Sunday, June 30, 2013

Apalachicola set to celebrate Independence Day on July 3rd!

Riverfront Park in Apalachicola, Florida
If you are looking for a really great historic place to get the 4th of July holiday started this year, you might consider the beautiful and historic Apalachicola waterfront.

The city hosts its annual Old Apalachicola Independence Day at Riverfront Park on Wednesday, July 3rd. The event begins with a Red, White & Blue Parade through downtown at 6 p.m. (Eastern), followed by an ice cream social, live music and food at Riverfront Park at 8. The fireworks will launch over the Apalachicola River at 9 p.m.

I really love this event because it takes place at one of the most historic places in Florida.

Trinity Episcopal Church, 1839
Apalachicola is one of the most beautifully preserved historic cities in the South and its culture is rich and deep. The waters over which the fireworks will take place have been  battle over by American Indians, the Spanish, pirates, the English, the United States and the Confederacy.

The famed pirate and adventurer William Augustus Bowles, who is celebrated each year in Fort Walton Beach as the pirate Billy Bowlegs (not to be confused with the Seminole chiefs of the same name), once battled Spanish coast guard vessels at the mouth of the Apalachicola River and it was up the river that his pirate ships sailed carry their booty from raids on Spanish and merchant shipping in the Gulf of Mexico.

Then, during the War of 1812, British forces landed here to supply Creek, Seminole and African (Black Seminole) warriors and to enlist them to fight against the United States. It was at the mouth of the Apalachicola River that the famed Red Stick Creek leaders Peter McQueen and the Prophet Josiah Francis went aboard British ships to forge an alliance in the months ahead of the Battle of New Orleans. 

Cannon in Apalachicola
In 1816, as U.S. Navy gunboats arrived in Apalachicola Bay ahead of a planned attack on the so-called "Negro Fort" 30 miles upstream, a small boat carrying a party in search of fresh water was attacked by warriors from the fort and almost all of its crew wiped out. The gunboats went on to attack the fort, now known as Fort Gadsden Historic Site, blowing it up with what is believed to be the deadliest cannon shot in American history. One cannonball killed 270 of the men, women and children in the fort.

Orman House, 1838
After Florida became part of the United States in 1821, Apalachicola - first known as West Point - developed into one of the busiest port cities on the Gulf of Mexico. Thousands of bales of cotton came down the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee, Flint and Chipola Rivers to the city where they were warehoused and loaded on ocean-going vessels for the trip to the textile mills of the North and Europe.

In 1861, after Florida left the Union, Confederate forces fortified the Apalachicola waterfront. Heavy cannon were emplaced at The Battery and Fort Mallory was built offshore on St. Vincent Island.

Downtown Apalachicola
Southern troops drilled in the very streets where the Independence Day Parade will take place and after they evacuated the city in 1862, Union sailors often came ashore to walk the same streets. Neither side formally occupied Apalachicola after 1862, however, and for three years it was a city "between the lines." 

If you are looking for a great place to explore Southern history and learn more about the War Between the States in Florida, consider making it to Apalachicola on Wednesday. You can spend the day exploring the historic sites of the city, enjoying some of the best seafood anywhere, and then settle in for the parade, festivities and fireworks during the evening.

Please click here to learn more about historic Apalachicola.

See the full list of Florida 4th of July fireworks at

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Fort George Historic Site (Forts of Florida #5)

Cannon at Fort George in Pensacola
Fort George, #5 on our list of the Forts of Florida, dates not from the War Between the States but from an earlier war, the one that gave the United States its independence.

Our state's rich Revolutionary War history is often unknown, yet Florida was the scene of numerous battles and skirmishes in 1775-1783. One of the largest battles of the American Revolution, in fact, took place in Pensacola from March 18, 1781 until May 10, 1781. The capture of Fort George, a strong British work that defended the city, ended forever English claims to a piece of the Gulf Coast.

At the time of the American Revolution, Florida was under British control. They had won it as a prize at the end of the French and Indian War, taking over the colonies of East and West Florida from the Spanish in 1763. Pensacola was the capital of West Florida and the British strongly fortified it with multiple works, batteries, stockades and scores of cannon.

Fort George
Led by the Spanish general Bernardo de Galvez, allied forces began the conquest of the Gulf Coast after Spain and France joined forces with the American Patriots. Galvez, from his base in New Orleans, first took Baton Rouge (see The Battle of Baton Rouge) and then Mobile (see the Battle of Fort Charlotte). By March of 1781, his fleet was off the entrance to Pensacola Bay.

The allied forces stormed into the bay on March 18, 1781, sailing right past the guns of the Royal Navy Redoubt on the site of today's Fort Barrancas (see Forts of Florida #2). Troops were landed, siege works prepared and cannon mounted for an attack on the British defenses, which were anchored by Fort George.

The fort was a square work with bastions on all four corners. It was made of logs, earth and brick and was remarkably strong. A "horn work" or extended battery ran down the hill from the main fort in the direction of the log stockade that surrounded Pensacola itself. Cannon lined its walls.

Because Fort George commanded the city but was itself commanded by two higher hills, the British built two smaller forts on those hills and linked them to the main fort. The result was an extensive and strong fortification.

Reconstructed Walls of Fort George
Galvez laid siege to the fort and its outer works, opening fire at the end of April 1781. The two sides battled for control of the heights that overlooked the town and for a time it appeared that a stalemate had developed.  On May 8, 1781, however, a cannonball struck the gunpowder magazine of the Queen's Redoubt, one of the two smaller works the British had built to protect Fort George. The powder exploded and nearly 100 British soldiers died in the blast.

The allied forces occupied the smoking ruins of the redoubt and prepared to bombard Fort George itself. Realizing that he could not hope to hold out against them, the British commander surrendered and Pensacola once again became a Spanish city.

The battle ended forever British claims on any part of the Gulf Coast.  Although seldom mentioned in histories of the American Revolution, Galvez's campaign resulted in the British loss of the territory from the Mississippi River east to the outskirts of St. Augustine, Florida. It was one of the most dramatically successful campaigns of the Revolutionary War.

Archaeologists located the ruins of Fort George several decades ago and a portion of the fort has been reconstruction.  Please click here to learn more:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island (Forts of Florida #4)

Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island
Perhaps the best known of the fort built by the U.S. government to defend Pensacola Bay, Fort Pickens is located on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island. It is #4 in our series on the Forts of Florida.

To read previous parts of the series, please visit Part #1 - Fort McRee, Part #2 - Fort Barrancas or Part #3 - The Advanced Redoubt.

The key to the defense of Pensacola, its vital harbor and the Pensacola Navy Yard, Fort Pickens was the largest of the four masonry forts designed by the U.S. Army to protect the channel leading into the harbor. Like the other forts (McRee, Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt), it was intended to operate as part of a system of defense. Unlike the other forts, however, it alone could be held independently even if all of the others fell.

Massive Rodman Gun atop the Tower Bastion
Named for General Andrew Pickens, a South Carolina hero of the American Revolution, the fort was a massive five-sided work with strong bastions on all five of its angles. The strongest bastion - the Tower Bastion - was at the "point" of the fort and was nearest to the entrance of Pensacola Bay. The channel at the time the fort was begun in 1829 was much closer to the fort than it is today.

The walls of the fort were built of strong brick masonry and mounted two tiers of heavy cannon. The lower tier of guns were mounted in casemates which provided them with superior protection against enemy fire. The upper tier of guns were mounted en barbette atop the walls of the fort.

Casemates of Fort Pickens
Fort Pickens took five years to build, but from its completion in 1834 until the secession of Florida in 1861, it never faced danger. When a threat finally materialized, it came not from a foreign navy as the fort's designers had anticipated, but from the guns of the states it had been built to defend.

The fort came under fire three times during the War Between the States. The first time was during the Battle of Santa Rosa Island on October 9, 1861, when Gen. Braxton Bragg sent Brig. Gen. Richard "Dick" Anderson across the bay with 1,100 men from the Army of Pensacola to attack the outer camps of Fort Pickens in retaliation for a Union raid on the privateer Judah at the Pensacola Navy Yard. Please click here to read more.

Inside Fort Pickens
The second battle involving the fort began on October 22, 1861, and lasted for two days. Union and Confederate cannon dueled back and forth across the bay and shook the ground for miles around in what was one of the largest bombardments to take place on American soil up to that point. The fighting ended in a stalemate, although Fort McRee across the entrance of the bay from Fort Pickens was badly damaged.

The third battle took place on January 1, 1862, when Union and Confederate gunners again unleashed on each other. Like the previous bombardment, however, this action also ended in a stalemate.

Artillery of a later era at Battery 234 near Fort Pickens
The Union success in holding Fort Pickens, however, assured the end of the Confederate occupation of Pensacola. With the massive fort and the offshore Union fleet blocking the entrance to the harbor, there was no use in the South maintaining a large army at Pensacola Bay.  The city and the Confederate-held forts were evacuated later in 1862 and Union troops soon solidified their hold on the bay.

Fort Pickens held prisoners and in October 1864 some 600 liberated slaves were brought to the fort by Union forces returning from the Battle of Marianna.

The fort remained in Union hands throughout the entire war and later was used to imprison Apache warriors and families, including the famed Apache leader Geronimo.  It was modernized and used in the Spanish American War, World War I and World War II and the western tip of Santa Rosa Island today is one of the best places to explore the history of the evolution of America's coastal defenses.

To learn more, please visit

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Advanced Redoubt (Forts of Florida #3)

Advanced Redoubt of Fort Barrancas
The Advanced Redoubt on the Pensacola Naval Air Station is one of Florida's least known Civil War forts, yet it is one of the best preserved. It is the focus for Part #3 of our series on the Forts of Florida.

Please follow these links to read: Part #1 Fort McRee or Part #2 Fort Barrancas.

U.S. plans for the defense of Pensacola Bay during the early 19th century centered around three primary fortifications, Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, Fort McRee on Foster's Bank (Perdido Key) and Fort Barrancas on the mainland. These three forts mounted hundreds of cannon that could sweep the channel leading into the bay.

While Fort Pickens and Fort McRee were relatively secure from land attack thanks to their positions on the tips of narrow barrier islands, Fort Barrancas was not.

Barrancas was located on the red clay bluffs overlooking Pensacola Bay, but was vulnerable to a siege by land forces. Gen. Andrew Jackson had taken an earlier fort on the same site in 1818 by employing just such siege tactics. To eliminate this threat, U.S. Army engineers decided to built an additional masonry and earth fortification on a hilltop from which Barrancas could be threatened. The structure they built there was called the Advanced Redoubt.

Sally Port and Drawbridge of the Advanced Redoubt
Work on the fort began in 1845 and progressed slowly until 1861 when it was seized by state militia forces as Florida seceded from the Union. Confederate forces occupied the Redoubt but did not place a major focus on it due to the lack of a land-based threat.  That changed when they evacuated Pensacola Bay in 1862 and the fort was reoccupied by U.S. forces.

Union troops mounted cannon in the redoubt and built a long breastwork that connected it to Fort Barrancas. That fortification followed the route of today's Breastworks Trail which can be followed from one fort to the other.

The Advanced Redoubt, however, was never seriously threatened by Confederate forces for the duration of the war.

To learn more about the Advanced Redoubt, which is now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, please visit

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Fort Barrancas at Pensacola Bay (Forts of Florida Series #2)

Fort Barrancas (r) & the Bateria de San Antonio (l)
In today's second part of a Forts of Florida series, we focus on Fort Barrancas. Click here to read Part #1 about Fort McRee, the lost fort of Pensacola Bay.

Built on the site of Spanish and English forts dating back to the 1600s, Fort Barrancas takes its name from the Spanish word for the red clay bluffs atop which it sits. Like Fort McRee on Perdido Key and Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, it was designed to protect Pensacola Bay from a foreign naval attack.

The fort that survives today is a fascinating mix of both 18th century Spanish and 19th century American construction. The oldest part is the water battery or Bateria de San Antonio, a Spanish fortification completed in 1797. Andrew Jackson stood on the ramparts of the bateria during his 1814 and 1818 invasions of Florida and it was occupied by British troops briefly during the War of 1812.

Inside the Bateria de San Antonio
When the U.S. gained possession of Florida from Spain in 1821, attention was given to strengthening the harbor defenses at Pensacola. The plan that engineers developed called for three forts to sweep the channel leading into the bay with cannon fire from multiple directions. Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island and Fort McRee on Foster's Bank (now Perdido Key) could fire on enemy ships as they approached, entered and then tried to penetrate the bay.

If they got past these two bastions, then they would steam directly into heavy fire from Fort Barrancas on the mainland.

To provide for multiple levels of fire, U.S. engineers refurbished the Spanish battery, provided it with improved cannon, added a rear wall and built a tunnel to connect it to the new fort they constructed higher up the bluff.  That fort was Fort Barrancas.

Cannon at Fort Barrancas
Built of masonry and earth with brick walls that towered high above Pensacola Bay, Fort Barrancas was constructed in 1839-1844. Its cannon, like those of the Water Battery below, were mounted en barbette, which means that they were designed to fire over the top of the wall and were mounted on pivots so they could be aimed in multiple directions.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Barrancas on January 8, 1861.  To learn more about that, please see:  Fort Barrancas and the First Shots of the Civil War.

State forces seized the fort two days later on January 10, 1861, after its small garrison of U.S. soldiers evacuated to Fort Pickens. The fort played a heavy role in the Battle of Pensacola Bay on November 22-23, 1861, and in a second bombardment in January 1862.  

Evacuated by Confederate forces in 1862, it was reoccupied by U.S. troops who held it for the rest of the war. It was the launching point for the 1864 Northwest Florida raid that ended at the Battle of Marianna and in 1865 was the point from which thousands of Union soldiers marched to join with other columns in the Mobile Campaign.

Fort Barrancas is now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and has been beautifully restored. To learn more, please visit

Monday, June 3, 2013

Fort McRee at Pensacola Bay - (Forts of Florida Series, #1)

Site of Fort McRee
 I thought it might be interesting to begin a series on the historic forts of Florida, particularly those with a War Between the States (or Civil War) component.  Check back over coming days for more of the series, but let's begin with Fort McRee on Pensacola Bay!

Sometimes called the "lost fort" of Pensacola Bay and aptly described by author James Coleman as "a castle built on sand," Fort McRee was part of the system of fortifications designed and built by the United States to defend Pensacola from foreign attack.

Located on the eastern end of what was then called Foster's Bank (today's Perdido Key), Fort McRee has best been described as looking something like a "stubby airplane wing" when viewed from above. Not a trace of the fort remains to be seen above ground today.

Fort Mcree in 1861
Built in 1834-1839 and named for Colonel William McRee, the fort was designed to work in conjunction with Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island and Fort Barrancas on the mainland to sweep the channel leading into Pensacola Bay with cannon fire. It was built of brick and original plans called for it to mount multiple tiers of cannon. A separate brick water battery added even more to the firepower of the fort and, if used as planned against an attacking foreign enemy, it likely would have fulfilled its purpose well.

That, of course, is not what happened at Pensacola Bay. When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, state troops seized Fort McRee, Fort Barrancas and the Pensacola Navy Yard, but U.S. forces held on tightly to Fort Pickens. This created a standoff for control of the harbor and Fort McRee was caught in the crossfire.

This became very apparent on November 22, 1861, when General Braxton Bragg's Army of Pensacola squared off against the U.S. Army troops holding Fort Pickens and the sailors of the U.S. Navy manning the warships offshore. For two days the thunder of the heaviest guns ever fired in Florida shook the bay.  Dead fish, killed by the concussions, floated to the surface by the thousands. And the bricks of Fort McRee began to tumble down.

The fort was exposed to fire that it had not been designed to withstand.  Not only was it bombarded from the rear by naval warships, it was hit from the front by the guns of Fort Pickens.

Confederate troops all around the bay witnessed the terrific fire laid down on Fort McRee by the Union cannon and witnessed in awe the heroic effort by Colonel John Villepigue and his soldiers from Mississippi and Georgia to hold the fort:
Site of Fort McRee

...The magazines were laid bare to the enemy's shells, which constantly exploded around them, and a wooden building to the windward, on the outside of the fort, taking fire, showers of live cinders were constantly driven through the broken doors of one magazine, threatening destruction to the whole garrison.- Gen. Braxton Bragg, 1861.

The wooden parts of the fort caught fire three times and three times Villepigue and his men put out the flames. Six men of the garrison were killed and others, including the commander himself, were wounded, but still they held out.

By the second day of the bombardment, Fort McRee was helpless and unable to defend itself, yet Villepigue and his men refused to give up their post.  When the battle finally came to an end, the tattered Confederate flag still waved defiantly over Fort McRee.

The damage done that day and expanded by a second bombardment in January 1862, however, was permanent. By the time Confederate forces evacuated Pensacola Bay in 1862, the fort was just a shell of its former self.  It was not rebuilt by Federal forces and over the years was allowed to crumble and collapse into the bay.

The site today bears no sign - other than scattered bricks - of the massive fort that once absorbed the combined firepower of the U.S. Army and Navy. To learn more, please visit

And watch for the next in this series, coming soon!