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Fort Pickens is a pentagonal historic United States military fort on Santa Rosa Island in the Pensacola, Florida, area. It is named after American Revolutionary 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.
After the War of 1812, the United States decided to fortify all of its major ports, and as a result, French engineer Simon Bernard was appointed to design Fort Pickens. Construction on Fort Pickens lasted from 1829 to 1834, with 21.5 million bricks being used to build the fort. Much of the construction was done by slave labor.
Fort Pickens was the largest of a group of forts designed to fortify Pensacola Harbor. Constructed between 1829–1834, Pickens supplemented Fort Barrancas, Fort McRee, and the Navy Yard. Located at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, just offshore from the mainland, Pickens guarded the island and the entrance to the harbor. Its construction was supervised by Colonel William H. Chase of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Ironically, Chase was later appointed by the State of Florida to command its troops and seize for the South the very fort he had built.
On the night of 20 January 1858, the USCS Robert J. Walker was at Pensacola, when a major fire broke out at the Fort Pickens. The ship's men and boats, along with the hydrographic party of the U.S. Coast Survey steamboat USCS Varina, promptly assisted in fighting the fire. The next day, the commanding officer of the Robert J. Walker received a communication from Captain John Newton of the Army Corps of Engineers, commanding the harbor of Pensacola, acknowledging the important firefighting service rendered by the Robert J. Walker.
The Civil War
By the time of the American Civil War, Fort Pickens had not been occupied since the Mexican-American War. Despite its dilapidated condition, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, in charge of United States forces at Fort Barrancas, determined that Pickens was more defensible than any of the other posts in the area. His decision to abandon Barrancas was hastened when, around midnight of January 8, 1861, his guards repelled a group of local men intending to take the fort. Some historians suggest that these were the first shots fired by United States forces in the Civil War. Shortly after this incident, on January 10, 1861, the day Florida declared its secession from the Union, Slemmer destroyed over 20,000 pounds of gunpowder at Fort McRee, spiked the guns at Barrancas, and evacuated with 51 soldiers and 30 sailors to Fort Pickens. At Fort Pickens, on January 15, 1861 and January 18, 1861, Slemmer refused demands for surrender from Florida militia Colonel William Henry Chase, who had designed and constructed the fort as a captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and held the fort against Confederate threat of attack and until reinforced and relieved in April 1861. Despite repeated Confederate military threats to it, Fort Pickens was one of the few Southern forts to remain in Union hands throughout the Civil War.
The fort was also reinforced by troops and material sent by Montgomery C. Meigs. This Army engineer was tasked by President Lincoln and Secretary Seward to draw up a plan reinforcing Fort Pickens. Meigs was the Army engineer responsible for building the Washington aqueduct and getting the dome on the U.S. Capitol.
During the late 1890s and early 20th century, new gun batteries were constructed at Fort Pickens. These batteries were part of a program initiated by the Endicott Board, a group headed by a mid-1880s Secretary of War, William C. Endicott. Instead of many guns concentrated in a traditional thick-walled masonry structure, the Endicott batteries are spread out over a wide area, concealed behind concrete parapets flush with the surrounding terrain. The use of the accurate, long-range weapons eliminated the need for the concentration of guns that was common in the Third System fortifications. One such battery, called Battery Pensacola, was constructed physically within the walls of Fort Pickens, while other similar concrete batteries were constructed to the east and west as separate facilities. The ruins of these later facilities are also included in the Gulf Islands National Seashore complex. Only one weapon of this era, a 6-inch M1905 gun on a disappearing carriage located at Battery Cooper, survives to this day.
On June 20, 1899, a fire in Fort Pickens' Bastion D reached the bastion's magazine, which contained 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of powder. The resulting explosion killed one soldier and obliterated Bastion D. The force of the explosion was so great that bricks from Bastion D's walls landed across the bay at Fort Barrancas, more than 1.5 miles (2.4 km) away.
A companion fortification, Fort McRee, was located across Pensacola Pass from Fort Pickens on Perdido Key. Abandoned by Union forces and taken over by Florida and Alabama militia in January 1861, it was badly damaged by Union bombardment during the American Civil War later that year. Abandoned by Confederate forces, Fort McRee remained battered and burned for the next three decades. Although subjected to improvements in the late 19th century during the run-up to the Spanish American War, the fort was struck by a hurricane 26–27 September 1906 that destroyed most of the newer structures that had been erected since 1898. After the hurricane, only a minimal caretaker staff remained to ensure the security of the site and Fort McRee once again fell into disuse. Due to its location on a site accessible only by foot or boat, Fort McRee was left to the elements. Storms and erosion took their toll on the site and today, nothing more than a few scattered foundations remain. Fort Barrancas, which was built around previously constructed 17th- and 18th-century Spanish forts, as well as Fort Barrancas' associated Advanced Redoubt approximately a mile (1.6 km) to the northwest of Fort Barrancas, are located across Pensacola Bay from Fort Pickens on the grounds of what is now Naval Air Station Pensacola. At the same time the Union forces abandoned Fort McRee in 1861, they also abandoned Fort Barrancas. This fort was also occupied by Florida and Alabama militia forces that were subsequently integrated into the Confederate forces. In May 1862, after hearing that the Union Army had taken New Orleans, Confederate troops abandoned Pensacola and Fort Barrancas and the fort reverted to Union control.
- The others were Fort Taylor at Key West, Florida and Fort Jefferson at Garden Key, Florida in the Dry Tortugas.
- "Gulf Islands National Seashore - The Apache (U.S. National Park Service)". nps.gov. http://www.nps.gov/guis/historyculture/the-apache.htm. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
- See article: Fort Barrancas.
- National Park Service: Fort Pickens
- Fort Pickens and the Outbreak of the Civil War, a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan
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