Thursday, July 24, 2014

Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, Florida

I traveled with my father to visit my sister in rural St. Johns County, Florida over a long weekend. The trip was mostly to visit with her and her kids but we also planned a foray to nearby Castillo de San Marcos (St. Mark's Castle) National Monument in St. Augustine because my nephew Connor had missed an opportunity to go inside the fort on a field trip a few months ago due to federal budget sequestration.

Castillo de San Marcos, a Spanish fort from the 17th century, in St. Augustine, Florida.

St. Augustine is usually reported as the oldest city in the United States. It was founded by the Spanish as an outpost and strategic point for resupply in the New World in 1564. I really enjoy the old historical sites related to the colonial period of the (future) United States, and St. Augustine is the oldest and so is one of my favorites. It's also the only significant location of Spanish colonialism that I have visited so it holds some extra interest for me as a history buff. If you want to be horrified, you can read about the conquistador that founded it Pedro MenĂ©ndez de AvilĂ©s and all the terrible things he did to the native tribes and the Huguenots from a nearby rival French outpost.

A nice view of the Intracoastal waterway with lovely palm trees. The imposing walls of the fortress can be plainly seen to scale by comparing to the people. When I first visited in 1988 a ranger pointed out scars in the walls from cannonballs but I can't pick out any in this photo. I forgot to look for them when I was there.

The city was first built in the 1500s, which is amazing, because at that time in Europe, fighting men still wore metal armor, bows and arrows were still used as military weapons, and jousting was still practiced, albeit more as a sport than for real value in wartime (gunpowder had existed for a couple of centuries at that time). We do not associate such things with the age of exploration. The stone masonry fortress we see today was actually not built until the 1600s and so reflects slightly later sensibilities in military history, featuring extremely thick walls meant to resist a cannonade. It had replaced previous wooden and earth structures of much less permanence and was situated to provide the defenses for the town of St. Augustine.

The landward face of the fortress, showing how the structure of the fort allowed a cross fire to be provided to almost any point along the walls of the fort. That was the purpose of the protruding portions of the fort called "bastions." A bastion is in the foreground.

A view of the sally port and drawbridge over the moat. This photo was taken from a fortified redoubt that protected the approach to the gate from direct cannon fire.

The hardship endured by those early Spanish soldiers and settlers would defy all reason by today's standards. At the time, Florida was a virtually untracked wilderness threaded through with malaria-infested swamps filled with alligators and poisonous snakes. The dense understory of the forest was almost impenetrable with the sharp-leaved saw palmetto crowding the trunks of the trees.

Saw palmetto underbrush.

Also there was no air conditioning, although on most days there was probably a fresh sea breeze along the ramparts of the fort, which has a nice view through an inlet to the open Atlantic. Maybe it was enough to drive off the mosquitoes. Still, it must have been a sweaty, buggy, miserable place to be stationed compared to arid Spain. On the other hand, the native tribes seemed to do fine, so perhaps that is a matter of European perception.

Spartan living quarters inside the fort. These vaulted stone ceilings were not initially present but were added in the 1700s to strengthen the fort against bombardment.

The structure of the fort is fairly impressive and must it have been daunting to contemplate an assault. There is a moat and the drawbridge was guarded by a heavily fortified redoubt so that no direct assault could have been launched against the gate without first seizing it. The geometrical layout of the fort is pleasing to the the eye and served the practical function of providing clear fields of fire for cannon and muskets to enfilade an assault from any direction. Though made of a grim gray stone, I found the symmetry of the fortress beautiful in the afternoon under blue skies with a scattering of palm trees around. It's one of my favorite historical sites to visit. I'll probably be back again and if I lived nearby I would be a regular visitor.

Photo dump.
A view of the redoubt that guarded the gate of the fort.
The drawbridge on the highway to Anastasia Island, a barrier island that shelters St. Augustine from the open Atlantic. A replica square-rigged sailing ship is moored next to the bridge.
Somehow I grabbed a photo of the interior of the fort that does not reflect the many visitors that were actually present. We went on a weekday so I assume it is considerably worse on the weekend.



A hotshot furnace on the lower works. These were used to heat up cannonballs until they were literally red hot. They could then be fired into the wooden ships of the era to set them aflame.

A view out through the gate showing the thick walls, the inner gate, the drawbridge, and the redoubt mini-fort that guarded the approach to the gate.
The parapets are surprisingly low. I assume this was to facilitate the firing of guns [edit: the low parapet helped reduce fragments generated from return fire from attackers - a high wall would just shatter into shards. Source: Wikipedia]. This view is from the most seaward bastion. The open Atlantic is visible just past the palm tree on the right. I have previously ridden a motorboat across that stretch of water. Apparently in the 1500s the barrier islands were smaller so that the Atlantic was actually a bit closer.


A slightly better view over the lower works out to the Atlantic Ocean.

A massive bronze siege mortar.
A view inside the seaward turret. I think in the old days there would have been a wooden floor up there to allow observation from the windows.
Not-related to the fort but this is the St. Augustine Visitor Information Center which has a lovely approach on the landward side and Spanish architecture (not period I'm sure). I somehow got a photo with no person in it despite there being thousands of visitors in St. Augustine at the time.


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