At the end of long stretches of snow-white Florida beach sand sits Fort Pickens, a United States military fort dating back to the early 19th century and holding the distinction of remaining in Union hands all throughout the Civil War.
After its completion in 1834, spurred on by lingering fears from the War of 1812, Fort Pickens was intended to provide protection for the Pensacola Bay from invaders. Built almost entirely by slave laborers in brutal Florida conditions, Fort Pickens was engineered by Major William Chase, a United States Army engineer who would go on to join the Confederacy.
Once the Civil War broke out, Union Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer immediately took control of the fort, determined to keep it out of Confederate hands. The fort was attacked multiple times, even by its own designer, William Chase. In the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, Union infantry defended the fort against invading Confederate soldiers, resulting in the withdrawal of Confederate troops from Pensacola Bay in 1862. Miraculously, Slemmer’s quick thinking paid off, and Fort Pickens remained in Union control for the duration of the Civil War, one of only four Southern seacoast forts to do so.
Later on, during the Indian Wars, Fort Pickens was used as a prison, and even housed infamous Apache war chief, Geronimo, for a time.
Today the remains of Fort Pickens are a national park and can be visited by any Civil War buff. In the fort, visitors can take a stroll through the officers’ and prisoners’ quarters, the mine chambers, and the interior gunrooms, known as casemates. They can climb atop of the cannons on the Tower Bastion and walk around the Parade Ground, the three-acre open space used for drill exercises and a makeshift officer campground, where dozens of men fell ill and several died from intense heat and scurvy. They can duck into cells where sunlight streams in through the tiny open-air, metal-barred windows and explore tunnels connecting parts of the fort. Flickering lights, old brick walls, and low arches give the sprawling fort an eerie ambiance.
Despite losing it to his enemy, Chase built Fort Pickens to last.
Know Before You Go
There is a fee to enter the park by car or bicycle. Camping is available but first, confirm availability because this low island easily gets swamped by tropical storms. The road has a very low-speed limit due to nesting birds. The camp store also is often out of commission for months due to storms.