In 1834, work began on a three-story brick fortification along the eastern end of sandy Foster’s Bank (Perdido Key). Part of the Third System of United States’ coastal defenses, the fort was completed in 1839. Named for a distinguished officer, Brevet Colonel William McRee (War of 1812). Fort McRee and its associated water-battery helped complete the defenses of Pensacola Bay and naval yard. Combined with Fort Barrancas and Fort Pickens, these three fortifications formed an area of protective crossfire to defend this important body of water from enemy vessels. (Wayside) (Roberts, 1988) (National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 2017)
During the 1820’s, three main forts were designed and built as coastal defenses to protect Pensacola Bay and the deep harbor. These included, Fort Barrancas, Fort Pickens and Fort McRee, also known as the “Castle on Fosters Island.” This castle would be built on the eastern tip of Perdido Key, upon a sandy bar known as Fosters Bank . Building this fort was more difficult than building of Fort Pickens, which was a herculean effort, Lt. William Chase struggled to convince Army superiors to pour more resources into building another fort. However, he was eventually able to persuade them of the importance of defending the point and construction started on what became Fort McRee.
A foundation was not laid, instead sand was simply built up to meet the height requirement of the parade ground, five feet above the high tide mark. Its wing design was unique among third system forts appearing more like earlier second system forts. A solider walking the perimeter would cover 360 yards. Though a small fort, it contained approximately 1.5 million bricks from Mobile and the Pensacola area. The 12 feet high casemates were bisected by wooden platforms creating three tiers of cannon positions.
Some of the casemates on the north and western walls were used as barracks. Along with the living quarters, the fort had three staircases, one being a turret style much like the stairs of Fort Massachusetts. To improve the defensive capabilities of the fort, two hot shot furnaces were added on opposing sides of the parade ground.
By the early 1840’s the fort on Fosters Bank received its permanent name, Fort McRee, though sometimes seen spelled McRae. The fort saw action during the Civil War, but extensive damage sustained during a bombardment along with its remote location led to its eventual destruction.
Civil War Service and Destruction
In January 1861, many state militias in areas such as Florida, began to occupy federal fortifications. In the Pensacola area, U.S. troops left Fort McRee and Fort Barrancas and consolidated at Fort Pickens. Many supplies were likewise removed to Fort Pickens, while those supplies which could not be transported were often burned. Navy Lieutenant Erben of the Supply, destroyed the remaining powder and materials left at Fort McRee.
Southern troops occupied Fort McRee in mid-January, and by the end of March guns were being mounted and additional batteries set up. Not until the morning of November 22 1861, did the Pensacola area experience the deafening sounds of thundering artillery from forts, batteries, and ships. At 9:55 am, Union held Fort Pickens began bombardment of Confederate forces at the Pensacola navy yard, shores batteries, and Fort Barrancas and Fort McRee. Under heavy artillery fire, Fort McRee was exposed to severe bombardment at its front, flank, and rear. Two Union warships, U.S.S. Niagara and U.S.S. Richmond joined the bombardment of Fort McRee. This massive artillery exchange shook houses ten miles away and concussion-stunned fish which floated to the surface of the bay.
Confederates forces at Fort McRee fired back against the two Union vessels and Fort Pickens. However, after five hours of continued artillery exchange, the guns of Fort McRee fell silent, evidence of the extensive damage to the fort which made operating the cannon impossible. The following day, battle resumed in earnest, however no return fire came from Fort McRee. The damage to the brick edifice and cannons was extensive. The flag pole had been shot and the wooden structures within the fort had caught fire at least three times during the bombardment.
By May of 1862, Confederate forces abandoned Fort McRee. The once imposing fortification had been reduced to a burned-out and fragmented brick shell. Essentially abandoned after the Civil War, the toll of warfare and of the elements continued to take Fort McRee into further ruin. By the early 1900s, what little was left of this once imposing defensive structure was rapidly crumbling. Today, nothing visible remains of this Third System fortification, although later coastal defense structures built in the area are commonly referred to as old Fort McRee.
Coleman, J. C. (1988). Fort McRee "A Castle Built on Sand." Pensacola, Florida: Pensacola Historical Society.
Konstam, A. (2003). American Civil War Fortifications (1) Coastal Brick and Stone Forts. London: Osprey Publishing.
(n.d.). Fort McRee. Florida, United States: Gulf Islands National Seashore, National Park Service.
National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. (2017, March 23). Pensacola Harbor Defense Project. Pensacola, Florida, United States: National Park Service, Department of the Interior.
Office of Secretary of the Navy. (1984). Offical Records of the Confederate and Union Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Vols. Series 1 - Volume 16). (C. W. Stewart, Ed.) Washington , D.C.: Government Printing Office.
Roberts, R. B. (1988). Encyclopedia of Historic Forts: The Military, Pioneer, and Trading Posts of the United States. New York: Macmillan.
Wayside. (n.d.). Fort McRee. Florida, United States: Gulf Islands National Seashore, National Park Service.