Fort Barrancas is a historic masonry fortification that overlooks the entrance to Florida’s Pensacola Bay. It is now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore and is a unique relic of America’s past.
The red clay bluffs or barrancas (slopes) where the fort stands have been the site of military activity since Spain built the Presidio Santa Maria de Galve nearby in 1698. Naval Air Station Pensacola surrounds Fort Barrancas today, continuing the more than 300 year military significance of the site. The fort is open to the public.
The primary defense for Spain’s presidio was Fort San Carlos de Austria, a rectangular work of log and sand with corner bastions. Archaeologist found the remains of the fort 1500 feet east of Fort Barrancas when a backhoe operator accidentally exposed it while digging a utility trench. Subsequent excavations revealed much of the fort and even uncovered original Spanish cannon still in place. The stockade has been partially reconstructed and can be accessed by walking east from the picnic area at Fort Barrancas.
San Carlos de Austria protected the entrance to Pensacola Bay until Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, the French governor of Louisiana, arrived with warships and a large force of soldiers and allied Native American warriors in May 1719. The War of the Quadruple Alliance was underway and Spain launched a retaliatory attack after learning of the loss of the presidio. They recaptured the fort that summer.
The French returned again in September 1719 and the fort fell a third time within four months. France held the bluff until 1722 when Spain regained Pensacola Bay by treaty. Spanish troops returned, however, to find that the French had burned San Carlos de Austria to the ground before leaving. The next presidio was built on Santa Rosa Island.
New fortifications were built at the barrancas after Great Britain gained control of Florida with the end of the French & Indian (Seven Years) War in 1763. Spain had sided with France in the conflict and lost possession of its Florida colonies. The British built a harbor battery on the site of today’s Fort Barrrancas, calling it the Royal Navy Redoubt. Gunners there tried ineffectively to resist Gen. Bernardo de Galvez when he led a fleet into Pensacola Bay on March 18-19, 1781. The move was part of the early phases of the Siege and Battle of Pensacola, one of the largest engagements of the American Revolution.
Spain captured Pensacola in 1781 and maintained a military presence on the barrancas. A new named San Carlos de Barrancas was built there. Although the works were of log and sand, Spanish engineers strengthened them considerably by completing the Bateria de San Antonio on a lower level of the heights.
Of masonry construction, the semi-circular bateria (or battery) mounted heavy cannon that could sweep the channel leading into Pensacola Bay in the event of an enemy attack. The fortification was low enough on the bluff that its guns could skip cannonballs across the water much like a human being skipping a stone across a pond. This would allow the solid shot to strike the sides of enemy ships near the waterline and do much more damage.
British forces occupied Pensacola in 1814 although Spain had declared its neutrality in the War of 1812 then raging between Great Britain and the United States. The Spanish garrison continued to hold Fort San Carlos de Barrancas and the Bateria de San Antonio but were forcibly embarked by the British when Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson led an American army against Pensacola on November 7-9, 1814.
British forces violated Spanish neutrality by using Pensacola as a base for operations against Fort Bowyer, a U.S. post at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Fort Bowyer held against their attack and Jackson then retaliated by attacking Pensacola. He drove the British out and returned the city to Spanish authority, but the ominous sounds of explosions were heard from near the mouth of the bay. Jackson sent troops to investigate and found that British had blown up Fort San Carlos de Barrancas and carried away its Spanish garrison as the prepared to leave the harbor.
The Bateria de San Antonio was largely undamaged but the main fort was left a smoking ruin. American forces did not try to permanently occupy the site but soon marched away, leaving Spain to rebuild its destroyed fort.
Spanish engineers redesigned Fort San Carlos de Barrancas in hopes of better protecting it from a land attack. The new fort had walls of earth and log and stood immediately above the bateria on the site of the previous one. It was of unusual design, with a flat wall facing the bay and three projections or demi-bastions on the land side. Cannon were mounted on these walls.
Andrew Jackson returned in 1818 during the closing phase of the First Seminole War. American spies reported that Red Stick (Muscogee) Creek, Seminole, Yuchi, Miccosukee and maroon (Black Seminole) warriors had secured arms and ammunition from the Spanish and Jackson marched across the Florida Panhandle from Fort Gadsden on the Apalachicola River determined to once again take Pensacola.
The city fell quickly but Gov. Jose Masot withdrew his forces into Fort San Carlos de Barrancas and refused to surrender. Jackson laid siege to the fort, bombarding it from two batteries as the Spanish gunners replied with heavy cannon fire of their own. The USS Thomas Shields, a naval schooner, tried to join in the attack but was driving back by heavy fire from the Bateria de San Antonio.
U.S. forces prepared to storm the fort and were preparing scaling ladders when the exhausted men of the Spanish garrison gave up the fight. It was a more intense battle than many historians have claimed and original accounts indicate that the Spanish hospital was overflowing with American wounded carried there for treatment after the surrender. Jackson downplayed his losses in the attack and never gave firm casualty numbers.
U.S. forces held Fort Barrancas for several months this time. The defenses were repaired and strengthened and the bateria was provided with better carriages for its cannon. There was no arguing that it was a Spanish installation, however, and U.S. authorities in Washington ordered it returned to Spain. The flag of the king waved over its walls until 1821 when Florida was ceded to the United States.
U.S. officials selected Pensacola Bay for a new Navy Yard and to protect it repaired and improved the Bateria de San Antonio and built a new fort atop the heights to replace the log and earth Spanish one.
Fort Barrances, which stands today, was built in 1839-1844. Along with Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island and Fort McRee at Foster’s Bank (today’s Perdido Key), it protected Pensacola Bay from attack. An enemy ship trying to enter the harbor would face a brutal crossfire of artillery from the three forts. The U.S. Army also built Barrancas Post near Fort Barrancas. It featured barracks, offices, hospitals and other necessary support structures for the three forts.
To better protect Fort Barrancas from an attack by land, engineers designed an additional brick fortification called the Advanced Redoubt. It was built on a hilltop from which Andrew Jackson’s cannon had fired on San Carlos de Barrancas in 1818. A few hundred yards inland from the main fort, it too survives today.
Enslaved African Americans did much of the work in building the new forts, as did hired laborers including brick masons and other skilled craftsmen.
The small force of U.S. troops assigned to Pensacola Bay was quartered at Barrancas Post on the mainland as the Civil War approached in 1860-1861. Caretakers lived at Fort Pickens and Fort McRee and both were in need of considerable repair. Recognizing that the political turbulence rocking the nation might lead to war, Lt. Adam J. Slemmer moved a sergeant’s guard into Fort Barrancas and set his men to work in preparing the fort for action.
It is a little known fact that the first hostile shots of the Civil War were actually fired from the sally port or gate of Fort Barrancas on January 8, 1861. The bombardment of Fort Sumter in South Carolina was still more than three months away.
The U.S. Army sentries posted in Fort Barrancas were on high alert in early January 1861. Militia troops from both Florida and Alabama were gathering in the area and fears grew that they might try to storm the fort. This possibility seemed very real when the guard observed shadowy figures on the drawbridge on the night of January 8, 1861. The intruders were ordered to identify themselves and U.S. soldiers opened fire when they refused to do so.
The Southerners were men from an Alabama militia company. They heard a rumor Slemmer had withdrawn his garrison and went to see for themselves, apparently without first seeking authority from higher ranking officers. The militiamen were on the drawbridge approaching the fort when they were fired upon. One member of the party later said that they fled without returning fire. Fortunately no one was injured or the Civil War might well have begun at Fort Barrancas that night.
Slemmer evacuated the fort and Barrancas Post two days later on January 10, 1861, the same day that Florida seceded from the Union. The men crossed over to Fort Pickens where the lieutenant believed that he could wage a stronger defense. State troops quickly occupied Fort Barrancas and Fort McRee and a standoff began for control of Pensacola Bay.
Florida joined other Southern states in forming the Confederate States of America in February 1861 and Maj. Gen. Braxton Bragg was assigned to form an army at Pensacola. He drilled thousands of men on the sandy shores of the bay while placing cannon and erecting earthwork batteries around its perimeter. When U.S. Marines crossed the bay and burned the privateer Judah in September, he retaliated by ordering Brig. Gen. Richard Anderson to attack the outer camps of Fort Pickens. The flashes of gunfire from the Battle of Santa Rosa Island could be seen from the ramparts of Fort Barrancas on the night of October 21, 1861.
Union commander Col. Harvey Brown launched a retaliation of his own one month later when he ordered the batteries of Fort Pickens to open fire on Fort Barrancas and the other Confederate positions. Bragg’s gunners retired fire and the bay shook from the concussions of the heavy cannon as the two sides blazed away at each other on November 22-23, 1861.
Fort Barrancas was not heavily damaged in the battle but Fort McRee was riddled with shot from Union cannon at Fort Pickens and aboard U.S. warships offshore. Most of the Confederate casualties were suffered when a magazine collapsed at Fort McRee and several men suffocated before they could be rescued. The two sides exchanged fire again in January 1861, but neither did much damage to the other.
The ability of the Union to hold Fort Pickens left Pensacola Bay bottled up and of no use to the Confederacy. Troops were desperately needed elsewhere and Bragg and most of his army left the area in the spring of 1862. The last troops evacuated in May 1862 and the flag of the United States once again flew over Fort Barrancas. F
The fort remained in Federal hands for the rest of the war. It served as base for several important Civil War expeditions, most notably the 1864 raid on Marianna, Florida, and the 1865 operations against Fort Blakeley, Alabama.
It remained an important army post for many years after the Civil War but is now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a national park area that stretches from Florida to Mississippi. Fort Barrancas and the Bateria de San Antonio are beautifully restored and open to the public, as is the nearby Advanced Redoubt.
The Fort Barrancas area of the national seashore includes the forts, trails, picnic areas and a very nice visitor center. It is open to the public Thursday through Monday of each week (closed Tuesday and Wednesday). Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. The entrance fee is $10 per person and is good for seven days. The fee also allows you access to the Fort Pickens, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Perdido Key areas of the park.
Fort Barrancas is at NAS Pensacola. From I-10, take Exit 7A and turn south on Pine Forest Road. Follow Pine Forest to Blue Angel Parkway and turn right. Blue Angle Parkway will take you to the Naval Air Station (ID required). After passing the checkpoint, turn left on Taylor Road. The entrance is on Taylor Road 1/2 mile east of the Museum of Naval Aviation. See the map at the bottom of this page for directions.
The address is 3182 Taylor Road, Pensacola, Florida.
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