Pensacola’s Civil War History
Pensacola Florida's Vital Role in the Civil War - What Happened, When, and Where
Fort Pickens in Pensacola, FL
Photos Courtesy of the Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
Because of its vital role as a Gulf Coast port, during the Civil War Pensacola was both a key strategic asset for the Confederacy and a major objective for Union troops.
And today, whether visiting for Mardi Gras or passing through at any other time of year, for history buffs, dedicated Civil War aficionados, and anyone with a curious mind and some free time, Pensacola is a great place to tank up on Civil War history and get your fill of seaside forts and battlements. This delightful Gulf Coast beach town offers a variety of Civil War attractions that range from the many fortifications and battlements of Gulf Islands National Seashore to museum exhibits, and lore and legend in the form of tales of the first Confederate victory, as told by local tour guides.
Pensacola’s Role in the Civil War
As one of the first states to embrace secession, Florida was an early player in the southern states' effort to break free from the United States. Because of its location at the mouth of a major protected bay (Pensacola Bay is protected by a series of barrier islands) that reaches far inland, Pensacola was a vital part of the Confederacy’s supply line strategy. As a result, capturing and controlling the Port of Pensacola became a major objective for the Union forces. In fact some scholars of warfare and the 1800s claim that the Civil War may actually have begun in Pensacola, months before the first shot was fired at Fort Sumter.
When Florida joined the Confederacy in January of 1861, Union troops were already stationed at Fort Pickens on Pensacola’s Santa Rosa Island. When Confederate soldiers demanded that they leave, the soldiers from the North refused and Union reinforcements were quickly sent to bolster the fort’s defenses. The ensuing battle and months long standoff may well represent the opening volley in the American Civil War.
Civil War Attractions in Pensacola
First among Pensacola’s Civil War attractions is unquestionably Gulf Islands National Seashore. Home to Fort Pickens, Fort Barrancas (built to defend the Pensacola Naval Yard), Fort McRee (a key artillery post that was heavily damaged in the battle for Fort Pickens), Fort Massachusetts (construction began before and ended after the Civil War), and Advanced Redoubt (built to protect the Pensacola Naval Yard against an overland assault), the seashore is a blend of white sand beaches and military history.
If the Civil War is your thing, then Gulf Islands National Seashore is a walk-thru playground that delivers a “see it with your own eyes” military and maritime perspective on Pensacola’s strategic value to the forces of both the North and the South.
For military buffs, Gulf Islands National Seashore also counts nine artillery batteries among its historic military sites.
Historic Pensacola Village
For a historical perspective on the cultural and political effects that the Civil War had on Pensacola and the surrounding area, visitors should plan to stop by the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum (located in the Historic Pensacola Village complex). Among the museum’s permanent collection are exhibits on Civil War soldiers, the role of western Florida in the Civil War, and more specifically the role of Pensacolans in fighting the Civil War.
In addition to being the home of the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum, Historic Pensacola Village is also the site of some 25 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of these buildings is the Old Christ Church, which was used by Union troops as a barracks, jail, and military hospital after the Confederate forces retreated from Pensacola to Mobile.
For a short course on Pensacola history overall, Pensacola Trolley Tours offers a 90-minute narrated tour that includes stories of the Civil War’s “first Confederate victory”. The trolley also makes stops at Historic Pensacola Village, Seville Square, Port of Pensacola, and NAS Pensacola (the first U.S. naval air station and the home of the Blue Angels).
While Pensacola does have a long Mardi Gras history, the area’s cultural and historical roots reach back to some of the seminal moments in U.S. history. As a major Gulf Coast port, Pensacola played a crucial role in the Civil War. Even today, echoes of that conflict can be seen in the forts and Civil War exhibits around town. They make for a delightful and informative break from the mayhem of Mardi Gras and the city’s beach-oriented coastal charms.