Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Florida

Although it was small when compared to later engagements such as Vicksburg, Chickamauga and Gettysburg, a fierce night battle in the dunes of Santa Rosa Island, Florida, was one of the first significant battles of the Civil War.

The battle resulted from a retaliatory strike ordered by General Braxton Bragg, then commanding the Army of Pensacola, after U.S. forces launched a boat attack on the Confederate privateer Judah at the Pensacola Navy Yard. Designating General Richard H. "Dick" Anderson to lead the strike, Bragg sent 1,100 men across Pensacola Bay on the night of October 8-9, 1861, with orders to destroy the camp of Billy Wilson's 6th New York Volunteers. Wilson and his men were camped east of Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island. Contrary to some reports of the time, Bragg never intended to capture the fort unless some unexpected opportunity developed.

The Confederates advanced through the darkness during the hours before dawn on October 9, 1861, in three columns. One moved along the Gulf beach, another moved down the bay beach and the third was ordered to advance down the center of the island as the force approached the camps.

In addition to Anderson, the Southern troops were led by officers including Patton Anderson, James R. Chalmers and John K. Jackson. All would become heroes of the Southern war effort.

The Confederates overran Wilson's camp, torching the tents and breaking Wilson's attempt to form his men. Severe damage was inflicted to the encampments and the Southern force began to withdraw as Union reinforcements poured out of the fort and rushed to the scene of the action. By the time the fighting ended, the Confederates had lost 18 killed, 39 wounded and 30 captured. The Union forces lost 14 killed, 29 wounded and 24 captured.

The site of the battle is now preserved within the Fort Pickens Area of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a National Park area near Pensacola. The main road providing access to Fort Pickens was destroyed by hurricane and is currently being repaired, so the only way to access the area is by water taxi from Pensacola or private boat. The road should reopen later this year.

To learn more about the battle and Fort Pickens, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/santarosa1.

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