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The Nation

April 13, 2011

Who fired first Civil War shot? A dispute in Fla.

GULF ISLANDS NATIONAL SEASHORE, Fla. — A raid 150 years ago by Confederate sympathizers on a Union fort at what is now Pensacola Naval Air Station was likely little more than an ill-planned and drunken misadventure, perhaps ended by one soldier's warning shot — and a blank one, at that.

But don't tell Pensacola residents that the Jan. 8, 1861, skirmish meant nothing — the event is the stuff of legend in this military town. Some even claim the clash was the Civil War's first, three months before the battle on April 12, 1861, at South Carolina's Fort Sumter, which is widely recognized as the start of the war.

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.

"It is an interesting bit of history and I'd like to see Pensacola get more recognition for all of its Civil War history," he told The Associated Press.

As 1861 dawned, the Union was falling apart. Abraham Lincoln's election as president the previous November had many Southerners convinced he would ban slavery after taking office that March. South Carolina had seceded on Dec. 20 and other states were about to, including Florida.

Amid the turmoil, about 50 federal troops under the command of Lt. Adam J. Slemmer encamped at Fort Barrancas, at what is now Pensacola Naval Air Station in a fort of the arched brick passageways and tunnels overlooking 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.

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