Welcome to Part II of this somewhat open-ended series. In Part I, we introduced you to the history of Castillo de san Marcos in Saint Augustine, Florida. This well-preserved Spanish fort, itegun in the late 17th Century, is a rare sight in the Continental United States.
The fort had several distinct periods of occupation, by Spanish, English, and American (including Confederate) troops. It became a key component of US defense in part due to the brilliance of a young engineering officer, then-2nd Lieutenant Henry W. Halleck, who gave a series of influential lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston in 1846, where he argued the fortification’s superiority over the naval attack, using many in-depth examples. Despite his low rank, Halleck had high patrons and his views revitalized fortifications in the inter-war period. (If you recognize the name, it’s because he served uncomfortably in several high commands in the Civil War before finding his true calling as Grant’s Chief of Staff).
So let’s continue our photograph tour of this fascinating site!
There will be two photographs here to warm up, then the bulk of this photo-rich post is after the jump. (Notes and References are found there as well).
Originally, the many rooms or casements of the Castillo — there are 29, counting one that was later bored into the earth and stone fill of the northeast bastion as a powder magazine — had straight walls and high, flat ceilings underneath the floor of the upper gun deck. The problem with this was the guns were limited in weight, unless they were positioned right above a load-bearing wall. Larger shipboard and fortress guns could weigh many tons. So, when the Spanish still held the fort, between the sieges of 1702 and 1740, they vaulted these ceilings. The arches gave the floors above more support for heavy guns, not to mention increasing the protection of the contents of the casements — whether those contents were soldiers, displaced citizens of St. Augustine, or supplies.
Yes, PFC, in those days soldiers slept in an open bay. This wasn’t the cultural trauma it is for today’s basic trainees — lots of people did that at home, too, especially in the lower classes whence enlisted soldiers came.
In combat, these casements might also house cannon and the window become a firing port — but the primary sting of Castillo San Marcos was always on its upper deck.
There are some fascinating period graffiti on the walls. They are protected, now, by plexiglas which means that they’re hard to photograph, but we’ve tried to enhance these to the point of legibility. Best guess at this time is that this ship was drawn by a Spaniard, representing the Royal Navy ships that occasionally exchanged cannon fire with the fort. Several of these ship drawings have been found. The ship is traveling from right to left, with its high counter on the right and the prow, nearly faded out, on the left. The small dots are the guns. Some time after 1821, American soldiers added a huge American flag; it and the masts and sails are not evident in this photo.
Archaeologists have fun with these 18th and 19th Century equivalent of caveman paintings!
The curators point out that the “checkerboard” look of the graffiti suggests the ships were British. British ships around the turn of the 19th century were painted with alternate white and dark stripes, with the white stripe running along the gun ports. Opening the gun ports and running the guns out was often threat enough to get a smaller ship to strike her colors (surrender). To an equally sized or larger ship, it was an invitation to fight.
More after the jump.
Here’s a picture of the whole “grafitti wall.” (Complete, unfortunately, with ghostly reflections). The ship we just saw in detail is in the lower left, and another one is in the upper right.
Under the mercantilist theory of economics and politics current at the time of the Enlightenment, four major European maritime powers (England, Spain, France and the Netherlands) played a power game for control of colonies, sea lanes, shipping and cargoes. The colonies provided both materials and markets to the home country. Alliances formed and broke up; in the end, England dominated the seas.
Here’s another graffiti ship — we promise, the last for a while. Is that the prow on the right? The question is, do the crosses on the masts represent the spars that hold the sails of a classic square-rigger? Or are they the crosses of the Christian kings of Spain? The experts think, they’re the rigging.
Forts were vital to the protection of ports, not only from hostile navies — communications being what they were, a garrison’s first alert that peace was over was a hostile fleet showing up offshore — but from pirates and privateers. While having a superior navy let you take the war to the enemy, no navy was big enough to defend everywhere. That fell to shore defenses, which were, in most cases, sufficient.
The garrison soldier’s life was remarkably similar for a fortress defender at any time during the operational history of the fort, as this display from the Parks Service makes clear:
Actually, we would postulate that what permeated the soldier’s life, during any of those periods, was boredom and stultifying routine. He needed to be there to have, to make a small pun, a fort in being; but the deterrent effect of the garrison wasn’t good for the garrison. Leaders, particularly NCO leaders, would have done all they could to keep the men busy. Fort maintenance and beautification duties would have been one method used here, “mindless details” or “fatigues” as soldiers always have known them. And training, which in the period from the 17th to the early 20th Centuries would have been predominantly rote drills, would have occupied some time. Good leadership made the difference between miserable, mutinous troops and happily grumbling ones — same as today.
Of course, a mutineer or deserter had few options, at remote San Marcos. On one side was the wet desert of the Atlantic, on the other, pestilential swamps occupied by angry Indians. Whether the garrison soldier was from Castile, York, or Maryland, he was far from home. His most serious threat was disease and the tropical weather.
The Spanish, in fact, had a better grip on medical conditions in the area than the Anglos who followed them here, but that’s another story.
We have mentioned before the construction of the fort from stone named coquina for the little shells that make up its structure. Here’s another hunk of the stuff…
The coquina was used because of convenience — it was there. (Halleck would later observe that it cost a great deal more to construct fortifications in the South than in the North, due to the paucity of materials and skilled labor and the need to ship in both — something the Spanish also experienced). But it turned out to be a fortunate choice, being a nearly perfect material for resisting 18th Century cannon fire.
Apart from the windows/firing ports, the only breach in the hard coquina walls was the sally port. It was sealed with doors: a pair of wide, massive doors through which formations, horseman or wagons could pass, and a smaller inset door for single-file personnel. The doors were removed in the 1950s to protect them from the elements, and are displayed indoors.
This photograph shows the doors at some time during the 1870s.
And this one shows them today. They’re clearly the same doors as the 1870s doors, but nobody seems to know quite how far back they go.
Every meth head in Florida would like to get his grubby mitts on the next artifact — a bronze model of the Castillo. We’re hazy on its age, provenance, and raison d’être, but it sure does look cool. You’re looking south, with seawards left, landwards right:
The model is a remarkable example of the monument caster’s work, whatever it was made for. It also makes it clear how the entry through the demilune to the sally port worked, in case you didn’t quite get that in the last post:
While there are some nice displays about the anonymous, nameless soldiers of at least four nations (USA, England, Spain, CSA) who garrisoned this place, they left relatively little written information behind (many of them were doubtless illiterate).
But the Great Men of the period did leave a written legacy, and some of them have plaques here and there around the fort. Pedro Menéndez de Aviles was the Captain General of the Fleet in the Indies. Before he could start to set up the Spanish New World colonies, he had to beat their first claimants — the French. As was normal in those days, he went to sea as a midshipman when still a boy of 14. If your family name is Menendez, you just might be descended from this grandee.
If Menéndez was an example of the leadership Spanish blood can produce, O’Donovan was an example of how Spain found friends where she might. Juan O’Donovan, as the Spanish knew him, was an officer in the Hibernia Regiment, a sort of foreign legion formed of men from Britain’s nearest, and most restive, colony. He ran off with the governor’s daughter — a guy with a name like Vicente Manuel de Zéspedes Céspedes y Velasco probably didn’t want to wedge some random Irishman into the family bloodline, so he refused his daughter Dominga’s hand. Running off with the boss’s baby girl did not do O’Donovan’s career any good, and he wound up shipped out to a hardship post (Havana) while Dominga sat at home.
Of course, Governor de Zéspedes was a Spaniard as much as a doting father, and even he couldn’t stand in the way of his daughter’s true love forever. After a decent interval, he let his son-in-law come home to St. Augustine.
And so, if your name is O’Donovan, you might be descended from Spanish grandees, too!
Of course, it wasn’t all love and heartbreak on the Florida coast. The Castillo was here as a deterrent, but twice during its Spanish tenancy, deterrence failed and it had to defend. Today, the cannon on display in the courtyard are curiosities for tourists.
The little field piece is cute; easily maneuvered by its crew, it’s meant for close-in land fighting and has very little utility in a ship-versus-fort boxing match. It works the same way as the larger cannon used to defend the fort, but is a great deal smaller.
In 1702, most of the casualties in the fort — three of the four Spaniards killed — were caused by the failure of the breech of this cannon. In recent times, the shattered piece was recovered from the sedimentary bottom of the moat. It is an 18-pounder made of cast iron. The barrel weighed about a ton and a half.
(To our great amusement, the “rustic wood” stand that supports the barrel is all-composite. One of the facts of life in Florida is that it’s prime termite habitat).
This picture of the breach end of the blown gun shows the fracture surfaces.
In its centuries of existence, the fort did its job, mostly, just by being there. But when deterrence failed, men had to man the guns — and take the risks that came with them.
- Halleck’s lectures were later collected and printed as a book, now ages out of copyright and available as an e-book from Archive.org, or as a free Kindle e-book. Of the fort, he wrote:
The works projected for the defence of St. Augustine, Key West, Tortugas, and Pensacola will carry some eight or nine hundred guns. Those at St. Augustine and Pensacola are essentially completed, but those at Key West and Tortugas are barely begun.
Most of the forts he mentions in this paragraph were completed — Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West not until after the Civil War — and most, except Fort McRee, one of the four Pensacola works, survive today. All have some historic value, but of these none has the Spanish history of Castillo de San Marcos.
Halleck, Henry Wager. Elements OF Military Art and Science: Or, Course of Instruction in Strategy, Fortification, Tactics of Battles, &c. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1846; 3/e, 1862. (Kindle edition)
Halleck, Henry Wager (2011-03-24). Elements of Military Art and Science Or, Course Of Instruction In Strategy, Fortification, Tactics Of Battles, &C.; Embracing The Duties Of Staff, Infantry, … Notes On The Mexican And Crimean Wars. (Kindle Locations 1-4). . Kindle Edition.
National Park Service. Various interpretive plaques and installations at Castillo de San Marcos.