Old Fort Houstoun Perseveres

Silent Sentinel Still Stands Guard Over the Capital After 148 years

Saige Roberts

Only a historical marker and some small mounds are visible reminders of the “fort” created to protect Tallahassee in the waning days of the Civil War.

The small band of 1st Florida Militia mingled behind the earthen walls of Fort Houstoun and listened apprehensively to the sound of war coming from the south. Pipe smoke and coffee steam drifted into the early spring air as the old men whispered amongst themselves and strained to make sense of what their ears were telling them.

It was March 6, 1865, and two armies clashed at Natural Bridge just 10 miles away. When the wind was right, the stentorian echo of massed artillery could be heard distinctly above the faint rattle and pop of musketry.

Having arrived too late to join other members of their unit in the battle, the citizen-soldiers posted to Fort Houstoun could do nothing but sit, wait and watch mounted couriers gallop past. However, as they huddled in the muddy redoubt on the outskirts of Tallahassee, they knew what was at stake. If the Confederates failed to stop the invading Yankee army from crossing the land bridge, Fort Ward in St. Marks could be attacked from behind, and then the state capital would undoubtedly be “next on the menu.” If the invader set its sights on Tallahassee, the Confederate infantry and local militia would fall back to Fort Houstoun and other defensive works on the south side of town.

To the delight, relief and joy of the citizens of Tallahassee, the Confederates held on to win the day at the Battle of Natural Bridge. But the battle was such a hot contest that no less than six U.S. Navy sailors earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for their part in manning the Yankee artillery that day.

Little more than a hollow square of dirt not designed for longevity, Fort Houstoun has nevertheless survived the generations largely untouched by the corrosive effects of war, development and progress.

The fort was built in the waning days of the Civil War in the fall of 1864, after federal cavalry from Pensacola rode east, attacked the town of Marianna and thrashed the Confederate troops and home guard defending the town. This was one of the deepest enemy incursions in Florida, and its savagery jolted military leaders into realizing fortifications were needed to prevent the same thing from happening to Tallahassee. Brig. Gen. William Miller set about fortifying both Marianna and Tallahassee, and he assigned Capt. Theodore Moreno of the Confederate Engineer Corps the task of designing and building a series of sentry posts, entrenchments and redoubts in a “defense in depth” arrangement.

Although the actual extent of the Tallahassee defenses is not known, historian Dale Cox states in his book, “The Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida: The Confederate Defense of Tallahassee,” that records show engineers fortified a series of key hilltops that circled at least the southern half of the capital.

“Most of these works no longer exist, but one of the redoubts can still be seen. Fort Houstoun, a square earthen redoubt, survives remarkably well in Tallahassee’s Old Fort Park,” Cox writes. “Now a tree-covered residential neighborhood, the area surrounding the fort was then part of the Houstoun Plantation. Although it is difficult to visualize today, at the time of its construction Fort Houstoun commanded a sweeping vista of open fields leading up to the very edge of town.”

While other Civil War-era trench works were filled in and forgotten over time, Fort Houstoun remains a well-defined reminder of how close the war came to Tallahassee. Even though a shot was never fired there, it nevertheless played an important part in preventing the city from being captured.

Categories: History

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