What to do on a weekend of free admission to all national parks? Go explore the grounds and get a guided tour of Fort Pickens within the Gulf Islands National Seashore just west of Pensacola Beach. The fort saw only limited wartime action but still has a lot of history surrounding it.
Named after the Revolutionary War hero, Andrew Pickens, the fort was completed and officially ready for troops on October 4, 1834. It was built as a coastal defense, but actually found its glory during the Civil War. Fort Pickens was one of the few forts in the south that were not captured by the Confederates. It is also noted for housing Apache prisoners in 1886, and among them was Geronimo
Fort Pickens was the largest of a group of forts designed to fortify Pensacola Harbor. Constructed between 1829-1834, Pickens supplemented Fort Barrancas, Fort McRee, and the Navy Yard. Located at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, just offshore the mainland, Pickens guarded the island and the entrance to the harbor. Its construction was supervised by Colonel William H. Chase of the Corps of Army Engineer. Using slave labor, the fort used over twenty-two million bricks and was intended to be impregnable to attack. Ironically, Chase was later appointed by the state of Florida to command its troops and seize for the South the very fort he had built.
At the time of the secession crisis, Fort Pickens had not been occupied since the Mexican War. Despite its dilapidated condition, Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, who was in charge of United States forces at Fort Barrancas, determined that Pickens was more defensible than any of the other posts in the area. His decision to abandon Barrancas was hastened when, around midnight of January 8, 1861, his guards repelled a group of men intending to take the fort. Some historians note that this could be considered the first shots fired by United States forces in the Civil War. Shortly after this incident, Slemmer destroyed over 20,000 pounds of powder at Fort McRee, spiked the guns at Barrancas, and evacuated about eighty troops to Fort Pickens. Fort Pickens remained in Union hands throughout the Civil War.
During the late 1890s and early 1900s, new gun batteries were constructed at Fort Pickens. These batteries were part of a program initiated by the Endicott Board, a group headed by a mid-1880s Secretary of War, William Endicott. Instead of many guns located in a small area, the image most people have of a fort, the Endicott batteries are spread out over a wide area. This system used dispersement and concealment for protection from naval gunfire, which was more accurate and powerful than in the past. The use of the modern, powerful weapons eliminated the need for the concentration of guns that was common in the Third System fortifications. One such battery, called Battery Pensacola, was constructed physically within the walls of Fort Pickens, while other similar concrete batteries were constructed to the east and west as separate facilities. The ruins of these later facilities are also included in the Gulf Islands National Seashore complex.
On June 20, 1899, a fire in Fort Pickens’ Bastion D reached the bastion’s magazine, which contained 8,000 pounds (3,600 kg) of powder. The resulting explosion killed one soldier and obliterated Bastion D. The force of the explosion was so great that bricks from Bastion D’s walls landed across the bay at Fort Barrancas, more than 1.5 miles away (2.4 km).