Location: St. Augustine, Florida
Webpage: National Park
General Description: The Castillo de San Marcos is located in the city of St. Augustine, the oldest European city in the continental United States. The history of the masonry fort began in 1513 with the exploration of Ponce de Leon who claimed all the Florida and Georgia coast for Spain. Initially Spain’s interest in the coast of Florida was for the protection of their treasure ships that rode north along the Gulf Stream on their way back to Spain every year. For a hundred years they were virtually in a constant state of war over the coast with England and France spawning the age of the pirates preying on the Spanish treasure and supply ships. The French established the first foothold when the built Fort Caroline on the St John’s River north of present day Jacksonville. In response, King Phillip II of Spain sent an expedition under the command of Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles to eliminate the French and establish their own settlement. After unsuccessfully attempting to board the French ships at Fort Caroline, Menendez sailed further south and established St. Augustine as their base. The French responded by sending their fleet, but they were blown south by a storm and failed. Realizing Fort Caroline would be lightly defended, Menendez marched the Spaniards north and captured the fort executing most of the inhabitants. Over the next 100 years there were a series of wooden forts built at different locations around St. Augustine. With the success of the English settlement at Charleston in 1670, just two days north by sea, the Spanish began construction of a masonry fort in 1672, completing it in 1695. The original fort was a star shaped fort with four sides and triangular bastions at each corner. The fort was built using Coquina, meaning small shell, consisting of limestone blocks cut by hand from the islands. This material was soft enough to absorb the impact of cannon shells without shattering and could be protected from the elements using a whitewash coating. Initially only the bastions and outer walls were built using coquina meaning cannons could only be placed at the corners. Soldiers did not live in the fort, rather they used the fort to protect their supplies, train, and house the citizens during a siege, which was the most common method to capture forts of this magnitude. During Queen Anne’s War, Carolina Governor James Moore led an expedition to capture St. Augustine in 1702. They captured St. Augustine and lay siege on the Castillo for 50 days, after which they withdrew when Spanish reinforcements arrived, burning the town of St. Augustine as they left. The town was rebuilt along with a short wall known as the Cubo and Rosario Lines and city gates making St. Augustine a walled city. Beginning in 1738, the interior of the fort was rebuilt replacing the wooden structures with coquina walls and vaulted ceilings. Cannons could now be placed all along the wall. During the short War of Jenkins Ear, General James Ogelthorpe led a fleet of 7 ships to capture St. Augustine in 1740. Once again they were able to occupy the town but after 27 days of bombardment they could not capture the fort and had to withdraw. To protect the southern entrance and prevent future blockades and sieges, Fort Mantanzas was constructed at the southern entrance to Mantanzas Bay. Following the Seven Years War, the British obtained possession of Spanish Florida in the 1763 Treaty of Paris in an exchange for Havanna and Manila. They renamed it to Fort St. Marks and converted the casements into barracks by installing wooden second floors. Although St. Augustine was threatened during the American Revolution by two aborted attempts, it was used mainly as a prison for noteworthy American patriots including three signers of the Declaration of Independence. At the end of the American Revolution, Florida was returned to Spain in the 1783 Treaty of Paris as part of the recompense for Spain’s assistance during the Revolution. However, due to increased pressure from the United States and other factors, Spain ceded Florida to the US in 1821 by signing the Adams-Onis Treaty. The Americans changed the name to Fort Marion converting most of the fort to prison cells, mostly to hold captured Indians from the Second Seminole War in 1837. They also filled in the dry moat and constructed a new seawall to hold larger cannons and constructed a hotshot furnace along the new water battery. When Florida seceded from the Union in January, 1861, the Confederates took control of Fort Marion from the one-man caretaker at the fort. When General Lee decided they could not defend all the ports and withdrew nearly all of the soldiers and cannon for other duties, the Union reoccupied the fort and held it until the end of the war, without any shots fired. Following the war the fort was again used as a prison for captured Indians from the west and 200 deserters during the Spanish-American War in 1898. In 1924 it was declared a National Monument and transferred to the National Park System in 1933 when it was renamed Castillo de San Macros National Monument.
1) The first impression of the fort is it’s immense size and condition. Although over 300 years old, the fort is in amazing shape with most of the structure still intact. The entrance to the fort is over a wooden drawbridge into the Ravelin, which is a unique structure for coastal forts that I have seen before. This masonry structure, along with the dry moat and glacis protected the only entrance into the fort. A very impressive structure.
2) There is no formal Visitor Center at the fort. The National Park Service has a small entrance building to collect the fees outside the fort and a small gift shop in the first room off the Sally Port as you enter the fort. They have a brochure that gives a self-guided tour of the fort with interpretive signs in each of the rooms. They also have a short movie in one of the storage rooms, but the movie was not about the history of the fort. Instead it gave demonstrations of how to fire the cannon and smooth-bore muskets. The most impressive piece of information about the fort were artist renditions of what each room would have looked like with the brilliant white wash and paint used as identified from archeological studies.
3) They have ranger talks in the main plaza throughout the day on a variety of subjects. We were fortunate to hear a talk by two rangers on the history of the fort and the lives of the soldiers in each time period.
4) They gave a good description of the use for each casement, which changed over time from storage under the Spanish to soldier barracks under the British to prisons under the Americans. In particular the use of the chapel over time was interesting. The most fascinating feature were clear panels in front of the walls where you could see the remains of pictures drawn by the soldiers and Indian prisoners. Many of the early drawings were of sailing ships, mostly British, where American soldiers had added US flags years later.
5) The view of the cannon and mortars placed on the top is worth seeing, but the most impressive feature on the top are the embrasures at the tip of each bastion. Three of these were used by sentries to keep watch from behind protected stone walls. The fourth was a bell tower that was used to signal an attack and to communicate with other towers both to the north and south along the coast.
6) Be sure to take a moment to visit the city gates and the reconstructed Cubo Line wall between the Castillo and city gates. To imagine that St. Augustine was at one time a walled city was impressive.