The military history of Pensacola began with a Spanish settlement and fort in 1698. Later to be named Fort San Carlos de Austria, its early military history involved defending the community against constant attacks from Indians. Later as both France and Spain competed for occupation of Pensacola Bay, the fort was destroyed and Spain moved the settlement and fort first to Santa Rosa Island and later to the present site of Pensacola. In 1763 Great Britain took control of the Florida and Pensacola and proceeded to build several forts and military installations between 1771 and 1781. In 1781 Spain re-captured Pensacola Bay and all the British military installations, some of which were re-built to Spanish Forts. One of these was Fort San Carlos de Barrancas and its water battery San Antonio built in 1789 on a bluff overlooking the entrance to Pensacola Bay.
In 1814, Fort San Carlos was blown up during the War of 1812, but the water battery San Antonio survives to this day and is located immediately below Fort Barrancas.
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In 1821 Spain ceded Florida and the Pensacola area to the United States and the Pensacola area became an important US military location when it was selected as the site for the US Navy Yard, an operation that protected US interests in the Gulf of Mexico.
Between 1829 and 1859, the Army Corps of Engineers would build four forts around Pensacola Bay to protect the Navy Yard: Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt on the mainland, and Fort McRee and Fort Pickens on the barrier islands at the entrance to the bay.
Fort McRee was heavily damaged during the Civil War in 1861 and was not re-built. All that remains today of Fort McRee is the foundation of the one of the coastal batteries. But the other three installations continued to be used until mid-way through World War II and have been restored and preserved for present day tours.
Fort Barrancas & Advanced Redoubt
Constructed on the site of the old Fort San Carlos between 1839 and 1844, the only military action ever seen by Fort Barrancas was during the Civil War when it and the Advanced Redoubt was occupied by the Confederate Army. Union forces occupied Fort Pickens across the bay on Santa Rosa Island. Cannons were fired at one another across the bay and gunfire was exchanged with the Union ships Niagara and Richmond. Damaged during the Revolutionary War was repaired and the facility continued to be used for defense of the Naval Yard into World War II.
Slide Show Touring Fort Barrancas
Retired from active use after World War II, Fort Barrancas, the Advanced Redoubt, and the old Spanish Water Battery San Antonio are now part of the US National Park Service and are open for tours, both self-guided and guided.
There is also a visitor center with a bookstore and interesting multi-media exhibits on the fort’s history.
Historic Fort Pickens
See our article on Historic Fort Pickens.
Fort Pickens, built on the western end of Santa Rosa Island, was the largest of the four forts built to protect the US Navy Yard. It was completed in 1834 and remained in active duty until 1947. Over its active duty period the fort and supportive military structures on the western end of the island underwent many changes and enhancements. Originally defended by cannons firing cannon balls, as military technology increased huge rifled gun batteries were added within the fort and in numerous concrete bunkers along the gulf-side shoreline. The fort facilities were also modified to support a network of defensive mines in Pensacola Bay during World War II. Here is a map and information on this extensive network of coastal artillery.
Slide Show: Historic Fort Pickens
Visitors will be impressed with size and extent of military preparedness of the Fort and its related installations. Interestingly, the only actual armed conflict experienced at the fort was in 1861 during the Civil War. While the Confederate Army occupied Fort McRee and Fort Barrancas, the Union Army held Fort Pickens. Guns from the Fort, along with those from the Union warships Niagara and Richmond, bombarded Forts McRee and Barrancas as well as the Navy Yard occupied by the Confederates. An attempted night attack and invasion on Fort Pickens by Confederate Troops led to an extensive battle that involved over 1800 men and 150 casualties.
The main fort and all of the 10 associated gun batteries are able to be toured. Guided tours are also available at certain times. A few of the original cannon ball cannons and some rifled guns remain. The largest of the rifled guns were capable of firing shells over 8 miles. Many of the gun batteries have educational exhibits showing how the particular battery was used. Hiking trails or park roads connect most all of the gun batteries surrounding the fort.
Also on the grounds of the former military installation is the Gulf Islands National Seashore Museum.
See our Google Map for locations of these historic forts.
Pensacola Bay, A Military History, Dale Manuel, 2004
Arcadia Publishing Co, Chicago, IL