Old St. Augustine: A Military Outpost

Misty Morning on the Parade Ground at Saint Francis Barracks

The following article was compiled by workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Florida in 1940. You’ll find a copy of the actual manuscript at Florida Memory.

From its beginning in 1565 until the present day, St. Augustine has been a military outpost of many nations. Founded by Don Pedro Menendez as a base of operations for colonization, and defense against other nations striving to gain a foothold in Florida, it long remained an important defense of the far flung Spanish Empire. The town continued to have military significance during the British occupation when troops were trained for the offensive against Savannah and Charleston. During the Second Spanish occupation, St. Augustine continued to be an armed camp, and during the succeeding Seminole Wars, Civil War, and Spanish-American War military garrisons were stationed at Fort Marion. Today, in a rebuilt Franciscan monastery, St. Augustine shelters the arsenal of the Florida National Guard.

St. Augustine reflects this military heritage not only in written and legendary history, but also in its architecture. The first city planners were military engineers, and the town was constructed according to a military plan of defense. Enclosed for generations behind palisades, moats, and redoubts, all available space was utilized. Square, compact little houses shoulder each other between narrow streets, while lanes, large enough to permit the movement of cannon only, intersect the city.

San Marco Avenue and Fort Marion Circle recall the days when the gray ramparts of Castillo de San Marcos teamed with soldiers. Artillery Lane and St. Francis Street commemorate the period when field artillery rolled form St. Francis Barracks down small lanes to the waterside. Treasury Street marks the site where the King’s strongbox held the pay of the King’s men. Even Aviles Street is named in honor of the great soldier, Mendez de Aviles. In the center of the town is the Plaza de la Constitucian, historic parade ground for the military defenders of three nations, and along St. George Street is the old encampment of the Spanish Dragoons.

There are few historic sites in St. Augustine which do not reflect in some way the long story of military occupation. Still guarding the entrance to the city is the symmetrically shaped, four-bastioned structure of Fort Marion which was constructed in the fashion developed by Vauban, the great French military engineer. Beautifully arched casements and well designed cornices testify to the good taste and creative imagination of the Spanish builders. To the south, and guarding the “back door” of St. Augustine, is the small Fort Matanzas, designed and constructed by Dan Antonio de Arredondo in 1737. The massive walls of Fort Marion on two occasions determined the fate of Spain in Florida. In 1702 Governor James Moore of South Carolina unsuccessfully assaulted Fort Marion (Called by the Spaniards Castillo de San Marcos); in 1740 General James Oglethorpe of Georgia bombarded St. Augustine for 27 days and failed. The English used different tactics twenty-three years later when, after the capture of Havana, they exchanged it with Spain for Florida.

Although the Britons at last task over the town, the newcomers made no great changes in the Spanish plan of the houses beyond bringing in their steep gable roofs and dropping the living room from the second story to the ground floor. Where the Spanish had used stone urns filled with coals to heat their rooms, the English, accustomed to chimneys and fire-places, added these cheerful features. Old structures were razed but the weathered stone of the thick conquina walls was used in the new homes and the English builders retained the old Spanish style. Enormous barracks were built, large enough to house five regiments, and the unforeseen American Revolution was seen to create a use for these huge structures.

When the Spanish returned they made little change in the Ancient City, and later when the Americans took possession, they, too, seemed satisfied with the small houses they found. Hence, the strong strain of Spanish individually has persisted through generations of change to the present day, and each new possessor of the little town has in turn been possessed by it.

The longer the Americans remained, the stronger waxed the influence of the old town. In the 1880’s came a man whose name was equalled only by his imagination, and the spell of the place awakened in him a desire to recreate the glory of Spain in this ancient capital. So Henry M. Flagler erected great hotels, red spires, decorative balconies, elaborate cornices, and wrought iron gates – gay, yet withal characteristic of Spain, and early St. Augustine.

Legends and Tales

Legends and Tales 1

It’s the little stories – the personal stories – that bring history to life. Karen Harvey’s Legends and Tales is the first of two books that does it beautifully. This edition includes stories about Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Mocassin Branch,  baseball and the Civil Rights Movement in St. Augustine from the people who were there when it happened.

Legends and Tales is available in paperback at Amazon for $17.99.

Heart and Soul of Florida: Sacred Sites and Historic Architecture

Heart and Soul of Florida coverHeart and Soul of Florida, written by Elsbeth Gordon, looks at Florida’s “structures” and puts them into their historical context. It’s a look at Florida’s history through its buildings. These range from the pre-European Mount Royal to current religious and civic buildings – all beautifully represented in a number of photographs and illustrations. From the book’s description:

Gordon inspires the general and professional public to see Florida’s built environment as a rich continuum of history and identity that shaped and continues to impact Florida’s culture—from the mundane to the transcendent. These humanizing places, many of which endure permanently in the landscape, represent an “architecture of the soul.”

Elsbeth Gordon is a research associate at the Historic St. Augustine Research Institute and serves on the board of directors for the St. Augustine Archaeological Association. She is also the author of Florida’s Colonial Architectural Heritage.