for the mission. However the crossing was, for the most part uneventful, for the troops, except for the rough seas which had a decidedly ill effect on the Mississippi men, who had likely never been on any body of water larger that a lake or, perhaps swiftly flowing river crossing, keeping them green with motion sickness.

There was, however, at least one moment of tension during the journey. As one of the vessels approached the entrance to Pensacola Bay, the freighter, now troop transport, steamed into Pensacola Harbor, and fell under the range of the guns at Fort Pickens. The Federal garrison immediately stood to, that is the gun teams went to the positions that they would assume peremptory to the firing of the weapons. This would certainly have been accompanied by a cacophony of bugles and the shouting of orders. One can only imagine the terror of the already seasick Mississippians facing the muzzles of the Federal cannon. Those who were not to be killed directly by cannon fire, they must have thought, faced a sure and certain death in the frigid January waters of the bay.

This, fortunately, was not to be. As the little steamer moved further into the bay, even when the fort was hard abeam the starboard side of the vessel, still the guns were silent. Finally, the exercise having turned out to be simply a formal military observance of the passing of potentially hostile vessels, the ship tied up, with no volley having being fired upon, at the Navy Yard pier, where the troops, no doubt breathed a sigh of relief and disembarked.

The battalion marched from Navy Yard pier to the marine hospital where some would be quartered for the duration of the campaign. The Mississippi companies continued to a point about a mile east of the Navy Yard and approximately 600 yards from the beach which, eventually, passed in front of Fort Pickens. The fort which was held by Lieutenant Slemmer's garrison of about 80 men was two and three-quarter miles away. Fort Barancas, having been occupied by a detachment of COL Lomax's 2nd Alabama Regiment was about half a mile to the west.

The first day or two on the ground occupied the soldiers in settling into their encampment and preparing ammunition to be used in what would presumably be the assault upon the fort. Orders had been issued directing each man to be prepared with 50 round of ammunition and to remain on alert for immediate deployment.

On 17 January the eight Mississippi companies and the two companies from Alabama were organized into what would have been among the first composite (Mississippi/Alabama) regiments in the conflict. Captain Charles A. Abert, formerly of the Columbus Riflemen, was elected Colonel, Captain William B. Wade, formerly of the Lowndes Southrons was elected Lieutenant Colonel and Captain Samuel F. Butler, formerly of the Lowndes Southrons was elected Major. The additional necessary regimental officers and non-commissioned officers were appointed by the Colonel.

The companies then practiced drill in the deep sand of the beach and erected sand batteries from which fire could be directed toward the enemy. The 2nd Alabama assisted and participated in these activities. There were regimental parades in the evening and the routine mounting of the guard in the morning. In short the new regiment began to settle down into a routine still described today as the old army standard, "Hurry up and wait."

Infrequently some event would serve to break the monotony, such as the occasional runs taken by the Federal ships "Brooklyn" and "Wyandotte" at the fortifications. These invariably turned out to be drills and were broken off before drawing small arms fire from the shore. It was, by now, clear to the troops that it would be a long wait before orders arrived directing an action against the fort.

Perhaps, under the circumstances, it was for the best that no action was attempted. The regiment was made up of infantry companies only. There was no battery attached and, therefore, no artillery to assault the formidable walls of the installation. Throwing the infantry against the fort without artillery would have been an act of desperation and usually a high casualty producing and losing proposition for the infantry. However, other objectives were surfacing in the immediate theater and across the south for which the infantry troops were both appropriate and sorely needed. It seemed that the mission was nearing its end without the fight that so many of the southern soldiers wanted.

Some say that the troops were withdrawn without engaging the enemy because there was no political desire among the southern congressmen in Washington for the commencement of hostilities. Others cite the obvious problems of assaulting the fortified installation without artillery support. Whatever the reason, neither side was willing to initiate the hostilities. Had the fort fired on the troops or the troops assaulted the fort, it certainly appears that the war would have been underway in Pensacola.

When the funding for the maintenance of the expedition ran out near the end of January, General Charles Clarke, a native of Kentucky and veteran of the Mexican war, who would later server as the final war time Governor of the State of Mississippi, went to Pensacola. Arriving on 1 February 1861, General Clarke "mustered out" (discharged from military service) the companies from Mississippi.

On 4 February 1861 the Chickasaw Guards, the Prairie Guards, the Lauderdale Rifles and the Quitman Light Infantry embarked on the steamer "Dick Keyes" for Mobile. From there they went back to their homes via the M&O railroad, arriving by about 6 February. The remaining companies left camp on 6 February 1861.

On being "mustered out" the Lauderdale Rifles, possibly because of the loss of as much as a third of the company by desertion, disbanded and proceeded to their destination as individuals. For more information on the desertion in Mobile of some of the members Lauderdale Rifles, please see the article Constantine Rea: The War Years.

According to Baxter McFarland, a soldier of the battalion, writing about the expedition some 46 years later, the Pensacola Expedition "was the first aggressive movement in which Southern States acted in concert, and dispelled all doubt as to their future cooperation." McFarland goes on to say "The young Mississippians in that expedition were nearly all scions of the best families in the State and the highest types of Southern gentlemen of the olden times, and in the mighty conflict that soon followed displayed a constancy and valor rarely equaled and never surpassed..."

Many of the Commanders and soldiers of the expedition went on to rise to great levels of patriotism in the following years. Captain Constantine Rea of the Lauderdale Rifles, rose to the rank of Major in the 46th Mississippi Infantry and was awaiting his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel when he was wounded and, ultimately died. Kennon McElroy, also of the Lauderdale Rifles, became Colonel of the 13th Mississippi under General Longstreet and perished at the head of his regiment during the action against Fort Sanders, near Knoxville, Tennessee. Of those remaining, many were officers of high regard, many lived long and prosperous lives after the war and many died a warrior's death, falling gallantly and finally on the field of battle.

This, then, has been the story of a battle that never happened but one that set the stage for events yet to come. An exercise, not in futility, but in cooperation, synchronization and joint maneuvers. Even without a clear victory, it remained a productive endeavor.
 

Works Cited:

In addition to those works cited below, this article was developed with the research assistance of Mr. Ward Calhoun and The Constantine Rea Historical Society.  Much on Mr. Calhoun's own research and his publications as well as information provided by the Society have gone into this article.  To purchase Mr. Calhoun's publications, please contact the Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History for a list of his works.  Their website can be found at the following link:

The Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History

The facts of the Pensacola Expedition have been provided by Judge Baxter McFarland of Lafayette County, Mississippi in his article "A Forgotten Expedition to Pensacola in January, 1861." The article was published in the Publications of The Mississippi Historical Society, Volume 9, Oxford, Mississippi, 1906. Edited by Franklin L. Riley, Secretary. Judge McFarland was a member of the expedition serving with the Chickasaw Guards.

Edmiston, Fred W., "Lauderdale, Mississippi's Empire County: Volume 1: The Early Years, 1830-1865." Meridian: Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History, Inc., 2005.

Content Copyright 2008 W.L.White and The Constantine Rea Historical Society.

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