03 February 2009

Fort Clinch

In 1816, the US Congress granted money to an ambitious national project: The Third System of fortifications. The first system was begun in 1794 due to fears of war in Europe, and 21 locations were given small, mostly earthwork fortifications. The Second System was begun in 1808 out of fear of a war with Britain. Several more were built, but many went unfinished. In the War of 1812, Baltimore's Fort McHenry prevented a British invasion (and inspired the National Anthem,) while an undefended Washington DC was invaded and burned. The Third System was born from this war and the desire to never have an American city be invaded as Washington had been. 42 sites on both coasts were eventually given these new forts, boasting the latest earth and masonry designs. Famous examples of Third System forts are Fort Monroe, Virginia, Fort Point, California, Fort Jefferson, Florida, Fort Independence, Massachusetts, Fort Pulaski, Georgia, and Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Fort Clinch, on Amelia Island, Florida, is one of these forts.
Begun in 1847, the fort was a late comer to the scene, and featured a two wall earth and masonry design. It was named for General Duncan Lamont Clinch, a hero of the Seminole Wars and later Representative for Georgia. The fort's construction was slow, and by 1860, only one third of the wall and two bastions were completed. With little to defend and no regular garrison, the fort was quietly taken by Confederates in 1861. The Confederates, however, already strained for resources and manpower, did not do any work on the young fort. Soon, they began to realize that Florida had much the same problem as the rest of the Confederacy: Too much coastline to defend against the massive Union Navy and invading armies. One by one Confederate forts from Virginia to Texas fell into Union control, and on March 3, 1862 the Confederate defenders left Fort Clinch. The Union quickly took back control of the fort and the 1st New York Volunteer Engineers worked to complete it.
The near destruction of Fort Pulaski in 1862, coupled with the pile of rubble in Charleston Harbor that used to be Fort Sumter, convinced both sides (and the rest of the world) that the days of brick fortifications were numbered. Forts under construction by both sides were often completely redesigned to be partially of fully earthen, to deaden the impact of the new rifled canon. A major success story of this is Fort McCallister, near Savannah. Fort Clinch had massive amounts of earth piled over the top of its interior casements and inner wall.
But the fort was still doomed. The end of the war in 1865, and the lessons learned about modern fortification resulted in a cessation of construction on the fort in 1867. While the walls, bastions, and other defensive features were mostly complete, other things such as the Officer Housing, seen above, were not finished. The officers of the fort had been staying in homes out in town, and their housing had not been seen as a major priority.
Another interesting unfinished feature comes as a result of Fort Sumter. The forts had originally been designed with traditional, large barracks buildings, such as the one above, that loomed over the fort walls. The bombardments of Fort Sumter had proven this was a bad idea, as they provided easy targets that were quickly destroyed, often resulting in injuries and collateral damage. So at Fort Clinch they had begun to construct barrack rooms along the inner wall of the fort, sheltered from enemy fire. These were not completed and their beginnings can be seen around the fort's inner wall today.
In 1898 the war with Spain prompted a quick fortification of many key locations around the US. Many old Third System forts were re-used by a simple addition of a larger, concrete gunmount. Fort Clinch was no exception, and its example can be seen on the right of the photo above. This is also a good depiction of the fort's design, with the outer wall and bastion clearly visible, and the earthen mound covering the inner walls behind them.
Fort Clinch performed its final duty in World War II, as a Coast Guard surveillance and communication post. After the war it returned to the State of Florida, who had been in charge of it since 1935 when it was developed into a state park. The story of Fort Clinch is ultimately one of "nothing happened here." Its guns were never fired in anger, and the closest true battle was that of Olustee, Florida, many miles to the west. Sandwiched on the border of two enemy states, it was one of many outposts that eventually formed a death ring around the Confederacy, starving them of supplies and revenue. Built across from Cumberland Island to defend the vital sea ports of Fernandina, Florida and St Marys, GA, it fulfilled its mission of controlling the Cumberland Sound that granted access from these ports to the ocean.But each fort that is preserved today has something unique that makes it special. Whether it be a battle, or a special design, or another historical event. Fort Clinch is amazing because of how it is preserved. Walking into it is like stepping into the spring of 1864. The fort and those who work there are made to have the appearance of this isolated Union outpost still under construction. Looking out over the forest and beaches surrounding the fort, it is easy to imagine the apprehension of a garrison deep in enemy territory, afraid of what might happen to them if they leave the fort, or of a possible attack by a determined enemy. It may not be the scene of a major battle, or have a song inspired by it, or even held a famous prisoner, but if you come here with an awe for those whose bravery made this fort possible, you will realize what a special place this truly is.
I have been here several times, but this will probably be the last. This place also is special to me because it was here that I first tried my hand at history volunteer work. I came down here for a few weekends to be a volunteer tour guide and "living historian," and did really enjoy it. But I quickly found that with doing that in addition to my job, there was simply no time to do other things, such as seeing other places. (And this was before I had a kid!) The picture above, taken on this latest visit to the fort, is my favorite I have taken here. The downside is that the clouds that day made many of the photos dark or grainy, but the plus side was that I got some spectacular sky effects in other photos. Fort Clinch is one of very few things I will miss down here.
This is a photo from the first time we came here shortly after arriving in Georgia in 2004.
And here is the fort seen from the beach, in 2005
I don't like to sound stuffy or better-than-though or anything, but have you ever been to a historic place and you run into someone who clearly has never even cracked open a history book, or is just clueless in general? Usually they can be found toting around their kids saying things like "this fort is where President Lincoln was shot" or "this canon was used against Al Quida in 2002" or something like that. Anyway, we encountered one of those here. In one of the fort's rooms was a board with several REPLICA 1860's papers, such as the one above. Some even had dates and signatures on them. We heard a group of people looking at them saying "Wow, I can't believe they just left these up here! Why has nobody ever tried to take one? How have they survived all these years?"
Response in my head: "That's a great idea! I bet I can make a killing off these on Ebay!" *shudders*
Another of the replica papers, this one taken in 2004.
Even as a newlywed, the wife had her own ways to enjoy history....

1 comment:

Sparky ♥ ∞ said...

Excellent tour! We've been to Ft. Clinch many times. Maybe we should try it the way your wife does, though, it might go down easier? HA HA Stay warm. ♥ ∞