On an early morning in the fog off the river, you can almost feel the ghosts slipping between the trees, sunlight dappling through the moist needles of longleaf pine and the air thick with the fresh scent of river bottom and fungus. Pale lily-like blooms of wiregrass gentian peep from between the grasses carpeting the forest floor. The Apalachicola River burbles its riversong just beyond the clearing where more than 250 died on the fateful morning of July 27, 1816 – the horrific and instant destruction of a colony of African Americans, freedmen and runaway slaves at the hands of the U.S. Navy. To explore where this significant chapter of American history took place, this gentle walk of less than a mile in the Apalachicola National Forest leads you through the well-interpreted historic site and through a pine forest where wildflowers thrive.
Length: 0.9 mile
Lat-Long: 29.940383, -85.011233
Bug factor: low
Restroom: yes, at the picnic area
This is a beautiful place for a picnic. Large interpretive kiosks and markers along the footpath assist in explaining the transition of Fort Gadsden from British to Spanish oversight. There is an overlook on the Apalachicola River, which has a gentle riverbank accessible for fishing. Be alert for alligators, however, along the water’s edge. The trail may flood after a heavy rain or when the river’s high.
For detailed historical background on this site, please visit Explore Southern History
Directions & Map
From Tallahassee, take SR 20 west to Hosford, and head south on SR 65. Continue south past Sumatra and the Wright Lake Recreation Area for 4 miles past the Sumatra store to Brickyard Road on the right. Follow the signs down the forest roads to the park entrance: go 1.4 miles, turn right; continue 0.8 mile, turn a slight left; continue 0.8 mile, turn left to stay with the main road into the historic site. These are dirt roads and not always in the best of shape, but usually passable by a passenger vehicle. High clearance vehicles will have less trouble. Don’t attempt to visit Fort Gadsden if the entrance road is at all under water.
Near the end of the War of 1812, the British built a fort at a strategic point on the Apalachicola River–Prospect Bluff, a high, dry spot surrounded by swampy pine woods. They built alliances with Creek and Seminole leaders, and encouraged free blacks and runaways to join them. The U.S. Army began calling the site “The Negro Fort,” and it was a sore spot for them, with the U.S. Government allied with Spain in Florida…
General Andrew Jackson was ordered to deal with the situation of this “enemy” fortress in the middle of lands claimed by Spain, but it ultimately was General Edmund P. Gaines who gave the orders for the attack and sent Commander Duncan Clinch in with two schooners up the Apalachicola River and a party of Creek warriors. On the morning of July 27, 1816, a battle raged, with the inhabitants of the fort raising a flag of “No Surrender.” But a well-aimed cannonade of heated cannonballs exploded their powder magazine, killing 270 inside the walls of the fort and destroying the fortress.
Start your walk at the parking area, where the path to the picnic area leads you up to a historic marker commemorating the importance of this site in Florida history. You might find an interpretive guide in the information box, but if not, be sure to walk around the historic display in the picnic area to learn the complex picture of this site. Two forts commanded this narrows in the Apalachicola River—the first one built by the British in 1814 (signs designated “British Fort” show the location of the original fort) and a second fortress built two years after the explosion of the powder magazine, Fort Gadsden, built on command of General Andrew Jackson during the Second Seminole War, designed by Lieutenant James Gadsden (for whom Gadsden County is named), and occupied from 1818 through the Civil War.
The trail leads you from the picnic area past bits and pieces of old steamships. Steamships were the core of transportation in the early days of the Florida Territory, this river essentially an interstate for travel from Georgia to the Gulf. During the War Between the States, Columbus was the shipbuilding capital of the Confederacy. All new Confederate warships launched had to come down through this passage to reach the Gulf of Mexico (this was well before the dam was built at Chattahoochee, of course) to be put into service. Although Fort Gadsden, being surrounded by swamps, was more defensible, its artillery was stripped and moved upriver to another site along the narrows of the Apalachicola River, with only a skeleton crew of soldiers remaining here as an early lookout for Union infiltration up the river channel.
A bench provides a quiet spot to admire the strength of the Apalachicola River as it slips past. To continue along the trail, walk behind the bench and look across the field at the flagpole. You’ll see a breach in the earthworks of the fort, and a British flag on a distant flagpole behind it. Head over there. Once you’re at the site of the old British fort, look for an arrow at the far side of the clearing to point you into the longleaf pine forest.
A mowed path through the forest, the Wiregrass-Gentian Trail leads you from the site of the old fortress to the “Renegade Cemetery,” where those who died in the explosion – men, women, and children, primarily African-American – are buried. Wildflowers bloom profusely throughout the longleaf pine forest in spring, especially on the approach to the clearing. I’ve observed tall flowers here that I’ve still not been able to identify in any of my field guides, but the prime flower to watch for is the rare and endangered wiregrass genetian, with a pale-white lily-like bloom in winter. Colorful pink sabatia blooms here as well.
In the forest clearing, a marker and a burial vault commemorate those who died defending their personal freedom and their honor for the British who took them in. Another “Nature Trail” sign leads you deeper into the longleaf pine forest, where the understory is very open. Wild batchelor-button lends a splash of yellow and orange to the wiregrass. After 0.6 mile, the trail emerges onto a forest road. Turn left and walk along the berm of the forest road back to the entrance to the historic site. You return to the trailhead after 0.9 mile.