Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Castillo

On this Father’s Day I was thinking of all the good times we had together as a family on vacations and day trips around Florida’s First Coast. One of Dad’s favorite places to visit was St. Augustine. While there we never missed a chance to visit the Castillo de San Marcos. My Dad and I shared a love for this old place. Thanks to Wikipedia.org for the pictures and some historical facts.

Old place it was, the Castillo is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States second only to the Castillo San Felipe del Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the new world. The fort is located on the sandy west shore of Matanzas Bay in the city of St. Augustine, Florida. From where it sits, the fort’s cannonade could easily protect the entire bay between the south end of Ponte Vedra across the entire Intercoastal Waterway to the northern end of St. Augustine. From the battlements there is an incredible view of the oldest continuously habituated city in the United States. Construction began in 1672, 107 years after the city's founding by Spanish Admiral and conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, when Florida was part of the Spanish Empire.

The fort has an interesting history both good and bad; After Britain gained control of Florida in 1763 pursuant to the Treaty of Paris, St. Augustine became the capital of British East Florida, and the fort was renamed Fort St. Mark until the Peace of Paris (1783) when Florida was transferred back to Spain. In 1819 Spain signed the Adams–Onís Treaty which ceded Florida to the United States in 1821 and the fort became a United States Army base which was renamed Fort Marion, in honor of American Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. In 1942 the original name, Castillo de San Marcos, was restored by an Act of Congress. The fort was declared a National Monument in 1924 and after 251 years of continuous military possession, the fort was deactivated in 1933 and the 20 and 1/2 acre site was turned over to the United States National Park Service.

Castillo de San Marcos was twice besieged both times unsuccessfully: first by English colonial forces led by Carolina Colony Governor James Moore in 1702, and then by Georgia colonial Governor James Oglethorpe in 1740. However, the fort did not always protect the city of St Augustine, whose residents inhabited the fort when the city was burned. Possession of the fort has changed six times, all peaceful, amongst four different governments: the Spanish Empire, the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Confederate States of America and the United States of America (Spain and the United States having possession two times each). All four flags used to be flown at the fort.

Apache Prisoners at Ft Marion. The fort’s history also has a dark side; Under United States control the fort was used as a military prison to incarcerate members of various Native American tribes starting with the Seminole - including the famous war chief Osceola during the Second Seminole War. Later members of various western tribes including Geronimo's band of Chiricahua Apache. Howling Wolf, Southern Cheyenne, was also imprisoned at Fort Marion. When I was growing up, one could take a self guided tour of the fort. One of the featured stops on the tour was the entrance to the prison cell that was said to be occupied by Osceola. If you were interested and not afraid of the dark, you could enter the cell itself. Once inside I found a very dark and hot place with only a small slit in the wall looking out across Matanzas Bay. The ceiling of the cell was only about 5 ½ feet tall. It is hard to imagine after living a life free and wild in the west, suffering confinement in this place.

Howling Wolf at Ft Marion. There is a somewhat humorous story about the fort’s history in the Civil war; after Florida seceded from the United States in the opening months of the American Civil War. Union troops withdrew from the fort, leaving only one man behind as caretaker. In January 1861, Confederate troops marched on the fort. The Union soldier manning the fort refused to surrender it unless he was given a receipt for it from the Confederacy. He was given the receipt and the fort was taken by the Confederacy without a shot. Most of the artillery in the fort was sent to other forts, leaving only five cannons in the water battery to defend the fort. The fort along with the rest of the city of St Augustine was re-occupied by Union troops after acting mayor Cristobal Bravo officially surrendered the city to Union Navy fleet commander C.R.P Rodgers on March 11, 1862, when the USS Wabash entered the bay, finding the city evacuated by Confederate troops. The city leaders were willing to surrender in order to preserve the town, and the city and the fort were retaken without firing a shot.

Most of the time when my family visited the fort, we crossed over a fully flooded moat. We used to imagine that it was filled with alligators. I can still see my Dad, standing on the ramparts in his sunglasses and hat, looking over the bay on a hot summer afternoon. The trip from home to St Augustine would take us a little over an hour. Dad would always remind us that when he was a kid, it took all day. Oh MY!

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