To suggest that Fort Pickens Campground on Santa Rosa Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, offshore from Pensacola, Florida, is a well-kept secret may not be accurate—there were many visitors and campers there—but it was certainly new to us, and a pleasant surprise. Adjacent to the campground (more about the campground in a later article) is its namesake historic Fort Pickens, which was also new to us.
Fort Pickens was an active coastal defense installation for 118 years until after the end of World War II, although the only action it ever saw was a relatively brief exchange of cannon fire during the Civil War.
After Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821, the young nation realized it now had much more coastline to defend. The natural, protected bay formed by the Gulf Islands and access through an inlet made Pensacola a natural site for a port on the Gulf of Mexico. The defensive plan included four forts, two on the mainland and two on the barrier islands in either side of the inlet. Fort Pickens would be the largest and the first to be built. It was completed and declared ready for troops in 1834. Subsequent installations included Fort McRee across the inlet on another barrier island, Fort Barrancas on the mainland where Naval Air Station Pensacola is currently located, and at the Port of Pensacola.
Fort Pickens is situated on the west end of Santa Rosa Island, looking out across the inlet with good views offshore as well as toward the Port of Pensacola.
Built by the US Government, these four installations were Federal facilities. Early in the Civil War, Confederate forces captured and occupied Fort Barrancas, Fort McRee, and the port. Fort Pickens remained under Union control throughout the war. In September of 1861, Fort Pickens Union soldiers saw their first action when a force of 1500 Confederate soldiers landed on Santa Rosa Island several miles east of the fort and attacked an encampment of Union soldiers. Troops from the fort came to the aide of the encampment and chased the Confederates back to their boats.
Fort Pickens did not see action again until late November 1861 for two days, and again in early January 1862. Union soldiers bombarded both Fort Barrancas and For McRee. This was the first use of rifled canon against masonry fortifications, and this shelling heavily damaged both forts. It also seriously depleted the Confederate’s supply of gun powder.
By May 1862, the Confederates decided to abandon Pensacola. Federal troops moved to the mainland, reclaiming Fort Barrancas. Fort Pickens was used as a prison facility for captured Confederates and political prisoners.
In the years following the Civil War, Fort Pickens was little used and fell into disrepair. In 1886, a train load of Chiricahua Apache Indians was diverted from St. Augustine to Pensacola. The group consisted of men only, including Geronimo. They lived in the fort’s quarters and did their own cooking. They were assigned clean-up and grounds keeping duties. They also became a local attraction. It is reported that daily, at least 20, and on one occasion, as many as 450 tourists visited the fort during this period. In April 1887, women (three of whom were wives of Geronimo) and children were reunited with the men. In May of 1888, the Indians were moved inland, away from the threat of yellow fever, and the fort again fell quiet.
During the last decade of the 1800s, improvements were made to the fort and it was provisioned for harbor defense. This included 8,000 pounds of gun powder stored in Bastion D of the fort. In June, 1899, a fire broke out in a warehouse area adjacent to the powder magazine. Troops fought the fire with a bucket brigade, but the blaze was soon out of control. Early the in the morning, the gunpowder was ignited. The explosion destroyed the entire corner of the fort, and showered debris a mile-and-a-half away. There was only one casualty in the mishap; a flying brick struck a soldier at his guard post.
During the first half of the 1900s, gun batteries were built along and closer to the shoreline, concentrating on coastal defense along Gulf shore. The peak of this development occurred during World War II, as Fort Pickens prepared to defend the coast from German submarines (see “The Batteries of Fort Pickens”). Other than the brief episodes during the Civil War, the guns of Fort Pickens were never “fired in anger.”
The last soldiers left Fort Pickens in 1947. Today, much of the fort has been refurbished as part of the national park system. Both the original fort and several gun batteries associated with the fort are open daily for exploration.
The Tower Bastion viewed from outside the fort along the entrance access road.
The history of Fort Pickens reflects the history of a growing nation dealing with the continued threat of attacks and invasions from both Europe and from within. With the advent of the nuclear age and modern post World War II defensive technology, the fort became an artifact of our military history. In 1972, Fort Pickens was incorporated into the newly established Gulf Islands National Seashore.
There is also a museum that features interactive exhibits on many aspects of the ecology of the island and history of the fort.
Access and Admission
Access to Santa Rosa Island and Fort Pickens is via US Route 98 to Gulf Breeze and then from Gulf Breeze to Santa Rosa Island via route 399 across a short toll bridge to Pensacola Island. Once on the island, follow signs to Fort Pickens—a right turn off of Rt 399. Fort Pickens is approximately seven miles from Rt 399.
$ 3.00 Per Person (walking, jogging, bicycle, motorcycle, etc.)
$ 8.00 Per vehicle up to 15 passengers. There are additional fees for groups of 15 or more, commercial tours, buses, etc.
For more information on Fort Pickens go to: http://www.nps.gov/guis/planyourvisit/fort-pickens.htm
For us, every camping trip is about discovery, even if we are going somewhere familiar, there is always something that has not been explored. On this most recent trip, it was all new; the town, the campground, Fort Pickens, and Naval Air Station Pensacola. The first full day in camp was dedicated to exploring Fort Pickens, which turned out to be larger than I understood. Consequently, another half day was needed to explore and understand the complexity of the defensive positions established in the area. This experience is presented here in Fort Pickens – 118 Years and Two Battles and an accompanying post, The Batteries of Fort Pickens.
Table of Contents
Fort Pickens – 118 Years and Two Battles briefly describes the history and current appearance of Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Florida. The fort is open daily for exploration.