After weaving through winding roads covered by aged mossy oaks, you will stumble upon this immense 19th century fortress. Built along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean to defend Fernandina Beach and the inlet of the St. Mary’s River, Fort Clinch now stands as a historic landmark preserving America’s past. The fort is strategically placed on the northernmost Atlantic coast of Florida on the Florida-Georgia line.
This fort is an exciting place for visitors to explore the history of defending America’s coastlines. Today this fortress is a popular tourist destination and currently functions as a state park operated by Florida.
The first phases of constructing the fortress known as Fort Clinch were made in 1842, with the U.S. governments plan of the “Third Systems Fortifcation” in response to the devastation of the War of 1812.
The “Third Systems Fortifications” were all built during the years of 1817-1867 building a total of 42 fortresses along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coastlines. The military hoped that with such a strong defense on its shores that other invading forces would be intimidated. Cannons that could fire up to three miles were positioned. Some of the most advanced weaponry was featured at these forts.
Fort Clinch was mainly constructed by local civilians along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Named for General Duncan Clinch for his impressive military leadership during the Seminole Wars, the fort was dedicated following Clinch’s death in 1849.
With the building efforts still underway at the start of the Civil War, the fort was less than 70% complete. Some of the weaponry had not been mounted yet and Confederate forces quickly took seize of Fort Clinch. The bricks used in a few of the buildings are composed of different material marking the separation in construction times.
During the first year of the Civil War throughout 1861, the fort was occupied by Confederate blockade runners. During that year, the rifled cannon was introduced that could easily penetrate through the brick walls of Fort Clinch. This invention made the fort obsolete in the event of an attack.
In the early months of 1862, General Robert E. Lee declared his military to abandon the fort and Union forces regained control soon after. Fort Clinch was utilized by Union troops throughout the remainder of the Civil War.
Following the Civil War in 1869 still uncompleted, Fort Clinch was left basically abandoned at caretaker occupancy status. It remained in this state until 1898 when it briefly was reopened for the Spanish American War before closing again in 1899.
After contemplation of the usefulness of the fort, the U.S. government sold Fort Clinch in 1926. It passed through nearly a decade of private ownership before finally being established as one of Florida’s first state parks in 1935.
Fort Clinch was in need of much repair as the years of harsh coastal conditions and abandonment took its toll. In 1936, Civilian Conservation Corps members came to the fort to help rebuild this historic fortress.
It was with great effort that Fort Clinch opened officially to the public in 1938, but was briefly closed during World War II while it served as a communications post.
The fort has remained open to visitors and nearly 150,000 people tour this historic landmark each year.
How to Visit
To access Fort Clinch, visitors must first enter Fort Clinch State Park and then visit the information center to purchase tickets for fort tours.
Things to explore while at the fort include the museum, bastions, guard rooms, barracks, prison, hospital, blacksmith shop and kitchen as well as great photo opportunities with the gigantic cannons!
Reenactments are a popular event that are held frequently to give guests an example of how the fort was operated. Both Union and Confederate armies are presented in these events.
A nearby campground also offers guests the ability to stay overnight. Access to the beach is also available for swimming and a few trails offer wonderful opportunities for birding and biking.
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