Monday, June 3, 2013

Fort McRee at Pensacola Bay - (Forts of Florida Series, #1)

Site of Fort McRee
 I thought it might be interesting to begin a series on the historic forts of Florida, particularly those with a War Between the States (or Civil War) component.  Check back over coming days for more of the series, but let's begin with Fort McRee on Pensacola Bay!

Sometimes called the "lost fort" of Pensacola Bay and aptly described by author James Coleman as "a castle built on sand," Fort McRee was part of the system of fortifications designed and built by the United States to defend Pensacola from foreign attack.

Located on the eastern end of what was then called Foster's Bank (today's Perdido Key), Fort McRee has best been described as looking something like a "stubby airplane wing" when viewed from above. Not a trace of the fort remains to be seen above ground today.

Fort Mcree in 1861
Built in 1834-1839 and named for Colonel William McRee, the fort was designed to work in conjunction with Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island and Fort Barrancas on the mainland to sweep the channel leading into Pensacola Bay with cannon fire. It was built of brick and original plans called for it to mount multiple tiers of cannon. A separate brick water battery added even more to the firepower of the fort and, if used as planned against an attacking foreign enemy, it likely would have fulfilled its purpose well.

That, of course, is not what happened at Pensacola Bay. When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, state troops seized Fort McRee, Fort Barrancas and the Pensacola Navy Yard, but U.S. forces held on tightly to Fort Pickens. This created a standoff for control of the harbor and Fort McRee was caught in the crossfire.

This became very apparent on November 22, 1861, when General Braxton Bragg's Army of Pensacola squared off against the U.S. Army troops holding Fort Pickens and the sailors of the U.S. Navy manning the warships offshore. For two days the thunder of the heaviest guns ever fired in Florida shook the bay.  Dead fish, killed by the concussions, floated to the surface by the thousands. And the bricks of Fort McRee began to tumble down.

The fort was exposed to fire that it had not been designed to withstand.  Not only was it bombarded from the rear by naval warships, it was hit from the front by the guns of Fort Pickens.

Confederate troops all around the bay witnessed the terrific fire laid down on Fort McRee by the Union cannon and witnessed in awe the heroic effort by Colonel John Villepigue and his soldiers from Mississippi and Georgia to hold the fort:
Site of Fort McRee

...The magazines were laid bare to the enemy's shells, which constantly exploded around them, and a wooden building to the windward, on the outside of the fort, taking fire, showers of live cinders were constantly driven through the broken doors of one magazine, threatening destruction to the whole garrison.- Gen. Braxton Bragg, 1861.

The wooden parts of the fort caught fire three times and three times Villepigue and his men put out the flames. Six men of the garrison were killed and others, including the commander himself, were wounded, but still they held out.

By the second day of the bombardment, Fort McRee was helpless and unable to defend itself, yet Villepigue and his men refused to give up their post.  When the battle finally came to an end, the tattered Confederate flag still waved defiantly over Fort McRee.

The damage done that day and expanded by a second bombardment in January 1862, however, was permanent. By the time Confederate forces evacuated Pensacola Bay in 1862, the fort was just a shell of its former self.  It was not rebuilt by Federal forces and over the years was allowed to crumble and collapse into the bay.

The site today bears no sign - other than scattered bricks - of the massive fort that once absorbed the combined firepower of the U.S. Army and Navy. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortmcree.

And watch for the next in this series, coming soon!

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