Old Fort of Fort Walton Beach
There never was a “Fort” Walton but there was a “Camp” Walton. The modern city of Fort Walton Beach takes its name from a War Between the States (or Civil War) camp established on the site of the Florida city in 1861.
Camp Walton was the creation of the Walton Guards, a Confederate unit raised in today’s Walton, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties. The last of these three counties – Okaloosa – did not exist in 1861. It was created in 1915 by combining parts of Walton and Santa Rosa Counties. Although the county seat is in Crestview, Fort Walton Beach is one of its most important cities.
When the Walton Guards arrived on the Narrows of Santa Rosa Sound in April 1861, however, there was no city, just a couple of homes and a cattle range. The site held military significance, however, because it was a natural choke point for water traffic coming in and out of Choctawhatchee Bay.
The primary inlet from the Gulf of Mexico into the bay was East Pass, a channel so shallow that it could be waded at low tide. Steamboats and coastal schooners and sloops carrying cargo from Choctawhatchee Bay avoided the treacherous pass by instead traveling west up Santa Rosa Sound to Pensacola Bay, a route that required them to pass through the Narrows at today’s Fort Walton Beach.
It was the ideal point for a military post and the Walton Guards pitched their camp at the Narrows, picking a site that was surrounded by prehistoric Native American mounds. They dug into the shell Indianola Inn Mound – named for a later hotel – near the shore and used its ancient sides to form the embankments of a small fort. The main camp stood on higher ground near the base of the large platform or temple mound that still dominates downtown Fort Walton Beach today (see map at the bottom of this page).
The mounds were built over 1,000 years ago during the Mississippian era and were objects of great curiosity to the Confederates. They dug into the earthworks and found the skeletal remains of high status individuals that they reassembled in a museum of sorts that they set up in a wooden structure. The process of reconstructing the skeletons left the bones somewhat spread out and the soldiers became convinced that they had discovered the burial site of a race of giants.
Scientific pursuits aside, the camp was a military post and was became a serious business for the Confederates as a Union blockade vessel appeared off East Pass in the Gulf of Mexico. Other warships – along with Union soldiers in Fort Pickens – bottled up Pensacola Bay leaving cargoes from Choctawhatchee Bay with nowhere to go.
The soldiers from Camp Walton engaged in some minor skirmishing with sailors from the blockade vessel, an action that prompted a serious response from the Union Army. The retaliatory strike was entrusted to Capt. Henry W. Cosson of the 1st U.S. Artillery.
The opposite shore of the Narrows is formed by Santa Rosa Island, a 40-mile long barrier island that stretches from the entrance to Pensacola Bay to East Pass. Closson and a detachment of soldiers marched east down Santa Rosa Island and arrived opposite Camp Walton during the night of March 31, 1862. They moved a rifled cannon into position and waited for sunrise:
…I remained here until their huts could be seen in the dawn, and then directed Lieutenant Jackson to open fire. The shells burst right in their midst. Loud cries and yells were heard, and the rebels could barely be seen through the brush in their shirt-tails making rapidly for the back country. A scattering volley was fired from what I supposed to be their guard, who then disappeared also.
Henry W. Reddick, a member of the Walton Guards, was in the camp when the first of Cosson’s shells flew overhead. He described the scene from the Confederate perspective many years later:
It was just at break of day, at which hour the rolls were called each morning and the men were forming in line and answering to their names, when they heard the roar of the gun and heard the shot whistle over their heads. It was a complete surprise and every man broke ranks and ran for his shack. I was not in the ranks, as I had been on duty and was in my shack sleeping and did not hear the first shot.
(Reddick’s history of the Walton Guards is still available and can be ordered here: Seventy-Seven Years In Dixie: The Boys In Gray Of 61-65.)
He went on to described how the men panicked and made a disorderly retreat of about two miles, despite the efforts of Capt. William McPherson to rally them. None of the Confederates were killed by the Federal shelling.
The attack on Camp Walton prompted Gen. Braxton Bragg to send an 18-pounder carronade (a short-barreled naval cannon) from Pensacola to help the men at Camp Walton defend themselves against future attacks. Reddick remembered many years later that two 30-pounder guns had come from Pensacola, but official records mention only the 18-pounder. It was mounted in the fort made from the Indianola Inn Mound but so far as is known never fired a shot in anger.
Camp Walton never fell to the Union army but the capture of two other posts – Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee – forced the Confederates to evacuate the little outpost on the Narrows of Santa Rosa Sound. Bragg’s entire Army of Pensacola was sent to reinforce the Confederate Army of Tennessee. The Walton Guards became part of the 1st Florida Infantry and took part in Bragg’s Kentucky Campaign and every other major action of the Army of Tennessee until the end of the war.
Union troops did occupy the site briefly in September 1864 while on their way to the Battle of Marianna. Local cattle herds were raided but the Federals only stopped briefly before continuing north around Choctawhatchee Bay. (To learn more, please consider the book The Battle of Marianna, Florida: Expanded Edition).
The 18-pounder from Camp Walton was buried in the Indianola Inn Mound, where it was discovered many years later. It is now on display at Fort Walton Beach’s Heritage Park and can be seen at the base of the Fort Walton Temple Mound. The fortified shell mound was about 200 yards away and its remnants still overlook the Narrows.
You can learn more about the prehistoric mounds and their archaeological significance at the Indian Temple Mound Museum, 139 Miracle Strip Parkway SE, Fort Walton Beach, Florida. On the grounds is an exhibit that details local Civil War history.
Fort Walton Beach eventually grew on the site of Camp Walton and is now a major tourist destination on the Florida Gulf Coast. To learn more about this wonderful coastal city, please visit Attractions of Fort Walton Beach and Emerald Coast of Florida.
Use this map for directions to Indian Temple Mound Museum, where you will find the Camp Walton cannon on the grounds in Heritage Park.