Two forts, built to guard the same bay, engineered by the same man for the same purpose, but pitted against each other as the tides of the Civil War swept over the city they were bound to protect. If that’s not an accurate metaphor for the magnitude of secession, I don’t know what is.
A New Country Needs New Defenses
After America won its independence from Britain, much would need to be done to ensure its survival. A working government and constitution were, of course, a must. But what about national defenses? America had its army, but if the recent Revolution proved anything, it was that they needed a top-notch navy too. In 1764, Congress funded the construction of half a dozen frigates with Live Oak Frames, which would become the first ships for America’s newfound navy. Small as it was, it was a start.
A rude awakening came with the war of 1812, a largely forgotten or disregarded war since it really didn’t decide much for America and its long-time rival, Britain. No new boundaries along the Canadian border were ever changed, and besides getting America’s feet wet in the art of true, independent war, in my humble opinion it wasn’t a necessary dispute. One good thing, however, did come out of this turn through the crucible.
Every middle schooler knows the story about how our national anthem came into existence. Francis Scott Key penned (or rather, quilled) “The Star-Spangled Banner” after watching the naval bombardment of Fort McHenry at Baltimore. The brick fortress withstood the battle, and the government took noticed.
In 1817, after the war’s peace treaty was signed, a French military engineer by the name of Simon Bernard was employed by the government to construct a network of coastal defenses for America and all its states.
Florida, who has the most mileage of coastline of all the states, joined the Union in 1821 and Bernard’s plan would soon be implemented. And all eyes turned to Pensacola Bay along the Gulf of Mexico, which proved to be ideal for the base of operations for all U.S naval efforts along that stretch.
There were some skimpy fortifications already in place before Florida fell into Union hands. The state had belonged to the Spanish, changing ownership quite a few times over the centuries since its discovery. Pensacola was recently found to be the oldest surviving settlement in Florida, contrary to the popularly held fact that St. Augustine was the oldest. Both places, regardless of who was settled first, would need to be protected against invasion.
America, however, was going to do away with the old system. They wanted four forts to guard their shipyard, and in a controversial and bold move, they were going to build two of them on islands.
To the east of the mouth of Pensacola Bay is a long stretch of sandy, white beach known as Santa Rosa Island. Collecting the building materials began in 1826, and the blueprints for the fort were daunting. Out of all the four intended forts, it would be the biggest. Five sides, a counterscarp to conceal it from the island-side approach, thirteen questers for troops, three storerooms for the gunpowder, two cisterns, five bastions (corners of the fort), and over 100 cannons that would be trained upon attackers. It would be a massive undertaking.
Captain William Henry Chase was assigned the task and proved to be a shrewd businessman when it came to building Fort Pickens. Labor, unfortunately, was primarily provided by slaves from the New Orleans firm of Underhill and Strong. These slaves were skilled masons and carpenters, suited for the job. Other slaves who could perform non-skilled labor were pulled from Pensacola.
The bricks that the slaves would be laying came from Mobile and Pensacola. When construction on Fort Morgan near Mobile Bay was suspended, manufacturers had more bricks than they knew what to do with. The logical choice was to give them over to Captain Chase for Fort Pickens. Some resources would have to travel even greater distances to reach Santa Rosa Island. Having bricks is fine and dandy, but you need a way to keep them together. Lime was imported from quarries all the way in Maine to make the mortar. And if you’ve never been to Florida or its lovely beaches, you know that the humidity is something to consider. And with how close Fort Pickens would be to the water, it would need to be waterproof. Sheet lead was brought in from mines in Illinois for the arches of the fort. Other precious stones and metal like granite and copper were acquired from New York to put the finishing touches on steps, sills, traverse circles, and for fitting out the magazines.
Building the fort didn’t come without risks. In the summer, yellow fever would run rampant along the Gulf Coast (I blame the mosquitoes). This hampered the progress of the slave labor. Not only that, but often times materials were delayed or didn’t arrival at all, thanks to Indian raids and shipwrecks.
Despite all of these things, the fort was finished in 1833, and by October of the following year, it was ready for its first troops. Company H of the 2nd U.S Artillery arrived to Santa Rosa Island to their new post.
One interesting invention are the gunpowder tunnels running along inside two of the bastions in Fort Pickens. Branching tunnels were constructed that were filled to the brim with gunpowder. In the event that the enemy should breach the fort’s defenses, these tunnels would be ignited. Talk about a BIG BOOM! This not only would deal a blow to the invaders, but render much of the fort useless, as that kind of explosion would ruin any cannons that could be used against the home guard.
In this new American fortification plan, a new fort would need to be built on the mainland opposite Fort Pickens. The peninsula were Pensacola Naval Air Station is now situated, once had its own earth and wooden fort established by the Spanish in the early 1700s. This, however, was burned by the French some years later and the peninsula was widely ignored as the old city and the state engaged in a sort of tug-of-war between Spain, France, and Britain. Pensacola was like the doll that everyone wanted to play with and argued over for decades.
When it came into British hands, a new earth-and-log fortification was built and named the Royal Navy Redoubt, which wasn’t very well designed, as its foundation upon the sands made it unstable for the thirty troops who manned it. Around the time that America was rebelling, The Spanish and French were also at war with Britain. Bernardo de Galvez, the governor of Spanish-occupied Louisiana, saw his chance to seize Florida and he did it in March of 1781.
Also at the same time that America was granted its independence, Florida was reverted back to the Spanish. This led to a renaming of just about everything within Pensacola, including the Royal Navy Redoubt. Now, it was called Fort San Carlos de Barrancas. Loosely translated, it means “Fort Saint Charles of the Bluffs”, which was where the fort was built. The British called that area the Red Bluffs as it overlooked the bay.
But the Spanish weren’t done with their tweaking and a new fortification called a “water battery” was built just a little ways down hill from Fort Barrancas. The concept of the water battery was to be able to fire cannons and have the balls ricochet off the water. Kind of like skipping stones across a pond. Built of bricks and mortar in a half-moon shape, it was the first permanent fortification for Pensacola Bay.
The Spanish water battery contained three bomb-proof rooms, one for gunpowder and the other for general storage. The backside of the battery was guarded by what’s called a glacis, or a gently sloping hill that hides it from any rear approach. The finishing touch was the stucco that gives it the magnificent, gleaming-white exterior we see today. The whole thing was completed in 1797 and named Bateria de San Antonio. The storerooms in the water battery were often used as prisons for troublemakers within the fort or the town.
The Spanish took the British log fort that was already in existence just up the hill from the water battery, but added a few spiffs to it. By 1798, new plans were made so that it would house two mortars, twenty-three cannon, an underground gunpowder magazine, and be manned by one-hundred and fifty soldiers.
The events of the war of 1812 hit the Spanish hard in Pensacola. After a near brush with Andrew Jackson just before the ensuing Battle of New Orleans, the British burned the modified Fort Barrancas and disabled the cannons of the water battery. The idea was that they didn’t want Pensacola to be captured by the Americans and then used against them. This never even came close to happening.
Rather than rebuild, the Spanish simply moved on from this spot and build Fort San Carlos just a little east of Ground Zero.
In the end, the Spanish finally gave Florida over to the Americans. Along with Fort Pickens and the now gone Fort McRee on Foster’s Bank on its own island countering Santa Rosa Island, a revival was in store for Fort Barrancas.
First, the battery was modified. The magazines were fitted with wooden walls and floors to prevent moisture issues, and a twelve-foot parapet was built on top of the three bomb-proof rooms, which also allowed for rifle galleries. Materials had to be brought in by a makeshift railway and wharf on the bay to help with completion by 1841, seven years after troops first arrived to Fort Pickens.
Then, attention was turned inland to the site of what we see today as Fort Barrancas. Four walls would comprise the fort with two facing out to sea. It was protected, like Fort Pickens, by a counterscarp dug into the hill to its backside. This design would be unique, in that it would house a stretch of tunnels complete with rifle galleries facing toward a dry mote that separated the counterscarp from the main fort.
A well was also dug, inside of cisterns, to provide the soldiers with water. Also unlike Pickens, the arches were not covered in sheet lead. Instead, cement was implicated between courses of brick, which formed gutters and drains to channel rainwater.
An ingenious engineering method was also used to keep the sand from the parade ground from collapsing the inward facing wall of the tunnel where soldiers would be firing from. Instead of bracing against the sand, the sand was used as the wall’s support. The sand would actually be allowed into the space until it reached its natural slope of “angle of repose”. A curved retaining wall would hold back the sand to allow soldiers to pass through the gallery without difficulty.
One common feature for seaside forts that can be seen at Fort Barrancas is the shot furnace. Often times, cannonballs would be heated until they were red-hot and then fired at wooden ships with the intent to cause a fire. This may be the origin for the slang term “hotshot” today.
With paid slave and craftsmen labor, Fort Barrancas was announced to be complete in 1845, but not all of the guns would be officially mounted until the winter of 1846. They consisted of eight carronades for the counterscarp casemates, ten 24-pounders and two 8-inch seacoast howitzers for the seaward fronts, five 18-pounders for the west salient near the well, three 12-pounders for the north front, one 8-inch mortar and two coehorns for the west front and three field guns, two 6-pounders and 12-pounder unlimbered on the parade ground. I’m dizzy just thinking of all that firepower.
The Secession Crisis
Even before Florida officially seceded from the Union to join the newly formed Confederate States, tensions in Pensacola were at an all-time high. Federal troops still occupied Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens, but the majority of the locals leaned more in favor of the rebels that now came in droves to the port city. Militia across Northwest Florida and in lower Alabama came to seize the fortified naval yard and harbor for use in the cause for states’ rights.
One altercation may have spurred the divide that would make these two forts, who were practically sisters in purpose and creation, become enemies in the coming war.
On January 7th, Lieutenant Adam Slemmer, who was in command of Fort Barrancas at the time, was well aware of the hostilities rising against the Union sympathizers and the U.S Artillery companies that occupied the two forts. That night, men who were supposed to be Confederate civilians and militia, came to the raised bridge outside Barrancas. The guards within the fort fired muskets only to alert the other soldiers, which was common practice of the day. No battle or skirmished ensued, but it could be heretic to say that this was the first shot fired of the Civil War, and not those at Fort Sumter.
Either way, this spooked Slemmer and between the 9th and 10th of the same month, he evacuated Fort Barrancas and moved his forces to Fort Pickens across the way. The cannons would have to be left behind, but he spiked them away, and much of the stores from the naval yard were destroyed so the Confederates wouldn’t use them for their own purposes. A scant lot of fifty artillery men and thirty sailors went with him to Fort Pickens.
About the same time, a friend of both forts, William Henry Chase, was being pulled out of retirement in Pensacola to address this issue of the Federal occupation. A Massachusetts man by origin, he had become endeared to Florida and, by proxy, its Southern cause. Chase, because of his military expertise and extensive knowledge of the forts since he designed them, was appointed to command all the troops of Pensacola.
His first task was to get Slemmer out of Fort Pickens. He was given the order of surrender to read to the lieutenant, but he had become overwhelmed with some emotion and was unable to finish reading it aloud. It was impossible to see past the tears in his eyes. It was possible that he knew what would become of his beloved forts once the war made its way to the state.
Slemmer, just as much of a patriot as Chase, declined the terms of surrender and would remain in Fort Pickens with his troops. Since the war hadn’t begun, they had no cause to fire upon the fort. Yet.
February comes, the Confederacy is formed in Montgomery, and plans are set in motion for Fort Barrancas to be occupied by the militia that had darkened its mote just a month earlier. By the beginning of March, Chase had resigned his commission as commander of Confederate troops in Pensacola for a more prestigious rank that wasn’t so close to home. Now a major general of all Florida state forces, Chase was preplaced by Brigadier General Braxton Bragg. Yep, you read correctly.
Notorious for his strict disciplinary actions, Bragg was ready to whip the men at Fort Barrancas into shape. Reinforced by 5,000 men from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, they were to be quite a force to contend with… if only Bragg could get them to behave. Morale and discipline were constant problems that he would face over the next year or so and it was in Pensacola were his reputation for shooting delinquent soldiers began. Two soldiers were sentenced to death by firing squad for sleeping at their guard posts.
In the meantime, before April and the fallout at Fort Sumter, Slemmer is working to get his own fort into fighting shape. He reported that there wasn’t a single embrasure shutter in the fort. This he remedied by taking some materials and supplies from Fort McRee off Foster’s Bank to the south west of Santa Rosa Island. The Confederates, too, sneaked away guns from the tiny fort that was deemed unworthy of any determined effort to strengthen.
April came, and with it the news of Fort Sumter. A truce was arranged between Florida Senator Stephen Mallory and President Buchannan (before Lincoln was inaugurated), that Fort Pickens would not be attacked as long as the Federal government did not reinforce the fort. For those who were aware of this truce, the sight of Union ships carrying those forbidden reinforcements just off shore would have made them pretty leery. Those troops were ordered to the fort on March 4th, after Lincoln was elected to office. By the early morning of April 13th, Fort Pickens was now the new home of Company A, 1st Artillery and 110 fresh Marines.
A Bay Divided Against Itself
With the truce broken, Bragg was free to fire and retaliate against Fort Pickens from his position at Fort Barrancas. The statistics are staggering. By the summer of 1861, close to 8,000 Confederates were under Bragg’s command, camping inside and around the fort on the mainland. About 2,000 Union troops were led by Colonel Harvey Brown alongside Slemmer, taking refuge on the sprawling parade ground of Fort Pickens or on the sandy terrain just to the east on the island.
For several months, little happened. Conditions within the forts on either side was not ideal. Food shortages – especially for Fort Pickens – plagued the troops. Diseases such as yellow fever, scurvy, and dysentery were rampant. Thunderstorms, the kind I personally love to listen to during the spring and summer, were not so enjoyable for the soldiers and sailors within the forts. Being right on the coast, I kind of don’t blame them.
Soldiers passed the time by swimming in the gulf when conditions allowed, playing cards, reading letters and newspapers, and the occasional hunting of alligators along the beaches – though this was frowned upon by the higher authorities. Mosquitos, snakes, and sand fleas were also the bane of the soldier who had to endure hot, humid summers in the deep south. Men from New York, Maine, Vermont and Indiana within the walls of Fort Pickens might not have been used to this climate. But their enemies from muggy Louisiana and Mississippi across the bay were perfectly at home.
Rations included the typical army food like salted pork, hardtack, potatoes, and onions or turnips. It was up to the troops to cook their own food. Coffee became a scarce commodity, and when the lovely grounds were all used up, the troops turned to whatever they had readily available. Soldiers at Fort Pickens foraged along the island and brewed up roasted berries of the yaupon holly. Whiskey and ginger beer were – unfortunately – common within both forts and it could lead to issues of drunkenness among the soldiers. With little else to pass the time, it became a crutch to stave off the boredom.
Fort Barrancas became an ideal training ground for the southern portion of the Confederacy, and many troops were shipped in and out to fight on other battlefields, especially in Tennessee and Virginia around mid-1861. This didn’t stop the flow of court-marshals that Bragg handed out so generously.
One near fiasco was avoided after a Union turncoat was found to be taking bribes from the Confederates. According to a slave who told a Union sympathizer in Pensacola, the solider was going to simply let the rebel forces into Fort Pickens on a midnight raid. News reached Slemmer, the blackguard was arrested, and a heavy sentry duty was posted all night to prevent the raid. Unbeknown to them, Bragg did intend to make his move upon Santa Rosa Island. A potential delay arose in the fact that his forces hadn’t received any percussion caps. Without this, they can’t fire their guns. But they had bayonets! The assault was only cancelled when word came back that the plan had been divulged to the Federals. A good thing too, otherwise Bragg and his forces might have been blown to pieces.
On the night of September 13th-14th, Union forces in four boats set out on a daring raid to the naval yard. A Confederate schooner, the Judah, was being fitted out for service. 100 Marines managed to sneak up, kill a lone guard, and set fire to the schooner. Within fifteen minutes, they were back in their boats, but the Confederates were alerted and rightly furious. They fired upon the flotilla. Across the board, there were only six killed and thirteen wounded. But this was just the beginning.
Bragg wasn’t going to take that sitting down and on October 9-10, over 1,000 Confederate troops were dispatched to retaliate. In the night, they landed just four miles east of Fort Pickens on the sandy beach of Santa Rosa Island.
They advanced in three columns down the island, traversing across the sandy ground as well as could be expected. The 6th New York, known as Billy Wilson’s Zouaves, were camped a mile east of Fort Pickens because of the sole fact that they were undisciplined volunteers. Slemmer and Harvey didn’t want them mixing with the regular troops. But when shots were fired, those within the fort thought little of it. The New Yorkers were notorious for unauthorizing hunting along the island, and it was likely they assumed the musket fire was just another nighttime hunt for alligators.
When the Confederates began to burn and loot the camp, however, other Federals within the fort became aware of the situation and went out to meet them. In the disorganization the Bragg had tried to bully out of his men, the Confederates were forced back. The rebel boats were fired upon as they made a hasty retreat back to Fort Barrancas.
Thus ended the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, and troops on both sides could – somewhat – consider themselves veterans of battle.
Confederate: 18 killed, 39 wounded, and 30 missing/captured
Union: 14 killed, 29 wounded, 24 missing/captured
Man The Cannons!
This didn’t end the aggression between the two forts, though the Confederates considered the Judah to be vindicated. Not by a long shot. Colonel Harvey took great offense to the nighttime raid and made preparations for a grand artillery barrage that would go down in history as one of the biggest exchanges of the war. It was also one of the first occurrences of a rifled cannon being used against a masonry fortification.
On the morning of November 22nd, a signal flag was raised above Fort Pickens. Two loaded ships from the blockade around the Gulf Coast came within sight of the shore, opposite tiny Fort McRee. Neither side let up until well past midnight and into the dark hours of the following morning.
Cannons from ships and forts boomed across the bay. Fort McRee, who had been stripped for both the forts before the start of the war, suffered the most. The naval yard was a close second in terms of damage, with numerous fires. Fort Barrancas, miraculously, was damaged little in the engagement, since Bragg had taken some previous precautions and piled mounds of sand against the seaward walls and sandbagged the gun emplacements.
When the guns finally silenced that morning, the casualties were reported.
Confederate: 7 killed and 33 wounded
Union: 2 killed and 13 wounded
A Little New Years Lightshow
One last, small engagement took place on New Years, 1862. Presumably drunk from the festivities, General Dick Anderson, perceived a warning shot from Fort Pickens to a steamer near the naval yard as a possible sign of aggression. He ordered the Confederate guns to be run up, and they responded.
Fort Pickens answered with incendiary rounds upon the naval yard, which lit up the base. The commotion lasted for eight hours, which was the approximate time it took Bragg to return from Mobile to realize what the mice have been doing while the cat was away. The matter was settled and he put a stop to the waste of gunpowder. General Anderson was court-marshalled for his negligence.
The Order to Fall Back
In May of 1862, Bragg was ordered to evacuate his troops from Pensacola. This would leave Fort Barrancas completely to the Federal forces, but there was a reason for it.
Not only was Fort McRee and the naval yard pretty much rendered useless to either army, there were bigger things happening up north. Ulysses Grant was steadily making his way down the Tennessee River. He had already taken Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, and had his eyes set on Corinth Mississippi and the railroad hub situated there. Confederate commanders thought it better to leave Pensacola to the Federals. The blockade crippled them anyway, and the last thing the Federals could utilize was a railroad – started by William Henry Chase and finished by Braxton Bragg – that lead north toward Montgomery.
Bragg left with his troops, but not before making sure that Barrancas couldn’t prove beneficial to the enemy. General Samuel Jones – General Anderson’s replacement after the New Year debacle – was ordered to remove all materials of war from the forts that were abandoned. Anything that couldn’t be removed was destroyed. Heavy guns were shipped north along the Mississippi to Vicksburg in hopes to aid the crucial port city that would fall to Grant the following year.
In April, the Confederacy suffered equally great losses at Shiloh and New Orleans, and the Federals thus began burning their way along the Mississippi from both ends in an attempt to cripple the rebelling states.
By May 8th, only five companies of cavalry remained in Pensacola, but under cover of night, they set fire to the last of the supplies and buildings outside Barrancas, and left it all to the Federals.
Fate of the Forts
On May 12th, Federals took official possession of Pensacola. Fort Pickens remained in the defensive and would serve as a prison for captured Confederates, political prisoners, and even a few unruly Federals who needed discipline. Like during the massive artillery barrage, Barrancas was discovered to have suffered little damage in the wake of the Confederate’s “parting gift” to the enemy. It would suffer from a few scattered, minimal raids over the coming years until the end of the war, and would serve its part in the efforts to reform the Union.
Fort Pickens remained occupied by troops who were rotated out every few months, exchanging one band of Yankees for another. Colored troops also served on Santa Rosa Island to keep it safe from any unwise attempt to take back Pensacola. For the most part, the last two and a half years of the war were silent and uneventful for the town.
The Forts Today
Both forts are now under the protection of the National Park Service and can be visited today, along with the Advanced Redoubt that guarded the naval yard. Fort McRee has been washed away by hurricanes, but its memory is kept alive by the park rangers and historians who know of its history.
There’s a single fee to access both forts and the redoubt, and the receipt is good for seven days after purchase (this is as of April of 2019). That’s a good thing, because you can’t do everything in one day. We tried.
Fort Pickens is settled on the very tip of Santa Rosa Island, past a few World War II batteries – which are equally impressive and worth your time – as well as an offending mass of tourism on Pensacola Beach just before you reach the island.
The mainland fort is just by the Pensacola Lighthouse within Pensacola’s Navy Base. There are two entrances to this base and one is not open to the public, as it leads right into the military sector of the base. The people at the gate are friendly and helpful in pointing you in the right direction of the 10-15 minute detour to get to the correct gate. Your GPS may take you to the wrong, non-civilian gate.
Both forts offer tours and a wealth of information, as well as books in their giftshop about the war in Pensacola. Both structures are in immaculate shape, except for the one side of Fort Pickens which was blown up after the war. Additions were also made to Fort Pickens to help modernize it for subsequent wars and the invention of underwater mines. Fort Pickens also offers a short video explaining the fort’s layout, and an educational display about the various wildlife on Santa Rosa Island.