In the tranquility of the Apalachicola National Forest, you may spot an unusual sight for Florida’s Panhandle: a Union Jack, the famed flag of the United Kingdom, flying amongst the native pines. The flag is part of the Fort Gadsden National Historic Site—home to the ruins of two different forts, including one built by British troops during the War of 1812. The British recognized the importance of the area and built the first fort, known as British Post, on the banks of the Apalachicola River. British Post served as a local base for the British troops and as a recruiting station for their main allies—former slaves.
In fact, when the British troops left Florida in 1815, they left the fort to those former slaves. The “negro fort,” as it came to be called, became a haven for fugitive slaves, with the population growing from about 400 to as many as 800.
“Negro Fort” was controversial; it was technically beyond the United States’ territory and was seen by many to threaten the Southern institution of slavery. In July of 1816, the tension came to a head, and the freemen fired on an American ship, killing four U.S. soldiers. The American forces, along with their Creek allies, responded with an all-out attack, using a well-aimed heated cannonball to destroy the fort and kill all but 30 of the fort’s 300 inhabitants in an explosion heard as far away as Pensacola. The remaining freemen were returned to slavery.
After the skirmish, the fort was deemed a pivotal location for war times, and Andrew Jackson, then Major General of the Seventh Military District, charged Lieutenant James Gadsden with rebuilding the fort. Jackson was so pleased with the work that he named the new edifice Fort Gadsden. The fort was used as a forward base for army movements during the First and Second Seminole Wars, then later as a base for Confederate forces during the Civil War.
After the Civil War, Fort Gadsden saw little usage until the 1960s, when the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials established Fort Gadsden State Historic Site. In 1972, the Apalachicola National Forest obtained the site, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Fort Gadsden National Historic Site is a must-see for history buffs. The park features what little remains of both forts that called the area home, a cemetery, small exhibit, interpretive signs and walking trail, and a picnic area. A relic of our country’s complicated history, the Fort Gadsden National Historic Site serves as a stark reminder of where we’ve come as a nation while honoring those who lost their lives during one of our country’s most tumultuous times. For more information about the Fort, check out the USDA Forest Service.