Re-visiting Fort Barrancas in Florida

... Indians, Spanish, French, the Brits, Confederates all "owned" this site

by Don Norris


In a way those mopish memories are our history. It's just when we get too morbid about past times that our history gets bent out of shape.

Like when I was kid in the summer of 1939. My Dad had a brand new green Pontiac and we were on our way from Jersey to Florida to visit our kin. Mom and Dad were born and raised in Florida, but he was a climber, and it wasn't long after their marriage that he was transferred to headquarters in New York City.

Yes, we became Jerseyites. But this set the stage for our annual summer trip of some 1500 miles, first to Valdosta, Georgia, then on to Pensacola, Florida. We joke about, at one time, one of every four people in the panhandle of Florida is a relative.

To get to the point, I can remember being turned loose with a couple of girl-cousins in the ruins of old Fort Barrancas, on the Navy Base. It was actually an Army base at the time, but the fort, which counts its years back to the 1600s --  was still commissioned until after WWII, when it became Navy property -- and left to decay.

The fort itself takes up about two acres. Over the past 400 years this vital piece of real estate (owing to its natural harbor) changed hands many times. First the Indians were there. Then the Spanish built the first fort. Both the French and the British battled for it (successfully), before the U.S. claimed it. Next the Confederate States of America pushed the Yankees out, and finally it became property of (first) the United States Army, then the U.S. Navy. It is now a national park.

That was when the fun began for us kids. Can you imagine a 150 year old fort with a zillion dark, musty, dripping passages, connecting the hundreds of firing positions in that huge fortification! In those days we kids could dig around in the sand and find 50-calibre lead bullets all over the place. We'd find pieces of plates, silverware, lots of stuff we couldn't identify. And we thought nothing of it.

It was really scary in those fortifications. Imagine yourself in a long, zig-zagging dark tunnel, with walls three or four feet thick, and rifle firing positions every 20 feet. Out front were the cannon positions, all pointing southeast to discourage foreign gunboats from breeching the narrow channel to Escambia Bay.

There were, by the time of the Civil War, three such forts guarding the channel. Besides Barrancas, there was Fort Pickens -- just about the same size as Barrancas -- out on Santa Rosa Island, right at channel's edge. There was yet a third such fort, called McRae, on the western spit of sand -- all located such that any ship attempting to enter the bay would be blasted to splinters from three directions.

This photo is taken from Fort Pickens, on Santa Rosa Island. Fort Barrancas is a mile away, on the distant shore. During our Civil War, the Rebels and the Yankees exchanged cannon fire -- but the cannon balls fell harmlessly into the sea. Later in the war the Feds developed rifled cannons, which provided a much more effective way of rousting an enemy -- better range, greater accuracy. This marked the beginning of the end of massive forts, as modern artillery could knock great holes in four-foot thick walls.

Over the years the shifting sands elongated Santa Rosa Island so that Pickens, rather than being at water's edge, is now a half mile back. And likewise, Fort McRae has since fallen into the sea as the channel shifted grain by grain, wave by wave, to the west.

Three years before the outbreak of civil war between the states, my great grandfather migrated to Pensacola and built a house on what is now the center of the Navy base. He had lived among the German enclave in New Orleans until the outbreak of yellow fever killed many of the the town's pilgrims. Hence we became Floridians.

I remember the fun we kids had in old Barrancas. Nobody chased us. Nobody cared. We could run and jump off the parapets, wave at the sailors on Navy Drive down by the shore. We were pirates, soldiers, swabbies or whatever we wanted to be -- and nobody bothered us.

Barrancas was built with a 20-foot wide trench running around it. If the invading foot soldiers reached this point, they would theoretically run the gamut, under the fusilade of fire from rifle ports -- on both sides of the trench. Research indicates not a single foot soldier ever reached this deadly point.

Of course we didn't get down a lot of those passages, for they were dark and damp -- illuminated only by slivers of light allowed for the riflemen. The challenge was to jump off the top of the parapets, where the big cannons were fixed, down into the soft sand in the entrapment. It was probably 20 feet.

My favorite buddies in those days were two girl cousins, both tom-boys, Hattie and Marion. I guess at age 14 I kinda fell in love with Hattie, but then our three weeks in Pensacola passed and we went back north, with my family. I was heart-broken. She hardly noticed.

But Barrancas' and Fort Pickens' claim to fame came on early in the Civil War. In 1861, after the fall of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, the Federal army decided to abandon Barrancas on the mainland, and to fortify Pickens -- only one mile across the entrance to Escambia Bay. The Confederates and Yankees used to exchange cannon balls across that water, but the distance between was too great for the round balls. Any boats entering the bay were at the mercy of both sides.

At one point the Florida troops moved a couple of batteries down to water's edge, trying to get their canonballs to skip on the water, and explode on the brick facade of Pickens. It didn't work. The Confederates abandoned Barrancas and Pensacola after New Orleans fell, forming a new line of defense along the Alabama border, about 30 miles north. My other great grandfather and several cousins served in the rag-tag regiments that stood behind that line.

This is what the passageways look like today, with early morning sunlight streaming through the rifleports. The fort was built with millions of bricks, put together mostly with slave labor in the 1830s and 1840s.

In fact, my GGFather Isaac Strickland and his brother-in-law, George Cowan, were in that Alabama regiment. Both were guards on a train that was evacuating medical units from Vicksburg when it hit another train, southbound, head-on, in the darkness of that warm September evening. Isaac died at age 36, but George and brother Samuel survived to fight in at least half a dozen major battles in the last two years of that less-than-civil war.

I have no idea if Isaac ever fired his musket at a Yankee, but I know there were occasional skirmishes when the Federal mounted troops from Pensacola would test the Confederate lines. There was great fear that the Yanks planned to make a push north, straight through Alabama -- which never happened. Instead, the war came from Federals invading from the North, from Tennessee.

I and my cousins searched out the site of old Fort Lee, which was the encampment of the 57th Alabama Infantry Regiment, but all we found was deep, dense forest. The only thing we saw was a glimpse of a Florida panther with two cubs. I tried tracking her, without much success. Nothing was left of the soldiers quartered here 150 years ago. Not a trace.

As for Fort Barrancas, it was transferred to the Navy right after WWII, and it would linger, decaying, for 30 more years before the federal government saw fit to declare a new national park. And when the park service moved in, there were regulations, fences and rules, so that lots of places we kids used to play were now off limits. Too dangerous, they told us.

I have to say that the National Park Service did a marvelous job of restoring and refitting those fortifications, establishing lights and guides through those ancient tunnels. It is well organized now, open all year long in daylight hours, the sand is raked and the passages are swept.

Fort Pickens -- about 25 miles away by road, but only a mile across the water -- was closed by the series of disastrous hurricanes recently, the access road destroyed and the fort damaged. I read that it is now open to hikers and bicyclers, and the road should be rebuilt by summer.

Pickens, by the way, was where the renegade Indian Chief Geronimo was incarcerated for two years, back in the 1880s. He was re-patriated, along with what was left of his band.

If you go there, be sure to allow at least a day to visit the Naval Air Museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station  -- it is only a mile west of old Fort Barrancas. It is one of the very best museums dealing with the development of flight -- and, although there was considerable objection, the Navy resurrected a Japanese Zero to add to it's collection of WWII planes.

As for our family, we have been prolific but the younger ones do not seem to be interested in genealogy. I am the youngest (at 76) of my generation of survivors -- there are six of us left. Hattie and Marion are still with us and I see them both when we go home. But it's not like it was.

Pensacola, however, remains a uniquely interesting place to visit.

Jiggs, our Marine Corps boxer.

April 4, 2008

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