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

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