Crisis in Pensacola

Ron Coddington
Aug 29, 2015 · 4 min read

By early January 1861, mechanic W. Thomas Morrill and other employees of the Pensacola Navy Yard in Florida were caught in a humanitarian crisis. They had not been paid for two months — the result of civil unrest that disrupted the flow of money and materials to military outposts in the Southern states as the country drifted towards civil war. Hunger became a real and present danger.[1]

1st Asst. Eng. William Thomas Morrill, C.S. Navy, by James Wallace Black of Boston, Massachusetts, about 1863–1864. The Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress.

Morrill had a wife and two infants to feed. Many of his fellow workers also had families to support and no relief was in sight. On January 8, the workers rallied at a mass meeting at a Masonic hall in Warrington, a village outside the walls of the Yard.

They appointed a committee who promptly met with the commander of the Yard and requested that provisions be issued in lieu of pay. The sympathetic officer in charge, Cmdr. James Armstrong,[2] acted promptly to relieve their sufferings. Flour, sugar, rice, coffee and butter were distributed on January 10 — the same day Florida legislators voted by a wide margin to secede from the Union.

Two days later, armed rebel forces converged on the Yard and demanded the surrender of the military garrison. Armstrong capitulated and the Yard passed into Confederate hands without the firing of a shot.

Morrill, who also belonged to a local militia company, the Warrington Artillery, joined the victorious rebels. The militiamen elected officers, a common practice among volunteers, and they voted Morrill orderly sergeant.[3]

The Warrington Artillery served on various guard and other duties in the Pensacola area during the early months of 1861, though Morrill was destined to follow a different path than his comrades. After the bombardment of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, the fledgling Confederate navy required mechanically minded men to service warships.

Morrill left the company and became a navy officer. Over the next year he advanced in rank to 3rd assistant engineer and was assigned to two ships at the Yard: The Fulton, a wooden vessel being converted to an ironclad, and the steamer Bradford.

Morrill might have remained at the Yard for the remainder of the war, but federal forces moved to retake Pensacola and forced the Confederates to evacuate. In the hasty exodus from Pensacola in May 1862, the unfinished Fulton and the Bradford were burned to prevent them from falling into Yankee hands.

Forced to leave his family behind, Morrill abandoned Pensacola with other navy personnel. He spent the rest of 1862 and early 1863 in Georgia building ships at the Columbus Iron Works, and in Savannah aboard the ironclad ram Atlanta. He also served a stint in Charleston, South Carolina, working with torpedoes, or underwater mines.[4]

On June 17, 1863, Morrill was present for duty aboard the Atlanta when she grounded during the beginning of a battle with a pair of Union monitors. The commander of the Atlanta surrendered his ship and crew. Morrill and other officers were sent to the North and imprisoned at Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. He posed for his carte de visite portrait during this time.

Morrill remained a prisoner for more than a year. While he awaited his release, the navy promoted him to first engineer. Finally, he received a parole in September 1864 and was exchanged the following month in Virginia. His arrival in the commonwealth was a homecoming of sorts. Born and raised in the port city of Norfolk, he had left for Florida in 1854.

His stay in Virginia was brief. Before the end of the year, he received orders to report to Albany, Georgia, where he was attached to a newly established flour, gristmill and bakery that supplied food to sailors in the region. Evidence suggests he reunited with his wife and children at some point along the way. Morrill remained in Albany until April 1865, when he surrendered and received a parole.[5]

Morrill returned to Pensacola and restarted his life as an engineer. He eventually fathered eight children, only three of which would live to maturity.

Morrill died in 1911 at age 74.

[1] Reports related to measures taken for the relief of workers of the Pensacola Navy Yard. ORN, I, 4: 7–12.

[2] Kentucky-born Cmdr. James Armstrong (1794–1868) had taken charge as commandant of the Pensacola Navy Yard in October 1860. A respected officer who entered the navy in 1809, he had been captured by the British during the War of 1812. His spotless career ended at Pensacola. Appearing before a court-martial on charges of neglect of duty, disobedience of orders and conduct unbecoming of an officer, he was found guilty suspended from duty for five years. Armstrong was restored to duty in 1866.

[3] William T. Morrill pension record, Confederate Veterans and Widows Pension Applications, 1885–1955, State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, Florida.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Ron Coddington is a collector of Civil War era images, and the editor and publisher of Military Images magazine. He is the author of three books about Civil War soldiers and their stories. His next book will profile men who served in the Union and Confederate navies. Visit for more information and a complete index of past columns. Follow Ron on Facebook and Twitter.

This profile originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of the Civil War News.

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