Fort Barrancas: First Shots Fired in the Civil War

Lisa Fritscher March 3, 2011 No Comments

Fort Barrancas Overlook

The Fort Barrancas Overlook provides a great perspective

Located high on a bluff on the grounds of the modern-day Pensacola Naval Air Station, Fort Barrancas was one of three forts built to protect Pensacola’s deep water port in the early 1840s. The site has been home to forts of three nations–Spain, England and the United States. Dad and I decided to visit during our trip to Pensacola last month.

History of Fort Barrancas

Fort Barrancas Spanish Water Battery

The Spanish Water Battery is still breathtaking

The first fort on the site was Spanish, constructed in 1698 and destroyed by the French in 1719. Spain traded Florida to England in 1763 in exchange for Havana, Cuba, and British rulers constructed a new fort. During the Second Spanish period, which began in 1781, a masonry water battery was added at sea level. Over the next ten years, the Spanish improved the fort and named it Fort San Carlos de Barrancas. Pensacola was again occupied by the British during the War of 1812. When Andrew Jackson, then allied with the Spanish, arrived in 1814, the British fled, blowing up the fort on their way out. Again under Spanish rule, the fort was rebuilt in 1817.   

West Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821. Construction began on a new brick fort in 1839, replacing the older wooden structure. The masonry water battery was kept, and the two were connected by tunnels. An advanced redoubt was added a half mile away during the 1850s and 1860s to better protect the fort from land-based attacks.   

Fort Barrancas Parade Grounds

The parade grounds are well protected

In January 1861, only a handful of U.S. soldiers were garrisoned in Fort Barrancas. Fort Pickens, across the bay, was unoccupied. One night a group of militia from Florida and Alabama arrived at Fort Barrancas. Opinions differ on their purpose–some say they intended to take the fort, others claim they were merely gathering information. In any event, the guards at the gate fired several musket shots and the visitors left. The date was January 8, 1861, two days before Florida officially seceded from the Union and one day before shots were fired on the relief ship Star of the West in Charleston. It was nearly three months before the events at Fort Sumter.   

Union troops soon retreated to the more easily defended Fort Pickens, and the Confederacy took control of Fort Barrancas. The two took shots at each other for the next year, but did virtually no damage. Cannons of the time were accurate to approximately one mile, and the forts are a mile and a half apart. Confederate forces retreated in 1862.   

Fort Barrancas Configuration

The fort is laid out in a roughly circular pattern

After the Civil War, the fort was used for various military purposes. It was deactivated in 1947 and became a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Following an extensive restoration, Fort Barrancas opened to the public in 1980.   

Arriving at the Fort   

Fort Barrancas is on the grounds of the Pensacola Naval Air Station, a working military base. The general public is permitted to visit the fort, the Pensacola Lighthouse and the National Naval Aviation Museum. All adults must show photo identification at the guard gate, and your vehicle is subject to search. Weapons are not allowed on base.

Visiting the Fort

Fort Barrancas Tunnel

The interplay of light and shadow creates wonderful photographs

Fort Barrancas is free to the public. Guided tours depart daily at 2:00 from the Visitor Center. Although you are allowed to tour the fort on your own, the guides share stories and interesting tidbits that help bring the history to life.   

The fort is laid out in a roughly circular pattern surrounding an open parade ground. It is impossible to get lost in the fort, although the endless brick rooms can make you feel slightly disoriented. Sunlight coming through the windows creates an interesting interplay of light and shadows, making Fort Barrancas a photographer’s dream. The tunnel to the Spanish water battery is still open to the public, as are the stairs to the top of the water battery. The views of Pensacola Bay are truly stunning.

Tips for Parents

Fort Barrancas Water Battery Stairs

The water battery stairs are steep and narrow

As our guide kept reminding us, the fort was built for 1800s military efficiency, not modern safety. The brick floors are uneven and even on the sunniest day, the fort is dimly lit. The tunnel to the water battery is steep and dark, utilizing both ramps and stairs. The steps to the top of the water battery are narrow and steep, with no handrail. Keep a close eye on your kids, especially younger ones whose sense of balance may not be as well developed as an adult’s.   

Kids seem to be fascinated by forts in general, and Fort Barrancas is highly entertaining. Guides are extremely knowledgeable and excellent at interacting with visitors of all ages. Free of charge and easy to see in only a couple of hours, Fort Barrancas is a great stop on any family vacation to Pensacola.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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