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Cannon manned by rival nations: five different flags have flown over Pensacola Bay's forts.

[Editor's Note: Extracted from Military History magazine, August 1988]

Spanish soldiers sweated in the humid heat of their Florida colony as they hauled cannon up to gun emplacements newly constructed on the sandy heights overlooking the quiet waters of Pensacola Bay.

It was 1698, and with 12 eight-and-ten-pounder cannon in place, they named the first work to be built and finished San Carlos de Austria. But their effort was still not enough to satisfy the Spanish commander. Only when a bastioned stockade at Point Siguenza on Santa Rosa Island at the mouth of the Bay had been built did he feel that he had done his duty to Spain and secured the colony against any intrusions by the French and British,

Pensacola Bay--and with it Florida--had been claimed by the Spanish since 1559, as the first European settlement inside the current borders of the United States. The tiny colony was abandoned two years later, but increased pressures from the British and French convinced the Spanish that they must either strengthen their colony of Florida or lose it. And their premonition proved correct. The war of the Quadruple Alliance erupted in Europe, spreading quickly to the overseas colonies of the combatants.

On May 13, 1719, a French fleet quietly appeared off Santa Rosa Island, and a shore party captured not only the 20 Spanish soldiers manning the stockade at Point Siguenza, but also a guard detail routinely sent over from San Carlos de Austria.

Finally alerted to the danger, the Spanish manned the guns on the heights overlooking the Bay. The French, realizing that they had lost the element of surprise, now attempted to sail their fleet into the sheltered waters of the Bay, but winds prevented them from navigating the channel until May 17. As the ships passed the guns of the fort, they came under somewhat ineffective Spanish fire, and two days later the victorious French hauled down the Spanish flag.

For the next four years, Pensacola changed hands several times, and it was not until the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1722 that Pensacola was returned to the Spanish. Entering the Bay once more, the Spanish found the fortifications covered with sand--useless. Determined to learn from their previous failure, the Spanish now established a presidio on Santa Rosa Island farther into the Bay. Next, they built an outpost on the mainland to guard the overland approaches. The years passed, and Pensacola Bay became a quiet colonial backwater, undisturbed apart from the occasional skirmish with hostile Indians and the random hurricane. Then, in 1763, fifes trilled and drums rolled as the Union Jack was hoisted over the sandy dunes of Pensacola. The Treaty of Paris had ended the Seven Years War in Europe, and now the British had arrived to claim part of their booty.

At first, the British did relatively little to strengthen the defenses of the Bay. But again, distant wars brought the post to life. By 1780, the American War of Independence was going badly for Britain. Fearful that the Spanish might aid the Americans and at the same time attempt to reclaim their former colony of Pensacola, the British began rapidly constructing field works.

The Spanish were indeed prepared to act. On March 14, 1780, they captured Mobile Bay, and a year later, on March 9, 1781, a Spanish fleet dropped anchor off Santa Rosa Island. The Battle of Pensacola was under way. Under the command of the capable General Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish immediately made a night landing on Point Siguenza--their grenadiers and light infantry storming what turned out to be an abandoned British battery position. Once he had established a base on Santa Rosa Island, Galvez attempted to sail his fleet into the Bay, but bad luck dogged him--one of his ships ran onto a sandbar, and the Spanish movement was then abandoned for the moment.

For the next six days, Galvez pleaded with the senior naval commander of the expedition, Captain Jose Calbo de Irazabal, to try again, but the cautious Calbo refused. He was not about to take his ships through a channel containing uncharted, shifting shoals. Finally, an exasperated Galvez boarded a brig and, accompanied by two gunboats and a sloop, forced his own way into Pensacola Bay despite continuous British fire. Sheepishly, the rest of the Spanish light-draught vessels followed.

Galvez began constructing a series of trenches, his sappers working closer and closer to the British fortifications. British troops and their Indian allies harassed them constantly, and continuous fire made the digging hazardous. Taking every advantage of terrain and the lulls between bombardments, Galvez moved his batteries closer to the British. On May 7, he was ready. The Spanish completed their most advanced battery position, and their guns began firing at noon. In the ensuing bombardment, a lucky shot hit the British magazine, to evoke a tremendous explosion that killed 95 of the defenders. The Spanish launched a general assault. Desperately, a Captain Johnstone of the Royal Artillery manned a cannon, firing grape shot at the charging Spanish. They fell back, their dead littering the ground. By 10 a.m. of the next day, however, another Spanish attack had carried a strategic redoubt on the heights overlooking the defenders' fortifications. After that action the British surrendered.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Battle of Pensacola was the various nationalities of the troops on both sides. In addition to men from the 16th and 60th Regiments of Foot and sailors from HMS Mentor and HMS Port Royal, the British employed a company of German Waldeckers and detachments of Pennsylvanian and Maryland Loyalists. For their part, the Spanish used the famed Regimento de Hibernia, an Irish mercenary regiment, as well as four French frigates with a total of 725 soldiers on board.

The victory returned Pensacola Bay to the Spanish for the next 40 years. They did more work to strengthen their position, including Battery San Antonio, one of the oldest surviving examples of Spanish fortifications in North America. Completed in 1797, it mounted seven guns, placed at the water's edge so cannon balls could be skipped across the surface of the bay like oversized rocks toward enemy ships.

During the War of 1812, the British forced a much weakened Spanish outpost to allow them to deliver arms to their Indian allies while also encouraging the Indians to raid the southern American states. An angered United States sent General Andrew Jackson and about 3,500 men to deal with the situation. Jackson arrived in Pensacola on 7 November, 1814, to find fewer than 500 dispirited Spanish troops garrisoning the town. The battle only lasted a few minutes, but the obstructing Spanish gave the British just enough time to spike their cannon and flee from the bay.

The Americans left, only to return in May 1818, when Andrew Jackson believed that the Spanish were encouraging Indians to raid into Georgia. After a brief exchange of gunfire, the Spanish commandant surrendered. Once more, the Americans departed, but they returned for good in 1821, when Spain, realizing that it no longer had the strength or the will to hold its Florida colony, ceded the whole thing to the United States.

In the 1820s, the U.S. Navy chose Pensacola Bay as the site for a deep-water port to service its Gulf of Mexico squadron. Construction of the defenses for the new Navy yard began in 1829 under Army Major William H. Chase. Four forts, constructed of brick, were designed. The first of these works, Fort Pickens, situated on Point Siguenza on Santa Rosa Island to command half the channel entrance, was five-sided and five-bastioned. It held 200 cannon arranged with one tier of guns in casements and the other en barbette.

To cover the other side of the channel, the Army engineers built two works on the Pensacola mainland. Fort McRee, the first, built on Foster's Bank west of and across the channel from Fort Pickens, was completed in 1837 and was designed to mount 128 cannons. Fort Barrancas, the second work, was placed across the channel and north of Pickens. It was completed in 1839 and had 33 guns.

The engineers also built an advanced redoubt some 1,500 yards north of Fort Barrancas to guard the land approaches. The seacoast forts of Pensacola Bay were situated in a triangular pattern in such a way that if a ship were going to deliver a broadside against any one work, at least one of the other two forts could fire on the attacker.

War came again to Pensacola Bay in 1861. Florida seceded from the Union, and on the night of 8 January, Federal sentries fired on unknown individuals approaching the forts. They are generally considered to have been the first shots of the Civil War.

Lieutenant Adam Slemmer, commanding the Federal works, realizing his untenable position, abandoned all the mainland forts and retired to Fort Pickens, from which his guns could dominate the channel.

After Slemmer repeatedly rejected demands for surrender, General Braxton Bragg, commander of Confederate forces at Pensacola, ordered General Dick Anderson to take Pickens. Anderson led 1,000 men across the Bay, landing four miles east of the fort on 8 October, 1861. Cantonments around the fort were manned by the 6th New York Volunteers, who fell back to come under covering fire from the fort. As Anderson's undisciplined militia came across the abandoned cantonments of the departed enemy, he lost control of them to burning and looting.

The Union infantry rallied. Anderson was forced to retreat to his boats, and the Confederates gave up the attack after losing dozens of men.

The Confederates now began an artillery duel with Fort Pickens, but ranges were too great for either side to do extensive damage. Over 8,000 rounds were fired across the Bay, but damage was slight, except for Fort McRee, where a lucky shot struck and set off its powder magazine.

Battlefield reverses forced the Confederates to abandon Pensacola on 9 May, 1862, and the town was reoccupied by the Union, which used it as a strategic base of operations for the remainder of the Civil War.

The Civil War was the last conflict the forts were to see. From 1898 to 1947, the Coastal Artillery manned 14 concrete batteries there to protect the Navy yard and Pensacola Bay. Each battery had two to eight guns, including 10-inch and 12-inch pieces, all on various carriages rapid fire, antiaircraft, en barbette, disappearing and mortar.

By 1947, however, airpower had made the works obsolete, and the Army declared them surplus.

In 1971, the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a National Park, acquired some of the Pensacola Bay fortifications. Today, tourists and picnickers scramble over the sites. Fort Pickens and other concrete batteries are on the west end of Santa Rosa Island.

Fort Barrancas and its advanced redoubt are now on the Pensacola Naval Air Station, and visitors may receive day passes at any of the Air Station gates.

For the more adventurous, there are three concrete batteries on the east end of Perdido Key that are accessible only by boat. Due to the westward migration of the Gulf islands, however, the remains of Fort McRee are covered by water at about the middle of the present channel entrance.

For 250 years, the shores of Pensacola Bay witnessed the conflicts of five nations. Perhaps on a windy day you might stand there again, amongst the masonry and concrete. Who knows, you might smell the faint whiff of gunsmoke, hear the rattle of the drums.
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Author:Hunsaker, Trevor Jay
Publication:The Loyalist Gazette
Article Type:Excerpt
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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