It’s said that history is written by the victors. While I won’t sit around pretending to be an expert on the matter, I do have a deep appreciation for the stories and lives lived prior to ourselves. This is a love that was reignited last weekend on a visit to see a friend in Jacksonville, a 4-hour drive from West Palm Beach on I-95, doted with signs along the highway teasing you to exit and experience a particular town’s historic districts, art museums, forts, gardens, etc.
Located approximately 40 miles from St. Augustine, America’s oldest European city, Jacksonville’s earliest recorded settlers were the Timucuan Indians whose culture developed in the area around 500 B.C. As I drove with Wyclef Jean’s “The Carnival” blaring through the stereo, I couldn’t help but salivate and make mental notes of all the places I’d like to return to explore. With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of historic forts throughout the state to discover.
601 Howard England Way | Key West, FL 33040
Built in the mid-1800s, the fort is a National Historic Landmark containing the largest cache of Civil War-era seacoast cannons in the U.S. Prior to the start of the Civil War, Capt. John Brannan occupied the fortress, placing it in Union hands. The main role of Fort Taylor during the Civil War was to serve as headquarters for the U.S. Navy’s East Gulf Coast blockade squadron. By the time the three-story fort was finally finished in 1866 (21 years after it was begun), there were many impressive features included. Items such as sanitary facilities flushed by the tide and a desalination plant, which produced drinking water from the sea, were available as early as 1861. A total of 140 guns and a large supply of ammunition were on hand to secure the fort. Fort Taylor was again used during the Spanish-American War.
70 miles (112.9km) west of Key West, Florida
The largest masonry fortification ever constructed in the United States (1846-1875), Fort Jefferson was never finished nor fully armed. Accessible only by seaplane or boat, the fort is a six-sided building constructed of 16 million handmade red bricks. Much of the work of building the fort during the years before the Civil War was done by enslaved laborers. In 1847, seven slaves named Jerry, Jack, John, George, Ephraim, Howard and Robert attempted to flee by commandeering or disabling as many schooners and boats as they could. Their escape went completely undetected until daylight when the boats and men were reported missing. Ultimately, they were captured. Two leaders in the group were returned to their owners, and the remaining five men were sent back to Fort Jefferson.
The fort was used to defend American waters from Caribbean pirates; during the war, it remained with the Union and blockaded Confederate ships trying to enter the Gulf of Mexico. Later, it was also used as a prison for criminals and deserters during and after the Civil War. The most famous of these prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was imprisoned for his involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Accessible only by seaplane or boat.
1 S Castillo Dr | St Augustine, FL 32084
While Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry fort ever constructed, Castillo de San Marcos is America’s oldest masonry fort and the largest fort ever constructed by Spain in North America. One of only two fortifications in the world built out of a semi-rare form of limestone called coquina, it’s stood overlooking the St. Augustine waterfront for more than three hundred years.
In 1875, the fort was used to imprison Native Americans from the Great Plains region out west. These Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiona men had refused to settle on reservations.
8635 A1A S | St Augustine, FL 32080
Designed to work in conjunction with the Castillo de San Marcos and the other defenses in St. Augustine, Fort Matanzas — also built of coquina — was to protect St. Augustine in the event of an attack from the south. The word “matanzas” is Spanish for “slaughter” or “killing,” In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles killed over 200 French Huguenots who had sailed from Ft. Caroline to attack St. Augustine.
In ruins from disrepair by the time of the Civil War, the fort played no part in the conflict… it has since been restored and is the centerpiece of the Fort Matanzas National Monument.
12713 Ft Caroline Rd | Jacksonville, FL 32225
Three hundred colonists left France to establish a permanent settlement in North America. In 1564, René de Laudonnière established a settlement and fort near the mouth of the St. Johns River. Several Timucua-speaking groups such as the Utina and Saturiwa initially helped the French colonists, sharing food and even helping them build a village and fort. Over time, the settlement known as Fort Caroline began to suffer as food stocks dwindled and new provisions failed to arrive from France. The fort was destroyed and most occupants killed during a raid by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. French artist Jacques le Moyne de Morgues was one of the few to escape and return to Europe.
After driving out the French, the Spanish imposed tribute on the Timucuans and forced them into missions. Devastated by European disease and attacks by other Indians, the Timucuan culture rapidly disintegrated. From a population possibly numbering tens of thousands at the time of contact, only an estimated 550 Timucuans were still alive in 1698. Today there are no known Native Americans who call themselves Timucuan.
15 Fort Mose Trail | St Augustine, FL 32084
In 1738, Florida governor Manuel de Montiano granted permission to establish a new town and fort about two miles north of St. Augustine. Led by Captain Francisco Menéndez, the first recorded African-American military commander and a veteran of the Yamasee War of 1715, the settlement was named Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose but referred to as Fort Mose (MO-say). Fort Mose was the northern defense of St.Augustine. According to British accounts, the first fort built was of stone and the community lived in dwellings outside of it. When war broke out in 1740 between England and Spain, the English sent thousands of soldiers and dozens of ships to destroy St. Augustine and bring back any runaways.They set up a blockade and bombarded the town for 27 consecutive days. Fort Mose was one of the first places attacked. Outnumbered, the men of the Fort Mose Militia briefly lost the Fort but eventually recaptured it, repelling the English invasion force.
Fort Mose and its surrounding community became the first legal community of freedmen in what would be the Unites States of America.
2601 Atlantic Ave | Fernandina Beach, FL 32034
Located on the northern tip of Amelia Island and named for General Duncan Lamont Clinch, work began on Fort Clinch in 1847. A Third System fortification – like Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas, Fort Pickens in Pensacola and Fort Taylor in Key West – the fort was incomplete when Florida left the Union in 1861. Its guns never fired a shot in battle. The two shades of brick reflect work done on the fort before and after the Civil War.
The fort has been restored and in addition to its walls, bastions and guns, also offers visitors the chance to explore barracks, supply rooms and more.
1400 Fort Pickens Rd | Pensacola Beach, FL 32561
Built between 1829 and 1834 to defend the coastal city of Pensacola and its Navy Yard, Fort Pickens was the largest of the four U.S. forts at Pensacola Bay, it was designed to sweep the entrance to the bay with cannon fire. The fort was a major U.S. military post from 1829 until the close of World War II.
Fort Pickens was used as a prison for Geronimo and other Apaches in the years after the Civil War. Additional batteries and other defenses were constructed in and around the fort over the years and it remained an important military post until 1947.
3182 Taylor Rd | Pensacola, FL 32508
Named for the barrancas or red clay bluffs of Pensacola Bay, Fort Barrancas was constructed on the site of earlier forts that date as far back as 1698. The fort functioned with Fort Pickens and Fort McRee across the bay to create a crossfire of artillery through which any attacking fleet would have to sail in order to reach Pensacola. The 10-acre fort is on U.S. Navy property, but is operated by the National Park Service (since 1971). Both the main fort and water battery were restored by the National Park Service in 1980.
Fort Gadsden (British Post, Negro Fort)
Wewahitchka, FL 32465
Located in Wewahitchka, Fort Gadsen contains the ruins of two forts — British Post and Negro Fort. In the summer and fall of 1814, near the conclusion of the War of 1812, British Major Edward Nicholls led an expedition to recruit Seminoles and blacks to assist the British fight against America. British soldiers and the black and Indian recruits constructed a fort 500 feet from the river bank on Prospect Bluff, which they called British Post.
In 1815 when the British withdrew from the area, the fort, including its artillery and military supplies, were given to the many blacks and a few Indians that had moved into it, seeking the protection it offered and cultivating successful and profitable plantations around it. The fort became known as “Negro Fort” and was under the command of a black man named Garcon* and a Choctaw chief (whose name is unknown).
Perceived as a threat to slaveholders in Georgia, on July 27, 1816, U.S. Navy forces led by Colonel Duncan Clinch fired on “Negro Fort.” One of the early shots from the ship’s guns landed on a ammunition shed inside the fort, resulting in a massive explosion — killing approximately 300 men, women, and children — leaving only 33 survivors to tell the tale. Garson and the Choctaw chief, among the few who survived, were handed over to the Creek, who shot Garson and scalped the chief. Other survivors were returned to slavery.
Impressed by the strategic location of the old fort, Andrew Jackson instructed Lt. James Gadsden to build a new fortification upon the site as a supply base. Gadsden, later known for the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, maintained the fort until Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821.
One of America’s most significant historic sites, Fort Gadsden was listed as a National Historic Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and is in the care of the National Forest Service.
*I have a sneaking suspicion that Garcon wasn’t the commander’s name but instead French for “boy”.
- Black Troops in Union Blue (crf-usa.org)
- Coquina Queries: Castillo de San Marcos (uwf.edu)
- America’s Black Colonial Fortress of Freedom (flmnu.ufl.edu)
- Critical 1740 Battle of Bloody Mose lives on (jacksonville.com)
- Florida’s Negro Fort (pbs.org)
- Fort Gadsden Historic Site (fs.usda.gov)
- How Samuel Mudd Went From Lincoln Conspirator to Medical Savior (smithsonianmag.com)