Interracialism and Revolution on the Southern Frontier: Pensacola in the Civil War

By Clavin, Matthew J. | The Journal of Southern History, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Interracialism and Revolution on the Southern Frontier: Pensacola in the Civil War


Clavin, Matthew J., The Journal of Southern History


Early in the spring of 1861, dozens of bondpeople fled from homes and businesses in and around Pensacola, Florida, a small seaport on the northern edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Most disappeared into the muddy and mosquito-infested swamps and bayous that traversed the city, yet four arrived at Fort Pickens, a massive brick citadel on Santa Rosa Island, on the opposite side of Pensacola Bay. The runaways were "under the delusion" that if they reached the Union-controlled fort "they would be gladly received, their services accepted, and themselves eventually sent to the North, free citizens of a free country." But they were mistaken. When the garrison's commander, Adam J. Slemmer, learned that they were "entertaining the idea that we were placed here to protect them and grant them their freedom," he determined "to teach them the contrary." The U.S. Army lieutenant consequently placed the bondmen in irons and delivered them to the Pensacola Navy Yard, several miles west of the city, where they were returned to their owners and whipped "'unmercifully.'" According to an eyewitness, the brutal punishment was necessary "'in order to frighten the rest, for it was clearly proven that if they had succeeded, a gang of a hundred more were in readiness to follow.'" The effort to stop the flow of runaways was a failure. "That same night four more made their appearance," Slemmer grumbled; "They were also turned over to the authorities next morning." (1)

Despite having run away one month before the firing on Fort Sumter, the eight fugitive slaves who disembarked at Fort Pickens in March 1861 appear in the Official Records as the first to seek refuge behind Union lines during the Civil War. (2) They were, however, not the last. Over the next several months, the stream of fugitive slaves from Pensacola became a flood, as Fort Pickens became a destination for hundreds of bondpeople from houses, brickyards, and lumber mills along the water's edge, as well as from small farms and large plantations more than a hundred miles inland. Among them was a "negro deserter" who was "for several years employed by his master as a pilot of this harbor." Eager to assist the Federal forces, the absconded slave provided crucial intelligence on Confederate actions in Pensacola and at the adjacent Navy Yard, including the location of rebel troops, guns, and ships. Colonel Harvey Brown, who replaced Slemmer as the fort's commander shortly after the start of the war, described the valuable informant: "The man is intelligent and has given me considerable information." In an effort to secure the black mariner's services permanently, Brown requested from the assistant adjutant general in Washington, D.C., "secret-service money, to be expended at his [Brown's] discretion.' Brown then announced his intentions regarding the growing number of refugees at Fort Pickens: "I shall not send the negroes back, as I will never be voluntarily instrumental in returning a poor wretch to slavery." Brown was not an abolitionist; nevertheless, the West Point graduate took an uncompromising stance toward slavery. (3) And he was not alone.

Throughout the Civil War, fugitive slaves en route to Fort Pickens encountered soldiers and civilians who joined them in dismantling the institution of slavery. There were Union troops like Brown who came to Pensacola with no intention of freeing enslaved people but who developed a fierce commitment to the black men and women who greeted the Union army as liberators. There were also soldiers from the North, including natives of Europe, with already strong abolitionist convictions who, while stationed in Pensacola, seized the opportunity to liberate bondpeople and establish their equality. Perhaps more surprising is that runaway slaves also found allies among the free population of farmers, laborers, and sailors who had inhabited Pensacola and the vicinity since before the war. Like the invading Federal forces, these free native white southerners at times displayed great hostility toward slavery and solidarity with enslaved black people. …

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