Day 049 – St. Augustine, FL Part 2 – Castillo de San Marcos

I decided to break up Day 049 into two parts because there was a lot to see.

After being completely engrossed in the Civil Rights exhibit for much longer that I expected I made my way over to the Castillo de San Marcos only a few blocks away. The Spanish were tired of having their wooden forts burned down and decided to build a massive siege fort starting in 1672, making it the oldest in the US after it’s completion 23 years later. It’s called a siege fort because the idea was to keep it stocked full of enough food and ammunition to survive until reinforcements could come from Cuba. It turned out to be an incredibly resilient fort because it was constructed of coquina a type of stone made of compressed sand and shells – think of really, really heavy rice crispy treats that you can’t eat, but will devour any canon ball shot at them. The base of the exterior walls are 23 feet thick and the top are 9 feet thick and the most powerful canon only sank a canon ball 3 feet deep. Because of the construction and the ability to store massive amounts of provisions the fort never fell into enemy hands through warfare only treaty or receipt.

On 1740 an attack on the fort was lead by General Oglethorpe, who so impressed me with his Enlightenment guided development of Savannah, GA that I wrote about on day . After 27 days of firing canon balls into the fort he must have been pretty pissed off that nothing much happened. Low on food and ammo he had to go back to Savannah.

Twenty three years later the fort finally fell to the British by way of the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War as well as the rest of Spanish Florida. The British made some upgrades and renamed it Fort St. Mark. It was used as a prison during the War of Independence for Americans unlucky enough to fall into British hands. The Spanish got the fort back in the 1783 Treaty of Paris and made even more improvements since the young US was trying to pry Florida out of their hands. It took only 38 years for the US to gain control of Florida and of course the fort.

The Americans made their own changes and improvements. One of the most interest to me was the filling in of the moat and building a canon ball warmer called a hotshot furnace. I bet you can guess where this is going…since the ships at the time were made of wood, by hitting them with hotshots they would burst into flame (or at least smolder into flame). I thought the term hotshot – as in a skilled person – came from the guys loading hot cannon balls into canons filled with gunpowder – their skill coming from the fact they didn’t blow themselves up in the process. It looks like the modern term hotshot comes from the 1920s, but I’m guessing the guys that dealt with hotshot thought highly of themselves or were unlucky and being punished.

During the civil war the fort changed hands from the Union Army to the Confederate Army when Florida succeeded. Apparently the Union troops left taking most of the weapons with them and left one guy behind as a care taker. The caretaker refused to leave unless the Confederate Army gave him a receipt for the fort. They did and he went on his way with an interesting story to tell.

The Union eventually took the fort back in 1862, the Confederate army having left before the they arrived so St. Augustine wouldn’t be destroyed. I wonder if Sherman’s march to the sea had any influence on their decision? For the rest of the fort’s history it served as a prison during the Indian Wars and Spanish-American war until being given to the National Parks Department in 1933. There is graffiti etched into the walls by many of it’s occupants.

I also got to see them do a canon firing based on how the Spanish did it originally. I thought it would be a frantic thing, but in fact it was very slow and methodical. There is something like 74 steps to complete for firing the canon, with one shot leaving about every 15 minutes. The reason was both practical and psychological. Since they had a limited amount of gun powder and canon balls when under siege they had to be conservative. Since they had a fixed position on the fort they knew exactly how to set-up their canons to blast any attacker within range. Dressed in bright uniforms and slowly going through their firing procedure it must have been very intimating to an enemy that had mobile canons in the sand or on bobbing ships constantly in need of re-calculating how to fire on an in destructible fort. They knew that once the Spanish were done setting up and the command to fire occurred a canon ball was going to hit close to or exactly on their position every 15 minutes.

By time I got done with viewing the fort the Old Florida Museum was closed so I walked around downtown.  St. George Street is pedestrian only and makes for a nice walk through an assortment of restaurants and the usual tourist shops looking to suck money out of ones wallet. I found a nice court yard bar to get food and beer while listening to a guitar duo cover band while talking to a fellow New Yorker who retired to the area a while back.