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.


The Hot Shot Oven

Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos. Photo by the author via Flickr

The oven is that small structure with the chimney you see in the distance. I always wondered why it was located outside the fort’s walls. The article below explains that. Note the semi-circular structures in the grass to the left side of the photo. Those were gun emplacements also built by the U.S. Army after Florida became part of the United States.

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.

The substantial little furnace for heating cannon balls on the seaward side of Fort Marion (Castillo De San Marcus) has been an object of interest since its erection in 1843. These auxiliaries of the artillery have been common to forts erected on the seacoast since revolutionary times, and the shot heated in these ovens were very effective against wooden ships.

The hot shot furnaces were all about the same size and held 60 or more shot, according to the caliber. The shot being placed in the furnace cold, it required one hour and fifteen minutes to heat them to a red heat, but once the furnace was hot, a 24-pounder shot could be brought to red heat in 25 minutes; the 32 and 42-pounders requiring a few minutes longer. An unusual circumstance concerning the heating was that the balls expanded under the heat but did not
return to their normal size after cooling.

Inside the shot oven.

A look into the shot oven at the Castillo. From the author’s collection at Flickr.

Once the balls were cherry-red or white hot, they were taken from the furnace with iron forks, scraped carefully with rasp to remove scale, and carried in ladles to the cannon. The ladles were formed of an iron ring, the interior of which was beveled to fit the ball, with two wooden-handled arms inserted.

Several other implements were attached to the furnace also; pokers for stirring the fire, rasps, tongs with circular jaws for taking up shot, iron rake to remove cinders from ash pit, tub for cooling implements, rammer with head covered by a circular plate of sheet iron of larger diameter than the ball to remove clay from bore when clay wads are used, and a bucket. Many of the implements were furnished in twos so that one set could be cooling in the tub while the others were in use. When the battery was in action it took three men to serve the furnace, and handle the tools.

In siege batteries, or in other situations where there were no furnaces available, a grate was used for heating shot. In a painting of the Battle of Niagara, during the War of 1812, an American woman is shown heating shot on a grating of this sort, while another rushes the cherry-red balls to waiting gunners. In loading the projectile, gunners elevated the cannon’s muzzle sufficiently to allow the ball to roll in, and rammed the cartridge or powder bag home. After the powder was seated, a dry hay wad was rammed against it, then a wet hay or clay wad. Next the powder bag was pricked open and primed through the vent, and a wet sponge passed through the gun. Finally, the hot shot was rolled in packed with another wet hay or clay wad, the match was applied to the touch- hole, and the meteoric projectile bounded across the billow.

The cartridges (powder charge minus shot) for hot shot were little different than those used for ordinary projectiles, being made of cannon cartridge-paper, or parchment well pasted to prevent the powder from sifting out.  Sometimes two bags were used, one within the other. When clay wads were used they were cylindrical in form, about one caliber long, and were well moistened.  Wet hay wads were preferable, however, and these were soaked in water for about 15 minutes then allowed to drip.

When the wet hay was used, steam was often seen to issue from the touch- hole or vent as soon as the ball was rammed home, but as this was the effect of the heat of the ball against the water contained in the wad no danger resulted from it. It is said that the ball could cool in the gun without the charge taking fire, but shots were usually fired as quickly as possible to prevent the steam dampening and injuring the powder.

It has been argued by some that the cannon ball would cool in its passage through the air towards its objective, but the contrary is true; the temperature of the ball was increased by friction with the air. According to the Ordnance Manual of 1861, a red-hot shot retained sufficient heat to set fire to wood after having struck the water several times!

The penetrations of cold and hot shot into wood were equal under the same circumstances. Charges for hot shot were reduced, however, to one quarter or one-sixth the weight of the shot in order that the ball might remain in the wood and not penetrate too deeply as it was found that the fire was communicated more rapidly and certainly to the wood when the ball did not penetrate more than 10 or 12 inches. At a greater depth the shot would be less effective, as the  communication with the external air was not sufficient for combustion.

With the invention of the ironclad Merrimac and Monitor during the later days of the War between the States the days of wooden battleships were over, and the hot shot furnace became obsolete also. During its heyday, however, the arrival of some of the furnace’s cookery rolling along pitch-oozing decks littered with fragments of power bags, very likely terrified the seamen. Often the ship would go up in flames from ignited rigging, or blow up from a shot to the magazine. Somewhat slower, but just as effective, were shots placed “‘twixt wind and water’,” which smouldered [sic] away in the oaken sides until quenching the blaze was impossible.

Although cold and useless today, the hot shot furnace at Fort Marion still stands on a humble monument to the ingenuity of artillerists who have established the Coast Artillery branch of the Army.

Honor the Dead – Fight for the Living

Today is the first day of Memorial Day weekend – traditionally celebrated as the beginning of summer. On Monday, at cemeteries across this country, people will gather to honor those military heroes who gave their life in service to our country.

St. Augustine National Cemetery

St. Augustine National Cemetery

This year, however, will be different. We will also be mourning American veterans who have died because of negligence and greed on the part of the government employees hired to serve them. At a growing number of Veterans Administration hospitals, veterans requiring medical care have been intentionally ignored – removed from appointment waiting lists. Why? To protect raises and bonuses for administrative employees at those hospitals. Each week the list of hospitals involved in this evil practice grows. We know of at least 40 people who have died while waiting for appointments.

While the casualty rate for veterans grows, what is being done to resolve this problem? Nothing. Last night the Senate blocked a bill that would have made VA managers accountable for their actions. The bill was a small first step towards fixing a monstrous problem and even it was too much to ask for our veterans. It’s an election year, so we know where our politicians’ priorities are.

The politicians may be trying to wait this scandal out. It’s up to the rest of us to make sure that doesn’t happen. Demand action now! Make your voice heard on Facebook, Twitter and their web sites. Spend a few minutes this Memorial Day showing America’s veterans – those serving now and those who have served – that you understand the debt this country owes them. You might just save a life in the process.


Armed Forces Day

The third Saturday in May is Armed Forces Day – a day set aside to recognize the men and women serving our country in all branches of the service. They deserve a lot more than a day with their name on it!

U.S. Strategi Command honor guard

U.S. Strategic Command honor guard, Offutt AFB, Nebraska.

Offutt was my first permanent duty assignment. Back then it was the Strategic Air Command and I worked on one of the computer systems supporting the headquarters.