The Florida Maritime Heritage Trail 
Coastal CommunitiesCoastal EnvironmentsCoastal FortsLighthousesHistoric PortsHistoric Shipwrecks
Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson.
Photo courtesy of VISIT FLORIDA.

    Maritime nations have long relied upon the permanent placement of weaponry to ward off attacks from the sea. This strategy protected harbors, inlets, rivers, inland territory and harbor traffic, and supported naval defense power. To mount these weapons and to house and protect the troops needed to operate and maintain them, nations built coastal forts.

    Coastal forts were built in response to several factors. The terrain surrounding them dictated their shape and size. The nature of the perceived threat determined their permanence. But more than anything, forts were built in response to weapons technology. The location of a fort and the height and thickness of its walls had to repel whatever artillery could be fired from ships. As long as ships were made of wood, cannons fired at them from behind earthenworks or masonry walls provided an effective defense. With introduction of ships constructed of iron and steel, new, more powerful and accurate cannons had to be mounted in coastal forts.

Fort Zachary Taylor

Fort Zachary Taylor.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

    From the beginning, the North American continent required coastal protection, since early colonists settled along the seaboard. Strategic harbors, inlets and river deltas, and offshore islands became focal points for commerce and communication. They also were vulnerable to attack unless defended. Based on European designs, colonial engineers built coastal forts of earth, wood, and stone overlooking navigable waters near centers of population. Housing artillery, ammunition, soldiers, and stores, these forts sometimes changed hands between nations competing for colonial supremacy. The United States continued the practice of building, arming, and manning coastal forts, eventually constructing some of the largest masonry structures of their kind in the world. Some of these coastal forts have disappeared, some are preserved as they originally were built, and others have undergone refurbishing and interpretation to provide us with a glimpse of our maritime past.

    The first coastal forts in colonial Florida were made of earth or wood - plentiful materials at hand for quick construction and defense. These forts worked against the lesser technology of Native Americans, but were inadequate against attacks by other Europeans. Early forts were positioned to warn off competing claimants to Florida; later forts were built to defend settlements, ports, or naval installations.

Fort Caroline

Fort Caroline.
Photo courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources.

   The first fort in Florida, Caroline, was built by the French on the St. Johns River in 1564. The Spanish responded with wooden forts at St. Augustine in 1565. In 1672, they replaced these with Castillo de San Marcos, built of coquina rock. By the late 18th century, Florida's forts were being made of brick. During the Civil War, earth became an important building material again as berms were created to protect cannon batteries at unfortified coastal locations. Reinforced concrete was the last building material used before mid-20th century weaponry rendered all of Florida's coastal forts obsolete. None of the wooden forts remain, although Fort Caroline has been reconstructed. Twelve coastal fort sites are open to the public today.

America's "System" of Forts

    President George Washington asked Congress to fund a series of forts to protect America's seaports. These "first system" forts primarily were open earthworks. In the early 1800s, Congress again funded coastal fortification as the "second system." These structures consisted of open batteries, masonry-faced earth, and all masonry. Later in the 19th century, "third system" forts were constructed throughout the United States, including along the coasts. These were masonry forts, many of which became obsolete only with the development of aerial bombing technology in World War I.

Additional Fort Information

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Florida Coastal Management Program This web page was funded in part by the Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Coastal Management Program, pursuant to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Award No. NA97OZ0158. The views expressed in herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the State of Florida, NOAA, or any of its subagencies.
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