Fort Pickens, Florida

Deelow picked us up from our hotel in Ocean Springs and from there, Pensacola was more than 2 hours. Deelow has plenty of sights to show us promising the Pensacola beach is one of the most beautiful and clean beaches in the gulf. But since she knew I wanted to visit something historical before doing recreational things she brought us to the tip of the island. From the mainland Pensacola we crossed the long bridge of 98, Magen, Sam and I were already mesmerized of the aquamarine color of the waters, Sam wanted to go down.

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Welcome sign

But Deelow told us there were more to see. There is a patch of land of the city of Gulf Breeze before we crossed another long bridge to the Gulf Islands Seashore or the Santa Rosa Island where there were more stores for swimming gears, restaurants and hotel.

We turned right to Fort Pickens Road and drive straight passing the beaches with white sand and blue waters. People were walking around the beach, playing, eating and of course swimming. A couple of vacation houses everywhere and as the city limits passed by we see get less and less of those and just the quiet beaches with the waves and the trees around the road. Finally, we saw the battery around the beaches on both sides and the walls of Fort Pickens greeted us.

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Entrance to the fort

There were quite few people around the site. Parked on the parking lot they were either swimming on the beach or inside the fort and touring around enhancing their historical knowledge or just killing time. Deelow easily found a parking but she and Sam didn’t went down. Her reason was she’s been there before, while Sam was too excited to see the beach. So, Deelow and she walked to the white sands while I and Magen explore inside the fort.

Bastion D of the fort was gone and as we walked to the pathway to the main entrance we could see the inside of the fort. Before entering we were greeted a signage with the information about Fort Pickens. Thus, we started stepping back in history.

“Fort Pickens played a critical role in an 1800s homeland-security program. Pickens was the largest of four forts the U.S. government built to protect Pensacola Bay and the Navy Yard. The fort succeeded, not against a foreign invasion, but against the Confederates during the Civil War.

Major William Henry Chase, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, supervised the project. The fort was begun in 1829, completed in 1834, and used until 1947. Over 21.5 million bricks were required, most made locally and barged to the island. Underhill and Strong of New Orleans provided a work force of skilled African-American slave labor to construct the fort. Construction of the fort was extremely difficult. Workers were exposed to an unfriendly climate, yellow fever, and experienced heat exhaustion. Major Chase was frustrated by delays in appropriations from Congress plus the sale of bootleg whiskey to soldiers.”

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Built by Slaves

Its written that the fort is self guided tour and it closes around sunset. So me and Magen went inside through the archway and saw another signage of the wall, where it dictates of how the fort protect Pensacola Bay.

“In the 1900s the U.S. Army built four fortifications to protect Pensacola Bay and the Navy Yard from attack. Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island and Fort McRee on Perdido Key guarded the channel. Fort Barrancas and its water battery, built on a bluff facing the harbor entrance, could support their crossfire and fire cannonballs at ships that entered the bay and harbor.

Ironically, the only real action the fort endured occurred when the country was at war with itself. Advanced Redoubt protected the Navy Yard from a land-based attack. Fort Pickens was one of four seacoast forts in the South that remained in Union control during the Civil War. In 1861, the Confederates briefly held Fort Barrancas, Advanced Redoubt, and Fort McRee and exchange gunfire with the Union forces at Fort Pickens. To bolster sagging  defenses in north Mississippi and west Tennessee, the Confederates abandoned Pensacola in 1862. On May 12, 1862, Union troops wasted no time in hoisting “Old Glory” over the navy yard, Fort Barrancas and McRee. Two days later, despite a threat on his life from the mayor and people of Pensacola, Lieutenant Kaufman raised the flag over the plaza in Pensacola.”

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By Bastion A

Then we saw the main room where the National Park rangers were. There is also a gift shop and more information. We were given a pamphlet with numbers and information in each one. There is another signage attached on the brick walls of the fort with the history of its reconstruction through slaves.

“Building a large fort on this remote sandy island in the 1800s was a huge undertaking. because of the efforts of a U.S. Army engineer, Capt. William H. Chase, and hundreds of enslaved workers, the job was completed in five years. Chase allowed the contractor to bring in New Orleans slaves skilled in masonry and carpentry and to use Pensacola slaves as day laborers. Wages for the enslaved workers went to their owners. Ever resourceful, Chase forced local brickyards to lower their prices, and he acquired lime from Maine, sheets of lead from Illinois, and granite from New York.”

We went inside one of the rooms and saw an empty brick room except for cannon. So we went out again. The fort is big and has grass growing on its white sands. It will take awhile to explore the whole area so Magen decided to climb the stairs leading to the top of the fort. Unfortunately, the stairs she went to was a dead end so she ended up going down. The entrance we went to was the Sally Port and the first one on the list.

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Sally Port

(1) Sally Port – Secured with heavy oak doors, the main entrance to the fort was reached by a causeway. Train tracks were later installed for moving equipment to Battery Pensacola.

We walked around the premises and to the Parade Ground where I noticed the single cannon on the middle of the fort. So to get more information we walked towards it and read the information. Unfortunately we began our tour the other way around going from the biggest number down. So here is the information about the parade ground and the rare cannon barrel.

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Parade Ground

(15) Parade Ground – Three acres of open ground in the center of the fort once provided space to quarter and drill troops. About 850 men from the 3rd Infantry and 1st and 2nd Artillery regiments camped here in September, 1861. Of these men, 77 reported sick, 3 died from disease and 3 deserted. The men suffered from scurvy for several months without fresh vegetables and from heat exhaustion due to fatigue duty (in wool uniforms) in the intense heat. 

Rodman Cannon

“This Rodman cannon was cast in 1861 as a 10-inch smoothbore, which fired round cannonballs. To keep up with current technology, the U.S. Army in 1884 inseted an 8-inch rifled sleeve into the old cast-iron barrel, because rifled guns had longer ranges than smoothbores. Steel later replaced cast iron, and the old guns were sold for scrap. The piece on the right is part of a smoothbore. The piece on the left is a part of a rifled bore.”

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Rodman Cannon

Magen took a picture of me with a cannon and it was too late when I saw the huge warning below it. Luckily I didn’t climb as I usually do. Then we walk on to the all-black building which is very peculiar. The whole fort is made of red bricks and this building standing in the middle is all black and different kind of architecture, the style looked more new. So I checked and read the signage,

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Battery Pensacola

Battery Pensacola

“Fort Pickens was past its prime. New rifled artillery could penetrate its brick walls. To keep up wth changes in weapon technology and protect the coastline from foreign invasion, the fort underwent dramatic changes over the years. The U.S. Army resuscitated the antiquated brick fort in 1898 with reinforced concrete Battery Pensacola. This fort within a fort had two 12-inch rifles on carriages that could disappear behind the walls after firing 1,070-pound shells at ships eight miles away. The battery covers almost half of the parade ground. The Army built several other batteries on this end of Santa Rosa in the late 1800s and early 1900s.”

On this side of the fort most of the ground was now sand because it looked like it had been excavated and mostly barricaded by wooden fence so me moved on the other side passing through Battery Pensacola.  We came across the Bastion C with the tower Bastion. We climb up the stairs and saw another massive Smoothbore cannon. There is signage that said we could see Fort McRee and Barrancas from that view. It was difficult to see and all we could look at are the body of the fort.

(14) Tower Bastion – At the time of the construction, the western end of the island was about 150 yards beyond this corner of the fort. Today the end of the island is about 0.75 mile away. Atop this bastion is a 15-inch Rodman cannon and on the northwest wall is an 8-inch Rodman cannon. A 15-inch Rodman was installed on the Tower Bastion in 1868. The 8-inch Rodman is mounted where a similar weapon sat as late as 1901. The National Park Service mounted both cannon seen here today. The gray building beneath the bastion is a refrigeration room added about 1900.

We walked around the battery and there weren’t really anything interesting to see so we moved on. We turned to its left and admire the brick archways constructed within the fort’s walls.

(13) Reverse Arch – To support the weight of the fort on sand, engineers resorted to one of the oldest of designs, the arch. Just as the arches overhead distribute weight to the piers, the reverse arches of the foundation spread the weight of the entire structure to minimize settling.

“Notice that this arch is really a double arch – above and below the floor of this gun chamber. Since ancient times humans have used arches to support and distribute weight to vertical piers. Here the weight absorbed by the piers is transgerred to the reverse arch in the foundation to minimize sinkage into the sand. Notice also the notch cut into the right side of the upper arch so a cannon could be swung in that direction. These notches were cut out in 1841, when the U.S. Army adopted new gun carriage designs.”

We went through the Bastion C and head to Bastion B. Unlike the other bastions which are still intact Bastion B seemed to fell from disrepair. Attached to Bastion B is another stopover  because another number on the pamphlet is located in it. Plants start to grow around the cistern while there is a marker about a smoothbore on the open field across from it.

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Cistern

(12) Cistern – Two cisterns provided the water supply for the fort. Rainwater from the arches was channeled to the cisterns, although details of the system are unknown.

Massive Smoothbore

“A 15-inch Rodman like this gun-one of the largest smoothbore cannon ever developed – was installed here in 1868 but never fired in combat. Though gradually replaced by rifled, breech-loading artillery, 8-, 10- and 15-inch Rodmans remained the primary armament at Fort Pickens and other coastal forts until the late 1880s. The barrel of the 15-inch Rodman weighed 50,000 pounds. With a maximum effective range of three miles, it could fire a 15-inch diameter explosive shell weighing about 300 pounds or a solid 400- pound shot. The circular iron tracks allowed the cannon to be turned to fire in any direction.”

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Marker

We continue following the trail of sand as the plants grew thicker and higher and we came across the next number and there was a marker about one of its most famous prisoners.

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Tunnel through the bushes

(11) Tunnel through Battery Pensacola – Built in 1898, Battery Pensacola was constructed on the parade ground of Fort Pickens, A tunnel was placed through the battery to allo access to warehouse aread on the south side of Fort Pickens. The tunnel was closed in 1922, following the collapse of the warehouse area in 1916.

Apache Prisoners

“In 1886 the U.S. Army exiled 400 Apaches from the Southwest to Florida and sent most of them to Fort Marion in St. Augustine. Several Pensacola citizens, however, petitioned the government to imprison Geronimo, a medicine man and warrior, and 15 other Apache men at Fort Pickens instead, separating them from their families. Prisoners worked seven-hour days clearing overgrown weeds, plating grass, and stacking cannonballs. The families were reunited at Fort Pickens in 1887. One year later all of the imprisoned Apaches were moved to Mobile because of yellow fever scare and later to Fort Sill in Oklahoma Territory.”

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Apaches

We went inside the tunnel but halfway through the tunnel was blocked so we turned around. After the closed tunnel we moved on walking to another Bastion A, and we went through a small entrance which seemed to be a tunnel. We went in and the whole bastion was empty, only the bare bricks walls could be seen. Also, it was cooler there because of the dampness of the area. Here is some information about it.

(10) Bastion A – Projecting from the corners of the fort, bastions allowed cannon to fire down into the dry moat at invading attackers.

Then we went out to the next number which is a wide field of grass and white sands. With more fortifications of the wall surrounding us.

(9) Counterscarp Wall and Moat – The counterscarp protected the landward face of the fort from direct artillery fire. A dry moat once surrounded the fort, but was later filled.

We walked around and through the fortifications between Bastion A and Bastion E we reached our next destination. On our way the brick walls of arch type architecture was still visible from all around. We went through it with several corridors which are mostly dead ends. Finally, we reached the other numbers on the pamphlet.

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Mine Chambers

(8) Generator Room – The concrete on the floor is evidence of the power station installed here in 1903. Gas-powered generators provided electricity for searchlights and other modern equipments.

(7) Shelf Supports – These concrete shelf supports are believed to be for mine equipment and later held extra ammunition for the guns of Battery Pensacola.

(6) Powder Magazine – These windows (ventilators) open onto one of the two remaining magazines in the fort. Wood linings kept the powder dry and copper and brass hardware prevented sparks. The three magazines held 250,000 pounds of black powder, enough to supply the fort for two weeks during an attack.

(5) Mine Chambers – This tunnel system leads to three chambers, each designed to hold about 1,000 pounds of gunpowder. Should an enemy force gain the top of the wall, these mines would be blown as a last resort to defend the fort.

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Casemates

(4) Mine Battery Room – In 1894 these casemates were converted to shelter electric batteries used to power a minefield in the harbor. Dampness forced relocation to the building just outside the fort in 1904. For many years this area was mistakenly identified as Geronimo’s Cell.

(3) Casemates  – Most of the fort consisted of gun placements. These interior gunrooms are called casemates. Granite semicircles in the floor supported the great weight of the cast iron guns. Slots under the windows locked gun carriages into the wall and provided a pivot. Vents over the windows allowed the tremendous amounts of smoke produced by black powder ammunition to disperse. Fort Pickens was originally designed to mount about 200 guns. Each gun required a crew of eight cannoneers. During the bombardment of Nov. 22 and 23, 1861 crews were ordered to fire no more than once every 15 minutes.

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Stairs

(2) Quarters – These plaster-lined rooms were intended for officers. Floors, doors and window sashes were wood. Fireplaces had marble mantels. These rooms served as a hospital in 1861. In 1887, Apache prisoners were housed here. Geronimo, the most famous of these, lived in identical rooms along the south wall.

It was damped in these rooms and there were artillery and cannons on display.  We looked around and read the information. Some of the rooms were plastered with white paints. Then we went out and to our next destination, Bastion D or the Bastion that once existed.

Deadly Explosion

“On the night of June 20, 1899, a fire broke out near a gunpowder magazine on the fort’s northwest side. A bucket brigade fought the flames, but the blaze grew in intensity, forced the soldiers away from the cistern, and at 5:20 a.m. ignited 8,000 pounds of gunpowder. The explosion demolished the bastion and showered debris across Pensacola Bay. Flying brick fragments killed Pvt. Earle Welles and injured Pvt. Henry Hopgood, who had sought shelter behind a woodpile.”

We end our tour of the Fort there and we exit through the Sally Port. We didn’t have any time to go to the museum. Magen and Sam were already anxious to go to the beach so went on our way. Learning a lot from my first visit on fort in the sands was interesting because I’ve visited a fort who played an important role in the Civil War and had Geronimo on its cells. But now my mind was also at the beach, but Deelow suggested a couple more stopover before we head to our main destination.

Here is the link for more information:

https://www.nps.gov/guis/learn/historyculture/fort-pickens.htm

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