The Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Florida in 1861

October 9, 1861

The Battle of Santa Rosa Island was a minor engagement that took place on October 9, 1861, during the first year of the Civil War. Confederate forces attacked Camp Brown, near Fort Pickens, and were pushed back by Union forces, including the Wilson Zouaves from New York City.

Braxton Bragg, Portrait

Braxton Bragg ordered the Confederate assault on Santa Rosa Island. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Battle of Santa Rosa Island Summary

The Battle of Santa Rosa Island — also known as the Assault on Camp Brown — was fought between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America on October 9, 1861, during the Civil War. Under orders from General Braxton Bragg, Brigadier General Richard H. Anderson led a small contingent of Confederate troops in a surprise attack on Union forces near Fort Pickens, under the command of Colonel Harvey Brown. Anderson sailed from the mainland in two small steamers and landed on Santa Rosa Island, roughly four miles east of the fort. Anderson proceeded to divide his men into three columns and marched toward the fort. Approaching Fort Pickens, the Confederates attacked the 6th Regiment of New York Volunteers at their camp, about a mile from the fort. The New Yorkers were routed and retreated. Anderson decided to take defensive positions, in the hope the fort would surrender. However, Union reinforcements arrived at the fort and Colonel Brown launched a successful attack on Anderson and his men, forcing them to withdraw and leave the island. At some point, Anderson received a severe wound to his left elbow.

Quick Facts About the Battle of Santa Rosa Island 

  • Location: Santa Rosa Island, Florida
  • Campaign: Operations of Gulf Blockading Squadron
  • Begin Date: October 9, 1861
  • End Date: October 9, 1861
  • Also Known As: Confederate Assault on Camp Brown
  • Winner: United States of America
Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Wilson Zouaves, 1861
This illustration depicts the attack on Camp Brown.

What Happened at the Battle of Santa Rosa Island?

Prior to the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Union forces attacked the Confederate Navy Yard at Pensacola. In the attack, the Judah, a Confederate ship that was docked and undergoing modifications, was destroyed. In response, Confederate General Braxton Bragg planned to retaliate against Union forces on Santa Rosa Island.

On the night of October 8, Bragg gathered General Richard H. Anderson and roughly 1,000 men at the Confederate naval installation in Pensacola, Florida. Bragg issued orders for them to travel to Santa Rosa Island and attack Union forces at Camp Brown, which was about a mile to the east of Fort Pickens.

The Confederates sailed from Pensacola on steamships and barges, under cover of darkness. A majority of the Union troops, under the command of Colonel Harvey Brown, were asleep when Anderson and his men landed — completely undetected by the handful of Union guards that were on duty. After landing, Anderson divided his men into three columns, which were led by Colonel James R. Chalmers, Colonel J. Patton Anderson, and Colonel John K. Jackson.

Anderson’s primary target was Camp Brown, where roughly 250 men from the 6th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, were stationed. The regiment was also known as “Wilson’s Zouaves” and they were under the command of William Wilson. The men believed they were safe for the night due to the string of pickets — in this case, night guards — who were on duty. The Union picket line stretched across the island.

Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Confederate Landing
Illustration of the Confederates landing on Santa Rosa Island. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Sometime between 2:30 and 3:30 in the morning, Anderson and his men surprised the Union pickets, quickly overwhelmed them, and overran the camp. The New York troops were forced to evacuate the camp, leaving it in the hands of the Confederates. Anderson’s men went through the camp, took whatever they could make use of, and then set it on fire.

Soon after, Colonel Brown was notified of the Confederate. He responded by calling for reinforcements and placing a cannon on the top of the fort. Major Israel Vodges, an infantry company, and an artillery company were assembled.

Brown sent them out to engage the Confederates, and they were joined by Wilson and the Zouaves. By all accounts, the ensuing battle was brutal and spread out across the island. Both sides struggled to gain an advantage in the darkness. Eventually, Anderson and his men withdrew from the battle, embarked on the ships, and sailed back to Pensacola. It was still dark when they departed.

In the aftermath, both General Bragg and Colonel Brown claimed victory, but the battle did not change the military situation in the Pensacola region. Technically, Brown drove Bragg’s men off, and retained control of the battlefield, confirming a Union victory.

Significance of the Battle of Santa Rosa Island

The Battle of Santa Rosa Island was a minor engagement in the first year of the Civil War. The battle was the first engagement for Wilson’s Zouaves, whose members were mostly former convicts, gang members, and criminals from the Bowery section of New York City. 

Wilson Zouaves, Leaving New York, 1861
This illustration depicts the Wilson Zouaves leaving New York in 1861.

An Account of the Battle of Santa Rosa Island and the Wilson Zouaves

This narrative of the battle is taken from the history of the Wilson Zouaves, written by Gouverneur Morris and published in 1891. Minor edits have been made to the text, however, the account, as written by Morris, remains intact. Section headings and images have been added for context.

Wilson’s Zouaves at Camp Brown

October 8th, 1861, found in camp, one mile east of Fort Pickens, Companies C, Captain R. H. Hazeltine; D, Captain Duffy; F, Lieutenant Jacob Silloway; H, Captain Charles E. Heuberer, and K. Captain H. L. Hoelzle, being a total of some fourteen officers, and two hundred and twenty muskets, such being the strength to which bad water, hot suns, and an inconsiderate system of details and detachments had reduced the regiment.* The camp was an ordinary infantry one, the company streets running east and west, and the color line (on the east side of the camp) north and south. The ordinary camp guard and its sentinels were on duty, and a half mile east of the camp k was an outpost line, the whole of this part of the affair being commanded by Lieutenant Moore Hanham, of Company H, afterward a major of colored troops.

The day wore through peacefully enough, but was destined to be succeeded by a hot and lurid night, for Bragg, finally goaded into action by his government and newspapers, had selected the evening of the 8th, as the proper date on which to dispose of the Sixth, storm Fort Pickens, and hoist whatever provisional Confederate flag he might be righting under, over the remains of Colonel Brown, his works, and his force.

Bragg Organizes the Confederate Attack

Desiring a surprise, General Bragg determined to make his crucial effort after dark. This was an error on his part, by the way; night attacks ought only to be confined to the most veteran of veterans, as, on such occasions, it is so easy for a soldier to trip and fall, to get lost, to dig a hole for himself, or in fact to do a multitude of things calculated to relieve him from the necessity of fighting. However, Bragg so ordained matters, and having in hand plenty of men who had undergone more or less of discipline and drill, he selected two thousand five hundred of the best fitted of them to make what the Spaniards call an “en camisado” with probably the idea that if the pick of his force could only hustle the Sixth into Pickens, he could, on the next day, cross enough more of men over the bay to force Colonel Brown into a surrender.

Anderson’s Force Moves to Santa Rosa Island

Thus thinking, and having selected his troops, and General Anderson to command them, General Bragg sent his troops over the bay, and by one o clock in the morning of the 9th October had gotten one thousand five hundred of them on shore, about one mile to the east of the camp of the Sixth, leaving about as many more on board of the steamer and towed flatboats which constituted his flotilla.

These troops formed themselves into three columns, whereof one was destined to turn the left of the Sixth by the shore of the bay, another to turn the right of the camp by way of the beach on the Gulf side, while the center column was meant to attack in front, and overwhelm the camp of the Sixth with its forward rush. The whole plan was a very pretty one from a theoretical standpoint, but in a practical military way, it would likely have been better to have kept the troops together and rushed the Sixth camp in a mass. A dark night is bewildering, and the less complication a commander introduces into his scheme on such occasions the better. If carried out in all its details this attack would have resulted in the demolition of this portion of the regiment, for, the more steadfastly it resisted the attack in front, the more time would have been given to the flanking columns to close in on the rear so that eventually the battalion would have been circled with fire and steel.

Fort Pickens, Santa Rosa Island, Florida
Fort Pickens. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The Battle of Santa Rosa Island Begins

At 2.30 a.m., October 9th, the enemy’s skirmish line crept up on the advance picket line of the Sixth and bayoneted some of them before the alarm was given. Then some of the pickets fired their muskets, the Confederates likewise opened, and the camp was alarmed. The long roll was beaten, and the Sixth formed up on its color line under Col. Wilson, while the remainder of the picket force came slowly, fighting steadily, in retreat, with the enemy fairly on top of them firing rapidly and yelling after their own fashion.

The 6th New York Falls Back

When the shock finally came, the odds were too great for the Sixth to sustain, and so it came about that three companies, under command of Colonel Wilson, fell back in the direction of Fort Pickens in good order, rallying from time to time and firing steadily. These companies, so soon as they had established themselves under cover of the works, were in condition to promptly advance in pursuit of the enemy. This course, on the part of Colonel Wilson, was militarily correct, and theoretically, the best plan would probably have been to have retired the battalion in mass to the Gulf side of Fort Pickens so as to unmask its guns, and so when the impact of the attack should have been checked, to have made a counter charge on the enemy’s left, which, if assisted by an application of force on his right, would probably have settled the business then and there. In fact, it would have been a miniature battle of Dresden, as fought by the first Napoleon, with a fortress for a center and an active force on each flank. 

William Wilson, Wilson Zouaves
Colonel William Wilson. Image Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

As it occurred, however, the fact was that while Col. Wilson and his three companies fell back on Fort Pickens, Captains Heuberer and Hazeltine did not retreat, and so, keeping their companies in hand, they retired a short distance to the right of the camp and forming up sternly with their backs to the Gulf prepared to fight it out on that line. This little force numbered a scant hundred muskets and was under the further disadvantage if charged in front of being driven into the Gulf, if kept long in its then position of being attacked in flank by the left or Gulf side column of the enemy. 

However, this latter organization was opportunely checked by a valiant invalid of the Sixth, Private Scott of Company C, who, true to his fighting name when he heard the firing, came out from his hospital cot, found a musket and promptly slew the Confederate leader, so that, confused by the darkness and their leader killed, this part of the enemy halted and precious time was gained. 

Confederates Occupy Camp Brown

Meantime, the Confederate center column, having occupied the camp of the Sixth, halted in the full light of the burning camp and did several curious things. 

First, they formed up in line and fired several wonderfully well-ordered volleys, then they for some unknown reason formed a square; why this was done no man knows perhaps it was in order to keep their men together perhaps from a vague idea that Colonel Brown had a regiment of cavalry somewhere — in a bomb shelter — perhaps, or in his breeches pockets, and that the square was the proper formation in which to receive them. 

Hazeltine and Heuberer Attack

Anyway, the square was formed, and before it formed and while it was forming and afterward, the companies of Hazeltine and Heuberer on somewhat higher ground than the camp, waxed hotter and hotter as the fight went on, and looking out of their surrounding darkness into the light of the blazing camp, so smote the enemy with continuous musketry, that many men went down killed or wounded, and many another man probably wished in his inmost soul that he had never “loved a country.”

After this sort of thing had gone on long enough for Companies H and C of the Sixth to have expended two or three thousand rounds of ammunition, the enemy suddenly became tired. He had not captured Fort Pickens he had not even gobbled the Sixth and he was very much disgusted at the steady fire of Companies H and C. 

Confederates Retreat from Camp Brown

Suddenly blew the bugle of retreat, and like a vanishing mist the grey and butternut ranks took themselves out of the light of the campfires, and into the friendly shades of the night, with a rain of abandoned muskets and bowie knives besprinkling the sand as they went.

Union Reinforcements Arrive

By this time, Major Vogdes and Captain Hildt had brought up some companies of regulars. That portion of the Sixth which had been retired by Colonel Wilson also came back, and the whole force — cheering and firing as they attacked — tore through the underbrush, and stumbled over the sand hills in a lively pursuit, which lasted until the Confederates found refuge in their transports. 

Colonel Brown’s Mistake

During this pursuit, some prisoners were bagged, but the retreat of the enemy was too precipitate to admit of much business in this line. One single field battery could have disabled the towing steamer, and so captured or annihilated the entire command, but there was no field battery at hand. The fact seems to be that Colonel Brown hardly realized that his position had been attempted until the whole affair was ended.

There was a field battery in Pickens, and there were officers and men to fight the same, and horses to move it, but somebody blundered and so the Confederates were able to escape, considerably demoralized, having lost a number of arms and some four hundred men, and when the sun rose over Santa Rosa Island the Sixth became conscious that it had had a sharp fight, had won a tidy victory, and that the greater part of its baggage had been burned. During the pursuit, a steamer came over from Pensacola with reinforcements, but Company I, Captain Robert Bailey, opened from battery Cameron, and the enemy promptly turned around and sought shelter.

Brown’s Confusion

In this connection, it is fair to Col. Brown to state that, although he did not remember his field battery, he did bethink him of the fact that he had under his control an armed transport steamer, called the “McClellan” which vessel belonged to the quartermaster’s department. The “McClellan” had a battery of sufficient power to have, with her light draught of water, enabled her to get into a position outside of the beach, from which she could probably have driven away the Confederate steamers and so have isolated the men not yet embarked.

But here again, came the general stupidity of the superior management of this eminently “soldier’s battle” for when the captain of the “McClellan” tried to obey his orders he was signaled from the frigate “Potomac” to tow that vessel into position, and in trying to handle this heavy, old sailing ship, he lost so much precious time that the enemy had made good their retreat before the batteries of the ships could be brought to bear.

Aftermath of the Battle of Santa Rosa Island

In this affair, the regiment had behaved extremely well. It had been overpowered and unsupported and it had not been stampeded or broken. A portion of it had retired under orders in good condition and had advanced again without hesitation when the rally was made; while as stated Heuberer’s and Hazeltine s companies had fought the battle out to the end without material change of their original positions. Still, the regiment had suffered heavily; it had lost a number of good men and had nearly all its property destroyed, and was reduced for some time afterward to various queer shifts to provide for its wants. In fact, as the supplies at the post were low some ingenious men hunted alligators for their hides for shoe leather, while others showed much tailoring skill in patching and revamping damaged clothing.

Wilson Zouaves, Arriving at Fort Pickens, 1861
This illustration depicts the Wilson Zouaves arriving at Fort Pickens in 1861.

In this place, it is as well to mention the experiences of the companies which at this time were on detail on Santa Rosa. Of these, Company I, Capt. Robert Bailey, had been (June 16) detached to Battery Cameron, one of the new outworks of Fort Pickens. This company, being near the regiment practically participated in all the doings of the main body, and it, as already mentioned, fired the first shot in anger ever fired by the regiment. Also, it participated in the battle of Santa Rosa Island, both by driving off the enemy’s reinforcements and by peppering a schooner which had on board, as afterward ascertained, no less a person than Major Vogdes, U.S.A., who had had the bad luck to be captured during the struggle on the Island.

September 2 ist, Company G, Capt. James H. Dobie, had been ordered to Battery Lincoln, where it was at the time of the attack on the camp of the Sixth, and when the regulars advanced this company came out of the work and did good service in the pursuit.

J. Earle Bowden Tells the Story of the Battle of Santa Rosa Island

In this video from PNJVideo, J. Earle Bowden tells the story of the Battle of Santa Rosa Island. Bowden is known as the “Father of Gulf Islands National Seashore” and played a key role in establishing the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Florida in 1861
  • Date October 9, 1861
  • Author
  • Keywords Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Wilson Zouaves, Braxton Bragg, Richard H. Anderson, Fort Pickens, Colonel Harvey Brown
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024