Fort Pickens – Gulf Islands National Seashore

Location: Pensacola, Florida

Webpage: National Park

General Description: Following the War of 1812 when most of the seaports were captured by the British, the United States decided it was time to update all the coastal defenses with massive brick and mortar forts.  The protection of Pensacola Bay was critical not only for the deep water harbor, but also because of the major Naval Yard.  The plans was for four forts, two to protect the entrance to the Bay, Fort Pickens and Fort McRee, and two to protect the harbor and Naval Yard, Fort Baranncas and Advanced Redoubt.  While Fort Pickens and Fort McRee would have overlapping coverages at the entrance to the Bay, Fort Barrancas would be able to fire cannons on any ship that got through head on before the ship could make the right turn into the Bay itself.  In total it created a formidable defense.  Fort Pickens was the largest of this Third System of Coastal Forts, being completed in 1834 using over 21.5 million bricks.  By the onset of the Civil War, Fort Pickens had not been occupied since the Mexican-American War in 1848.  Despite its condition, Lieutenant Adam Slemmer, in command of the garrison at Fort Barrancas, determined that Fort Pickens was more easily defended, especially against any land attacks.  Therefore, he moved his garrison to Fort Pickens in January, 1861, and refused to surrender to the newly formed Confederacy.  The situation was similar to that of Fort Sumter and could just as easily been the beginning of the Civil War, however, Fort Pickens was on Santa Rosa Island and was accessible from the Gulf to be supplied and reinforced.  Unlike Fort Sumter that was within Charleston Harbor, cutoff from the Ocean by Fort Moultrie.  The Confederates did attempt to take Fort Pickens on October 9, 1861 when General Braxton Bragg landed troops during the night and attacked the 6th New York Infantry Regiment that was camped a mile east of the fort, called the Battle of Santa Rosa Island.  However, the troops were driven back before they could attack the fort.  On November 22 an 23, 1861 the Union retaliated by exchanging cannon fire with Fort Barrancas, Fort McRee and the Naval Yard using Fort Pickens along with two ships, the USS Richmond and Niagara.  After New Orleans fell in 1862, the Confederates withdrew from Pensacola in May and the Union occupied all of the forts for the rest of the Civil War.  Captives from the Indian Wars in the west were transferred to some of the southeastern forts and Fort Pickens was no exception.  From October 1866 to May 1867, Apache chief Geronimo was held as a prisoner at Fort Pickens along with several of his warriors.  By the end of the Civil War, these brick and mortar forts were unable to withstand the power of the rifled cannon and a new system of forts was began in 1898 known as the Endicott system.  Instead of single massive forts, this system consisted of small batteries built with reinforced concrete instead of brick.  During the construction of Battery Pensacola within the walls of Fort Pickens, 8000 pounds of power caught fire in the northwest bastion which exploded showering debris 1.5 miles away.  Completed in 1898, Battery Pensacola mounted two 12-inch rifles on disappearing carriages.  Battery Payne and Battery Trueman was built in 1904 and 1905, respectively, are located just west of the fort and mounted two 3-inch rapid fire guns each to protect against fast torpedo boats in the bay entrance.  Also located west of the fort facing the Gulf was Battery Van Swearingen in 1898 with an additional pair of 4.7 inch guns.  Moving east along the coast are Batteries Cullum and Sevier built in 1896-1898 with additional guns on disappearing carriages.  The final set of batteries moving east from Fort Pickens were Battery Cooper built in 1900 with two 6-inch disappearing cannon and Battery Worth completed in 1899 with eight 12-inch mortars.  The next phase of coastal defense systems saw the construction of Battery Langdon in 1923, a massive concrete structure for two 12-inch guns and concrete casements of 10 feet thick walls and 17 feet thick ceiling.  Finally, in 1946 Battery #234 was constructed with modern 6-inch guns with curved cast steel curved shields 4-6 inches thick.  All of these examples of the history of coastal defense are open to the public, although most of the interiors have now been closed.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) Fort Pickens is a very large pentagon shaped brick and mortar fort.  Rather then being in a separate building the Visitor Center is located within the northern section of the fort.

VisitorCenter

2) The museum at Fort Pickens is separate from the Visitor Center, being housed in one of the old barracks outside the fort.  Most of the museum provides interesting interactive exhibits about the beach ecosystem of plants and animals at the Gulf Island National Seashore.  There is a small exhibit about the history of the fort and other batteries along with a very good 11 minute film giving a tour of the fort.   It closely follows the path of the self-guided tour giving more in-depth explanations then the tour brochure.

Museum

3) There were a number of interesting features in the fort that are explained in the self-guided tour.  These included the officer quarters that are part of the northern structure with fireplaces and whitewashed walls, a unique layout of the dry moat and bastions along the north side to protect against land attacks, a set of three tunnels under the northern wall that would be packed with gunpowder to blow up the northern wall if it fell to enemy hands, two large cisterns to hold rainwater, a series of casements to mount an impressive number of cannon, an excavated section of the foundation demonstrating the double arch construction of the fort, and the ruined remains of Bastion D that blew up in 1899.

BastionDCisterns ReverseArchCannonBastion

4) It was strange that they created a new entrance through the eastern wall of the fort for the road.  You can tell from the color of the brick that it is not part of the original design which would make no sense.  I don’t know, but I suspect this modification was done during the construction of the batteries for the Endicott system.

RoadThroughFort

5) As with many other forts, most of the parade ground was taken up when they constructed Battery Pensacola, which was closed for repairs when we were there.

BatteryPensacola

6) Batteries Trueman and Payne that mounted the rapid fire guns to protect the torpedoes in the bay entrance are accesible and interesting.  However, Batteries Cullum, Sevier, and Van Swearingen are in such bad shape you can only view them from the outside.

BatteryTrueman BatteryCulman

7) Battery #234 has two of the steel shielded 6-inch guns on their mounts from the Smithsonian, however, the battery itself has been closed to the public.  This was unfortunate as I would have been interested to see the interior of a 1940 era battery.

Battery234

8) Battery Worth is set back from the coast as it was designed for 8 mortars.  In 1942 they added a two-story tower to the Battery for the Harbor Entrance Control Post, which you can climb up for an excellent view of the Gulf and surrounding area.

BatteryWorth

9) Battery Cooper was also for the disappearing rifles and they have one of the few remaining ones from the Smithsonian mounted so you can actually see how it would have operated.  The Battery is in good enough shape as a whole that you can explore the interior ammunition storage and transport facilities.

BatteryCooper

10) Battery Langdon is a massive structure with huge concrete doors closing off the interior.  They have removed these doors (which can be found on the ground around the west side of the battery) and replaced them with massive iron doors.  Unfortunately, this battery is also now closed to the public.

BatteryLangdon

11) The beaches surrounding the fort that make up the Gulf Island National Seashore are beautiful with plenty of birds to watch in the surf.  They also provide a good example of the destructive force of hurricanes.  Prior to Hurricane Ivan, Santa Rosa Island had sand dunes up to 60 feet high.  Today these sand dunes are still in the process of recovering and are still only a few feet high.  You can easily see the surf from most of the road, which has not been our experience in any other National Seashore.

GulfIslandSeashore

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