A sign at the entrance to Fort Clinch asks you to imagine stepping back into the year 1864, when the Civil War is raging, and encountering Union soldiers on duty there. “Ask them questions,” it says.
I encountered a sergeant in the regiment of the 1st New York Engineers, portrayed by Frank Ofeldt, a park ranger and historian.
“Does this fort have a reputation for being haunted?” I asked him. If he thought it was a weird question, he didn’t let it show.
“No, there have never been any reports of any hauntings here,” he said, using my question as a way to educate me about an important historical fact about the massive brick fort on the northern end of Amelia Island overlooking Cumberland Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.
While the fort was built for war, no deaths have ever taken place here, he said. During the Civil War, when the fort was mostly controlled by the Union, “men who were sick were treated at the post army hospital in Fernandina Town. If they died, they embalmed their bodies and shipped them home.”
The fort, constructed between 1847 and 1867, never saw a battle. But as a state park it is a beautiful place to visit, with great views from the parapet of an encompassing view of the ocean and the sound, which is the entrance to the St. Mary’s River. Below is a slice of white-sand beach, and across the sound sits the southern end of Cumberland Island.
The temperature registered 100 degrees the day I visited in late summer. But even then a delightful breeze blew across Cumberland sound, offering some cool relief. I could imagine how it would feel on a sunny fall day.
The parapet is lined with cannons facing the sound, and while strolling up and down, taking in the water view, you can imagine the scene didn’t look that different in the past, except for the soldiers. An exhibit in the visitor’s center features an informative historic overview that includes photos.
The U.S. government purchased the fort’s land at the Florida-Georgia border in 1842 to protect the port city of Fernandina and area shipping. After construction began five years later it proceeded slowly, and the fort was only partially completed when the Civil War began. The Confederate militia utilized it in 1861 but withdrew in 1862 when Union forces advanced along South Carolina and Georgia coastal islands. The Union army quickly took control and soldiers stationed there completed the fort.
It was deactivated in 1867, and then activated again during the Spanish American War. The state of Florida bought it in 1935, and U.S. Armed Forces occupied it again during World War II to protect the coast.
No battle ever took place in Fort Clinch, so there would be no reason for any ghosts to haunt it. But particularly for history buffs, it’s worth a visit. Especially in the fall.
For more information, visit floridastateparks.org/fortclinch