Barrancas National Cemetery is located within the boundaries of the U.S. Naval Air Station, eight miles southwest of downtown Pensacola, Fla. The Pensacola Naval Air Station is home to the U.S. Naval Air Training Command and encompasses almost 12,000 acres. It was established in 1914 on the site of the old U.S. Navy Yard at Pensacola. A small cemetery had been maintained here in conjunction with the Marine Hospital that was located near Fort Barrancas. In 1838, the cemetery was expanded and established as a naval cemetery. During the Civil War years, many casualties were interred in gravesites initially set aside for personnel on duty at the Navy Yard.
Following the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Florida seceded from the Union despite its entry only 16 years before. As it provided the best harbor along the Gulf of Mexico, possession of Pensacola Bay was a key mission for both the Union and Confederate forces. The Army guarded the entrance to Pensacola Bay with three fortifications: Fort McRae and Fort Barrancas on the land side, and Fort Pickens at the western tip of Santa Rosa Island. Army Lieutenant Adam J. Slemmer, commander of the 1st U.S. Artillery at Fort Barrancas, realized that if war proved inevitable and Southern forces attacked, his small force of 51 men could not possibly defend all four garrisons. On Jan. 10, 1861, the same day Florida seceded from the Union, Slemmer spiked the guns at Fort Barrancas, blew up ammunition at Fort McRae and concentrated all his troops at Fort Pickens, which he believed was the key to the defense of Pensacola Harbor. Two days later, Slemmer's men watched as Southern soldiers moved into the other forts across the channel. When, on Jan. 15, soldiers from Florida and Alabama demanded the surrender of Fort Pickens, Lieutenant Slemmer refused. Within days the two sides reached a truce in which the South agreed not to attack Fort Pickens and the North would not reinforce the fort.
By the time Lincoln took office in March, both Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., and Fort Pickens needed supplies. Lincoln had pledged to continue federal occupation of both forts. If he withdrew the garrisons it would mean he recognized the legitimacy of the Confederacy; if he supplied the forts he risked war. The Union eventually did send ships from Fort Monroe but, under the terms of the truce, they dared not land. For 10 weeks, the Union ships waited, while inside the fort Slemmer and his men prepared for the inevitable strike. After ten weeks without an attack, Slemmer and his men learned of the firing on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War.
On the mainland, the Navy Yard was surrendered intact to Confederate forces on April 12, 1861, but Fort Pickens remained under control of the Union forces throughout the Civil War. For the next year, Confederate and Union forces engaged in a number of skirmishes. In May 1862, Confederate forces abandoned the Navy yard, Fort Barrancas, and Fort McRae. The continuing presence of a strong federal force at Fort Pickens no doubt was a significant factor in the Confederate decision to abandon the Pensacola Bay area.
Many Union and Confederate dead were interred in the Barrancas cemetery. As the war continued, the remains of other casualties were brought here for burial. By agreement between the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of War, on Jan. 30, 1868, the cemetery was transferred to the War Department to become Barrancas National Cemetery.
In 1869, Gen. Lorenzo Thomas, inspector of national cemeteries, reported that about 1,310 burials had been made in the cemetery. In addition to the troops stationed at Forts Barrancas and Pickens, remains had been reinterred here from the surrounding area, including Santa Rosa Island and Apalachicola in Franklin County. This total included the remains of 673 unknown Union soldiers.
In 1944, 1950, 1986, and 1990 additional acreage was transferred from the Naval Air Station to expand the cemetery.