Posted by: Brad Nixon | April 3, 2017

Fort Clinch: Civil War Survivor on the Florida Coast

While you’re in northeastern Florida visiting the scene of the previous post, The White Oak Conservation, there are other things to see.

Directly east, the Florida coast consists of a large island, Amelia Island, separated from the mainland by a welter of creeks and tidal waterways.

NE Florida map Google

Jacksonville is at the bottom of the map. “WOC” marks the location of the White Oak Conservation. West of that (black square) is the significant, large wild area of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. I’ve never visited it, but it would be worth exploring.

To the east, the coast of Amelia Island has, like a lot of Florida, its share of upscale resort hotels and private estates, along with more middle-of-the road accommodations and recreation opportunities. The city of Fernandina Beach is near the northern tip of the island. It’s a small town with its share of charm, restaurants, accommodations, galleries and shops.

Fernandina Beach Brad Nixon 2013 (640x480)

The northern tip of Amelia Island is Fort Clinch State Park (circled). The feature attraction is the Civil War-era Fort Clinch.


As the aerial photo shows, the fort was constructed in the classic pentagonal shape that prevailed for several centuries before advanced weaponry made it obsolete.

It has massive walls constructed of nearly 5 million bricks (click on the two photos to enlarge).

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1975 (640x345)

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1980 (640x480)

Every traveler, everywhere across the globe, encounters old military sites, encampments, forts, castles and the like. I have a passing interest, and they’re everywhere. Fort Clinch will be of special interest to military history buffs and to travelers who are in the area and can take advantage of the opportunity to see a relatively well-preserved fortification from the 1840s. There are some things to be learned.

As England, the Netherlands, Spain and France vied to control the newly-discovered area that’s today’s United States, they built fortifications, and from our earliest days, Americans did the same. The entire country, coast-to-coast, is replete with former military sites.

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1976 (640x480)

The structure that stands today was begun by the United States at the end of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842). Not the proudest passage in our history. There was a fortification on the site as early as 1736, constructed by the Spanish, who controlled Florida from their arrival until 1763, when they traded it to Britain for Havana, then got it back in 1783 (Treaty of Versailles) until the 1820s.

The site is strategically important: It occupies the northern point of Amelia Island, looking across the mouth of Cumberland Sound, which gives access to the intercoastal waters. Any ship that attempted to enter the sound would be within range of the fort’s guns. This shot gives you a sense of the distance across the sound to the Georgia side to the north.

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1989 (640x480)

At the beginning of the Civil War, it would have been a rather remote posting. Hot and humid in the summer, subject to hurricanes and storms in the fall, and capable of being a somber, fog-clouded place in winter, as it was the December day I was there. Here’s a panoramic view of a large portion of the interior of the fort.

Fort Clinch, Florida

The Confederacy captured the fort from the Union in 1861 and it became a base for Confederate vessels evading the Union blockade of southern ports. Despite that advantage, the fort had a fatal flaw: The advent of rifled cannon aboard ships meant its immense brick walls — unlike stone or concrete — could be pummeled by artillery and destroyed with relative ease. It had outlived its strategic advantage and was a sitting duck. General Robert E. Lee ordered the position abandoned.

The Union reoccupied the vacant fort and it served as a base for their naval operations in the region for the balance of the war. By the end of the 1860s, it was degarrisoned except for a brief time in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, and eventually decommissioned.

The walls and buildings were restored to Civil War-era status during the 1930s, and it’s a good look at one era in the history of both the United States and in warfare of the period. You can go in the buildings, including the piece de resistance of any fort: the prison cells.

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1993 (640x480)

The State of Florida provides reenactments of military operations at certain times (yes, including firing cannon). Check their website for further information (below).

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1987 (640x457)

Park staff are there regularly present to provide information about life at the fort during the war. On my visit, we had an extremely knowledgeable man dressed as a Union sergeant. Had we three days, we might have exhausted all he had to tell us, but he didn’t even pause for breath in the mere half hour we had with him.

The state park has 3 miles of coastline for seashell and shark tooth hunting, hiking and bike trails, campgrounds, a fishing pier and a nature trail. There’s a $2 fee to tour the fort. For detailed information, visit the Florida State Parks website.

The United States, especially the eastern portion, is replete with Civil War sites (although I’ve even written about one near my home in Los Angeles): monuments, fortifications, battlefields, museums and cemeteries. Rarely does one have an opportunity to catch such a complete glimpse of that most terrible time in our national history in a remote and relatively quiet place. It was all the more evocative on a cool day under low clouds hanging over the choppy water of the sound.

Fort Clinch Brad Nixon 1977 (640x415)

I found the convergence of ironies to be compelling. Later in the war, the soldiers of the garrison would have had a clearly-defined defensive role: Repel any encroachment by enemy naval craft. But the vulnerability of their fortification made them dependent on the Union’s superior naval forces to ward off any serious attack, because they were at risk. There’s always some dynamic tension between soldiers and sailors — from the time of ancient Greece until the present day. It certainly was operating there in lonely outpost at the swampy edge of the continent.

© Brad Nixon 2017. I relied heavily on Wikipedia and the Florida State Parks sites for the information in this article. Aerial photo By Fl295 at English Wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Map © Google.

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