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 www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortbarrancas1.

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