• Florida's Adventure Coast

Step Back in Time: Visit Four Florida Forts

Experiencing history brings our past to life – especially for kids and the “curious child” in all of us. And luckily for Floridians, the state is home to many historical landmarks and buildings, as well as many old military forts that allow us to walk through “living” history.

Historical forts provide opportunities to climb over, under and through tunnels, gates, walkways and walls while peering through turrets with sweeping panoramic harbor and beach vistas.

Costumed characters, Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine

Often run by the national and the state park systems, some forts feature volunteer costumed characters wearing period clothing acting their century-old roles – people who often endured hot, humid, disease ridden conditions. Add to that cannons, artillery and bastions – and most history buffs will have plenty to keep them intrigued.

So take an authentic Florida tour as we visit four of our state’s historical forts that bring Florida’s history alive.

Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine

Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine

Only one American city can hold claim to the title of “oldest city”, and St. Augustine wears its “nearly 450 year-old” title well drawing most travelers because of its rich and layered history.

No trip to St. Augustine is complete without a visit to the Castillo de San Marcos. It won’t take you long to understand why the Spanish built this immense fortress on Matanzas Bay with a commanding view of the harbor.

Castillo de San Marcos overlooking Matanzas Bay

To protect Spain’s colonial trade and commerce, the Castillo de San Marcos was constructed. It took 20 years to build and was completed in 1695. It is considered the most well-preserved and oldest masonry fort from the Spanish colonial period anywhere in the United States. Its notable heritage and the panoramic view of the Matanzas River, the city of St. Augustine, and the Bridge of Lions make it a very popular.

The fort is made of coquina rock, created from thousands of years of shells and sand compressing into geological sediment. Quarried locally, coquina provided the building blocks for creating St. Augustine’s defensive structures, homes and buildings constructed during the period. The massive coquina walls of the fort actually absorbed enemy cannonballs rather than allowing them to destroy the fort.

Cross the entry moat, Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos is also known for its architecture, star-shaped with a hollow square within four diamond-like bastions. The configuration allowed for numerous firing positions for cannons while minimizing the possibilities of a direct hit by enemy fire. Entry to the fort is across a moat, another defense feature, and when visitors cross it to tour the fort there is a feeling of walking way back into history.

Walking the moat, Fort Jefferson, the Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas

South of the Florida peninsula, seventy miles west of the Florida Keys, lay a cluster of small coral islands called the Dry Tortugas. Surrounded by clear turquoise water and rimmed with crystalline sandy beaches, the islands were discovered by explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513 who found the area filled with sea turtles, thus calling it Las Tortugas (The Turtles). The “dry” designation was added to warn newcomers that it was uninhabitable due to a lack of fresh water.

As the southernmost point along the maritime U.S. shipping lanes, the Dry Tortugas became a natural location for a military outpost. Fort Jefferson was built on Garden Key, an island with a deep-water anchorage that was part of the 100 square miles of the Dry Tortugas.  The fort stood sentry over the Florida Straits protecting maritime interests in the Gulf of Mexico and along the eastern seaboard. 

Approaching Fort Jefferson by boat, the Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson, named after President Thomas Jefferson, was constructed over a 30-year period beginning in 1846. The fort was never actually completed; still, unfriendly ships passing between the Gulf of Mexico and the U.S. eastern seaboard were sent an imposing reminder to stay clear. The fort was active until 1888.

Prisoner Samuel Mudd’s cell, Fort Jefferson

No battles were fought at Fort Jefferson, but it was used as a military prison. Most notable of the prisoners was Dr. Samuel Mudd, responsible for tending to John Wilkes Booth’s injury following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Although sentenced to life imprisonment, Mudd was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson and released.

More than 16 million bricks were used to build the imposing Fort Jefferson

The massive design of the fort gave the U.S. an opportunity to house huge cannon and gun platforms on several levels for strategic placement.  The walls meet at corner bastions, allowing the mounting of heavy machinery. The inside walls provided space for open gunrooms, or casemates, with large openings called embrasures facing outward towards the sea. More than 16 million handmade bricks make up the hexagonal (6-sided) fort. Thick eight-foot wide walls towering 45-feet high form one of the nation’s largest masonry forts ever built.

Surrounded by a moat, this intimidating fort never actually saw active combat, but was used as a military prison. It was home to thousands of soldiers as well as civilian workers who lived in the remote setting. Seeing their quarters and realizing that hot and humid weather was the norm, it is easy to see that these were rugged people, especially the soldiers who wore heavy wool uniforms while serving military duty. Diseases and hurricanes added to the challenge of daily living. 

Entrance, Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

Walking through the fort, you’ll gain an appreciation for life over 150 years ago. Enjoy the spectacular 360-degree view while admiring the restored military machinery and breathtaking turquoise blue water.

There are a few ways to get to the Dry Tortugas. From Key West the National Park Ferry, Yankee Freedom, a 110-foot catamaran, will take you on a full day excursion.

Fort Pickens, Pensacola Beach

Fort Pickens, Pensacola Beach

Pensacola, the City of Five Flags, is located near Florida’s western border. Years of various occupations from Spain to Britain, then France, later to the Confederacy and finally the United States, give the city more than 450 years of history, and make it home to four historic forts of its own.

Fort Pickens, the largest of the four fortresses, was completed in 1834. Designed to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard, the fort lies at the entrance to the bay on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

Reverse arches supported the weight of the fort on sand, Fort Pickens

Following the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the United States decided to fortify all major harbors. Built by enslaved laborers who worked under oppressive heat while creating the huge structure, the fort is composed of nearly 22 million bricks.

The grounds of Fort Pickens, Pensacola

Named after American Revolutionary War hero Andrew Pickens, the fortress was completed in 1834 and defended Pensacola during the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, before being decommissioned in 1947.

The only real military action occurred during the Civil War and is one of the few forts in the South not captured, remaining in Union control.

Another interesting event occurred in 1886 when Apache war leader Geronimo and other fellow Apaches were imprisoned for one year at Fort Pickens.

Interior gunrooms housed cannons, Fort Pickens

Park rangers provide free daily tours describing the fort and the advancements in military weaponry as canons gave way to updated artillery. That point is often driven home as fighter jets from the Naval Air Station maneuver above.

Beyond the pentagonal-shaped fort (although one side was demolished during a fire and subsequent powder magazine detonation) are vistas of powdery white sand and jewel green waters. If you enjoy camping, primitive or in comfort, there are facilities with updated cabins, nearby fishing, excellent beach access and hiking trails.

Fort Pickens Museum, Pensacola Beach

And if you need to escape the heat, check out the air-conditioned Fort museum and learn about the structure, the surrounding environment and Pensacola history.

Living quarters, Fort Clinch, Fernandina Beach

Fort Clinch, Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island

Less than an hour north of Jacksonville in Florida’s northeastern corner, within the Amelia Island resort community is Fort Clinch. Built in 1847, at the mouth of the St. Mary’s River, the fort protected coastal and interior shipping along the river and in the deep water Fernandina seaport. Although no battles were fought at the fort, it was a military outpost during both the Civil War and Spanish American War. It became obsolete, later abandoned, and then fell into disrepair but thankfully restored in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Officer quarters, Fort Clinch

You’ll enjoy the spectacular view of both the St. Mary’s River and Cumberland Sound while climbing over the massive “pentagon-shaped” fort, centered by a large courtyard with huge cannons above. Over five million bricks were used to construct the large military structure fortified with corner bastions and embrasures.

Once you’ve walked through the drawbridge entrance, you’ll explore the period-appointed bunkrooms, officer quarters, garrison, store, bakery, kitchen, laundry, blacksmith shop and prison. The experience of living and working in the fort is brought to life by viewing rooms equipped with uniforms, boots and cartridges, stacked cannon balls, wooden laundry tubs and even an officer’s table set with fine china.  

Period dressed characters even act out their parts, Fort Clinch

Volunteers dressed in costumes provide plenty of information making the tour fun as well as educational. If you’re there during the first weekend of each month, volunteers dressed in period costumes provide an extended reenactment, performing their roles and assuming their individual “character” and “position” of that time period.

Panoramic views of St. Mary’s River & Cumberland Sound, Fort Clinch

Stepping back into Florida history helps us to not only discover our beautiful surroundings but also gives us an opportunity to appreciate those who came before us.

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