Ft. Pickens military fort is a lesson in US history

By Mary K. Hamner
Journal Correspondent


Fort porvided portection aganist unvasion of U.S. coast by British fleet.
"Fort Pickens is a pentagonal historic United States military fort on Santa Rosa Island in the Pensacola, Florida, area. It is named after American Revolution War hero Andrew Pickens. The fort was completed in 1834 and remained in use until 1947. Fort Pickens is currently part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and as such, is administered by the National Park Service." This information obtained from Wikipedia after I had visited this site caused me to think that I had walked unknowingly on hallowed ground.

Thanksgiving day and the weekend that followed was the result of the work and planning of family members. After the drive down we arrived in time for a non-traditional but delicious Thanksgivng day meal. There seems never to be a lack of things to do in Florida, new places to explore, and the trip to Fort Pickens was definitely something we had not done before. A visitor's guide tells me that Fort Pickens is the largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard. The fort was begun in 1829 and completed in 1834. Over 21.5 million bricks were required, most made locally and barged to the island. Construction of the fort was extremely difficult. Workers were exposed to an unfriendly climate, yellow fever, and experienced heat exhaustion.

Ironically, the only real action the fort endured occurred when the country was at war with itself. Fort Pickens was one of four seacoast forts that remained in Union control during the Civil War. In 1861, Union forces at Fort Pickens faced Confederates holding the mainland. The two forces came to blows in October and November of 1861. To bolster sagging defenses in north Mississippi and west Tennessee, the Confederates abandoned Pensacola. On May 12, 1862, Union troops wasted no time in hoisting "Old Glory" over the navy yard, Forts 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.

"Before the age of nuclear weapons," the visitor's guide goes on to say, "homeland security" meant "harbor defense". Any potential attack on the U.S.(except from Canada or Mexico) required capturing harbors to unload armies and supplies. Protecting the harbors protected the entire country."

"The success of Fort McHenry in keeping the British fleet out of Baltimore Harbor in the War of 1812 inspired the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the building of castle-like forts to defend other harbors from 1817 to 1870. For centuries, cannons fired round balls and ships were made of wood. Against these threats, masonry forts like Pickens and Barrancas were unbeatable." By the end of the Civil War in 1865 all this had changed. New defenses were needed.

Fort Pickens and the Fort Barrancas Army Post closed in 1947. Guns, railroad tracks, and steel towers were salvaged, leaving only concrete remains. Now gulls call and children play where powerful weapons once shook the earth and stood ready to defend the country.

A walk through the Fort with a map to guide us was a little hurried due to the unusual chill in the air and the necessity for care in walking on the uneven slope of the cement floors. The masonry walls were strong enough, the guide said, to support heavy cannon below. Notches were cut into the rear columns of the casemates in 1841 to allow room for newer and larger gun carriages. To support the weight on 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.

Plaster lined rooms were intended for officers. These rooms served as a hospital in 1861. In 1877, Apache prisoners were housed here. Geronimo, the most famous of these, lived in identical rooms along the south wall.

The walk through Fort Pickens was the beginning of a study, a link between our past, our present and our future. Preserved by the American people, Fort Pickens exemplifies over a century of homeland defense from the nation's infancy through World War II.

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