15-inch Guns for Pensacola Harbor

Military activities at Pensacola, Florida had long faded even from the back pages of the newspapers by 1864.  At the onset of the secession crisis, Fort Pickens had been, like Fort Sumter, one of the “hot spots” that lead to war.  But with the Confederate withdrawal in early 1862, that Gulf Coast harbor was in Federal hands.

But that did not not mean the city was safe and secure.  On May 9, 1864, Rear-Admiral David G. Farragut, commanding the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, sent an inquiry to the Navy Department discussing a means to nullify a threat he perceived to Pensacola:

I would most respectfully suggest that an application be made to the War Department to have two 15-inch guns placed on the Old Spanish Battery at Barrancas and two in an earth-work on the beach, on the western front of Fort Pickens, as I think they would be sufficient to render this port safe against the entrance of almost any enemy.

So what “enemy” was Farragut considering?  Earlier in the year, Farragut expressed concerns of a breakout by Confederate ironclads reported in Mobile Bay to the west.  From there, he feared, the ironclads might operate against Pensacola, New Orleans, or other points to disrupt the Federal blockade.

Farragut’s request processed through the Navy Department and then over to the War Department in somewhat good speed, on May 31.  In the War Department, the request went first to the Chief Engineer, Brigadier-General Richard Delafield, who referred to the Chief of Ordnance, Brigadier-General George Ramsay.  Ramsey, responded affirmatively on June 14:

I approve of the recommendation of Admiral Farragut, believing that guns of heavier caliber than are now mounted are wanted for the fortifications of Pensacola Harbor.  The four 15-inch guns will be supplied by this Department, and with implements, carriages, and ammunition, whenever the arrangements for mounting them are completed and a requisition for them is made to this office.

“Sure!  That’s a fine idea!  But we have to wait until the proper forms are completed.” And that’s where this thread unravels. The only 15-inch guns at the War Department’s disposal were Rodman guns.  Though features in the Washington Defenses, most of those caliber weapons went to seacoast defenses protecting the northern ports (New York in particular).  A few went west to California, and is the subject of a sesquicentennial “novelty post” I have in the queue.  Despite what some secondary accounts might say, no Rodmans were used at Fort Pulaski or on Morris Island.  So were four 15-inch Rodmans sent to Pensacola during the war?  If so, for good measure, that would be a rare employment of the weapon south of the Potomac.

I know Rodman guns were present in the Pensacola defenses post-war.  But like similar seacoast defenses at Charleston, the large Rodmans arrived after the war was over and served through those lean years until disappearing, breechloading guns arrived to be mounted in concrete batteries.

For those who don’t worry about the difference between an Ordnance Rifle and a Rodman Gun, this is probably a “so what?”  But if the War Department was willing to part with four 15-inch Rodmans to protect Pensacola, that does speak to the value placed on that port and to the evaluation of the threat.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 108-9.)


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