Battle of Santa Rosa Island
After midnight on October 9, Brig. Gen. Richard Anderson crossed from the mainland to Santa Rosa Island with 1,200 men in two small steamers to surprise Union camps and capture Fort Pickens. He landed on the north beach about four miles east of Fort Pickens and divided his command into three columns. After proceeding about three miles, the Confederates surprised the 6th Regiment, New York Volunteers, in its camp and routed the regiment. Gen. Anderson then adopted a defensive stance to entice the Federals to leave the fort and attack. Receiving reinforcements, Col. Harvey Brown sallied against the Confederates, who reembarked and returned to the mainland. (NPS summary)
The Battle of Santa Rosa Island
The loss of the Judah thoroughly upset Braxton Bragg, who set out to avenge her loss. He still believed he lacked the necessary strength to challenge the fort directly but saw an opportunity in the outlying camps. He singled out Colonel William Wilson’s 6th New York Zouaves as the target for a hit and run operation. He ordered BG Richard Anderson to gather a force capable of launching the counter strike onto Santa Rosa Island. It wasn’t until October 8th that all the preparations were completed. Anderson separated the 1100 men he had gathered into three battalions that would operate independently until contact with the enemy was achieved. The first battalion, commanded by COL James Chalmers, contained 350 men from the 9th and 10th Mississippi and 1st Alabama regiments. Second battalion, under Col J. Patton Anderson, was the largest of the three with 400 troops. It was comprised of detachments from the 7th Alabama, 1st Florida, and two companies of Louisiana troops. The third battalion was an all Georgia affair, under COL John Jackson, with 260 troops from the 5th Georgia and the Georgia Battalion. Additionally a small 53 man detail was assembled for the purpose of spiking the guns at the outside batteries and setting fire to the tents. The final piece of the task force was five doctors and 20 detailed men to act as orderlies.
The troops were assembled at the Navy yard and boarded the steamer Time at 2200 for the short trip to Pensacola. There they were distributed into two additional steamers, Neaffie and Ewing, and some barges for the cross channel trip to Santa Rosa Island. At 0200 they made an unopposed landing about four miles east of Fort Pickens. The concept of the operation had Chalmers marching up the north beach followed closely by Jackson and then LT Hallonquist’s destructive detachment while COL Anderson’s column would march up the south beach. At the first contact Jackson would break off to the center of the island to present a continuous line as they proceeded through the Union camp to the exterior batteries. Hallonquist would destroy the camp and spike the guns of the batteries after the main body had pushed through.
The movement went as planned despite a small delay created by the march through the deep sand. After a move of “3 or 4 miles” Chalmers’ column was detected by a solitary Union picket who managed to get a shot away before being shot down. Realizing the gunplay had destroyed any further hope of surprise COL Anderson began the deployment of Jackson’s men and the push for the Federal camp. The commander of the Union guard, LT Hanham, had personally brought back a warning and reported that his men were conducting a fighting withdraw to join the main body. Their actions in reality barely slowed the Confederate advance on the camp (Camp Brown). The Zouave commander, Wilson, immediately sent a courier to the fort with news of the attack. The 6th New York was gathered in the parade ground of the camp to make a stand. As the pickets and guards fell back to join the regiment COL Jackson’s middle column arrived at the edge of the camp.
Jackson did not wait for the flanking columns to come on line. He ordered his men to fix bayonets and attack into the camp. One look at the charging mob was enough to cause the ill-trained Volunteers to break into a mad rush for the beach and the nearby batteries. Wilson attempted to gloss over the fact that the camp was surrendered without a fight in his report but it did not go unnoticed by his commander. COL Harvey Brown, commanding the Department of Florida from the fort, noted of the regiment that he had the “desire to spare it the stigma of cowardice” but blamed the leaders who were “in every respect unfit for officers.” MAJ Zealous Towers, working on Brown’s staff as an engineer, had an equally harsh opinion of the New Yorkers stating “The Zouaves proved of little account. They are badly commanded.”
The ease of their victory at Camp Brown had a devastating effect on the momentum of the Confederate attack. Jackson lost control of his men as they began looting the empty tents. They were shortly joined by some of the men from the other columns who Anderson stated joined “in the work of destroying the camp.” Once the camp had been thoroughly looted the Confederates “applied the torch to the tents, store-houses, and sheds.” However the lost time destroyed all possibility of reaching the exterior batteries to spike the guns. Anderson wrote that “but daylight appearing and there being no longer a possibility of a surprise to the batteries, I directed the signal for retiring to be sounded and the troops to be put in march for the boats.”
The Federal reaction to the Confederate incursion on the island was swift. No fewer than three relief efforts were sent to Camp Brown after word was received from Wilson’s messenger that the enemy “1200 to 1500 strong” were attacking. At 0330 the roll was sounded to alert the garrison of the fort. The first relief column, commanded by Major Israel Vogdes, consisted of 62 men from Company E 3rd US Infantry , Captain John Hildt commanding, and 31 men from Company A 1st US Artillery, under LT F. E. Taylor. The relief column marched quickly up the north beach. As they passed Battery Lincoln they were joined by Company G of the 6th New York Volunteers who were on duty at that station.
The reinforced column continued down the beach until they made contact with “a large force on our right flank and rear.” In the darkness Vogdes men had become completely intermixed with Chalmers column moving up the same beach from their landing point. In the resulting confusion Major Vogdes was made prisoner and command fell to CPT Hildt. The new commander was immediately approached by a Confederate officer who demanded his surrender. The answer to his request was two shots that opened the firing between the two intermingled groups. In the resulting confusion Hildt managed to move his command to a small rise about 20 yards away where they were placed into position by 1LT F. W. Seeley of the 4th US Artillery, a volunteer participant in the expedition. Company G of the 6th New York had been sent to cover the right flank but disappeared from the scene, probably retreating to the nearby battery. Meanwhile Brown had dispatched LT Chauncey Reese, of the Engineers, with further instructions for Major Vogdes. In his ride down the beach Reese ran into a portion of Chalmers men and retreated hastily to Battery Lincoln. Here he left the message with LT Richard Duryea, Company E 3rd US Infantry who was trying to catch up with his company that had somehow left the fort without him. Duryea pushed forward but also met the same Confederate troops that had halted Reese. He attempted to work his way around the fighting that had broken out between Chalmers men and Hildt’s command. During this maneuver the Confederates began their retreat and he chanced upon LT Loomis Langdon, of the 1st US Artillery. The two men gathered up about 14 men from mixed commands and proceeded down the beach in search of Hildt’s command. They found a group of men in the dark and called out for identification. The answer came back as “Second Alabama”. Supposing that they could not penetrate the enemy force there they continued down the beach and by sheer circumstance stumbled on the Confederate landing site.
Reese had meantime returned to the fort to report the location of the enemy confronting Vogdes. Brown immediately sent additional reinforcements to his assistance. The second column was made up of Company H 2nd Artillery, CPT James Robertson commanding, and Company C 3rd US Infantry under LT Alexander Shipley. Reese was also dispatched to seek help from the Navy. He was ordered to get the McClellan moving toward the landing area with additional troops taken from the nearby Potomac. Unfortunately this was misinterpreted and the McClellan took the Potomac under tow and the resulting loss of speed did not allow them to arrive before the Confederates had left the area. Had the McClellan moved to the landing site alone the Confederate troops might have been stranded when their transportation was sunk or driven away.
The growing Union strength and the disorder at Camp Brown left the Confederate commander no choice but to withdraw. The retreat proved much more difficult than the approach. Much of the medical detachment was left behind to care for the wounded and was captured. The retreating men were ambushed by “two companies of United States Regulars which had passed us under cover of darkness” (probably a portion of Hildt’s command). At the shore LT Duryea’s small band took up a fire into the boats as they launched. Confederate difficulties were not over when they reached the safety of the steamers for the trip back. The propeller of the Neaffie had become fouled on a hawser and would not move. The Ewing made an effort to tow the disabled vessel to safety but the burden made the boat unmanageable. After some delay while the boat crews attempted to change the manner of the towing the propeller was finally cut free of the impediment and the two steamers moved off to safety.
The battle was over and each side issued congratulatory messages over their victories. In reality the raid accomplished almost nothing. The Confederates achieved only a small portion of their objectives and the Union forces had been caught flatfooted and embarrassed by the episode. The butcher’s bill (k, w, and m) for this carnival of errors was 87 for the Confederates and 67 for the Federals.