Fort Clinch State Park
2601 Atlantic Avenue
Fernandina Beach, Florida
Fort Clinch is a popular place. This state park offers camping, wildlife, fishing and swimming as well as what the park website describes as “one of the most well-preserved 19th century forts in the country.” The fort is also popular with historic re-enactors, those people who enjoy spending time living in a different era. During a historic encampment one July weekend, two re-enactors sitting on the porch of one of the barracks witnessed four spectral soldiers. The soldiers emerged from one of the bastion tunnels wearing Civil War era uniforms, crossed the parade ground, marched up the ramp and disappeared. The following year during the same encampment, the re-enactors took their seats again on the barracks porch to see if the specters returned. Sure enough, three uniformed ghosts emerged from the tunnel and began making their way across the parade ground. One of the witnesses called out, “There were four of you last year, where’s the fourth man?” One of the ghosts responded, “He’s sick tonight, couldn’t come.” The spectral trio continued up the ramp and disappeared.
This story amuses me greatly. So often in dealing with ghost stories, we are dealing with sometimes horrible deaths involving war, murder, pestilence, illness and we forget that these spirits have a sense of humor. I recall an episode of Ghost Hunters where the TAPS team was investigating the well house of a farm that was known to have a prankster ghost. The ghost turned on the investigator’s flashlight upon request and later analysis revealed an EVP of a man laughing at the time. Ghosts DO have a sense of humor!
This story, however, has become one of the most enduring legends surrounding the fort. I’ve seen this story retold in a few different sources and each includes different details. Maggie Carter-de Vries, a local author, includes the story in her 2008 book, Ghosts of Amelia and Other Tales. She does provide a date for this story, 1952, and includes that the witness was a park ranger.
Of course, Fort Clinch is hardly a place for much sadness. The fort has never seen military action; only the ennui that accompanies waiting for military action to occur. The site of the fort, at the northern end of Amelia Island on the northern Atlantic coast of Florida, has been occupied by various military installations since 1736, all guarding the St. Marys River from attack. Construction on the fort commenced in 1847 as part of the federal government’s plan to fortify the American coast. By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the fort was only partially constructed with only two bastions facing the river and two walls connecting them as well as other necessary buildings in different stages of completion. At the time of Fort Sumter’s bombardment by Confederate forces in April of that year, no guns had been placed within the fort but the Confederacy took over control of the fort and installed guns. The fort aided blockade runners running supplies into the port of St. Marys, Georgia on the other side of the river.
By 1862, many of the neighboring islands had been captured by Union forces leaving Amelia Island and Georgia’s Cumberland Island, a barrier island to the north, isolated. General Robert E. Lee gave orders for troops to abandon the fort. On March 3rd, as the last of the Confederate troops left the fort, Union gunboats arrived and immediately took control of the fort. The First New York Volunteer Engineers company was brought in to resume construction on the fort. Work continued through the war and was halted in 1867 when the construction was deemed obsolete and the fort was placed under the eye of a caretaker.
The forgotten fort was briefly returned to military usage in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, but in September of that year was deemed obsolete and closed. The decaying ramparts remained desolate until 1926 when the site was offered for sale. The state of Florida purchased the site in 1935 and the Civilian Conservation Corps began work restoring it. Fort Clinch State Park opened as the first park in Florida’s state park system in 1938. During World War II, with German U-boats patrolling off the coast and sinking vessels within sight of land, the fort was reactivated for surveillance.
The past is still very much with us at Fort Clinch, not only literally, but spiritually as well. Re-enactors operate at the site regularly, demonstrating the harsh realities of military life during the Civil War. These same re-enactors seem to also witness the spiritual realities of the fort as well. Author Jack Powell in his Haunting Sunshine: Ghostly Tales from Florida’s Shadows notes that there is a surprising amount of interaction between the ghosts of Fort Clinch and the re-enactors, rangers and the occasional visitor. People staying in the barracks have been awakened by the clomping steps of booted feet and the appearance of a woman with a lantern, possibly a nurse still checking on patients.
Another interesting interaction involved this same female spirit. A female volunteer was looking for something in a darkened barracks room. The female spirit passed through with her lantern and the woman, not realizing the lantern-bearing woman was not another volunteer, asked her to hold up the lantern while she continued to search. The woman stopped, held the lantern aloft while the volunteer searched. She found what she needed and the other woman left the room. The volunteer approached a woman outside who she believed to have helped her and thanked her to discover that she hadn’t been walking around with a lantern, nor had any other women present.
In their book, Ghost Stories of the Civil War, by Dan Asfar and Edrick Thay includes a marvelous story from 1999. A family taking a candlelight tour of the fort at night was greeted by a Union officer standing in a window of the Officer’s Quarters. The man looked at them, doffed his cap in acknowledgement and vanished. After seeking out the guide, the family learned that they were not the first to see the officer, nor were they the only members of that particular tour group to see him.
Not all of the spirits roaming the fort are martial in nature, staff and visitors have reported the sound of a baby crying in the southwest tunnel. There’s speculation that the baby’s spirit may remain from the time when, while abandoned, the fort was home to a homeless family. The family is said to have had a baby that died. It seems that both military and civilian life continue at Fort Clinch.
- Asfar, Dan and Edrick Thay. Ghosts Stories of the Civil War. Auburn, WA: Ghost House Books, 2003.
- Carter-de Vries, Maggie. Ghosts of Amelia & Other Tales. Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2008.
- Fort Clinch. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 11 August 2010.
- Fort Clinch State Park. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 11 August 2010.
- Moore, Joyce Elson. Haunt Hunter’s Guide to Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1998.
- Powell, Jack. Haunting Sunshine: Ghostly Tales from Florida’s Shadows. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 2001.