St. Augustine, FL
The Castello De San Marcos is the oldest and one of the strongest fortifications ever built in what is now the United States. It may also be the most embattled fortress in the United States not directly tied to the American Revolution or American Civil War. Historically it is the pride and joy of both St. Augustine, America’s oldest city, and the State of Florida. Some military historians believe that it is one of the world’s most perfectly built colonial forts, a testament born out by the fact that it was never successfully overcome through strength of arms. At the beginning of the 20th century, the obsolete fort was turned over from the United States Army to the National Park Service. Although it competes with Florida’s innumerable other tourist attractions, San Marcos remains the state’s top historical draw.
73 years after Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, the Spanish founded the first permanent European settlement in the United States at St. Augustine, Florida. Several earlier attempts in the Pensacola and Jacksonville areas failed, and the English did not show up in Virginia or Massachusetts for decades. Shortly after its founding, the Spanish erected a wooden fort to protect the colony. This later marked the northernmost point of the Spanish Empire in the Americas.
During the next two centuries, Florida and St. Augustine became ground zero in the colonial wars between the Spanish, English and French, not to mention fleets of pirates who swarmed over the Spanish Main. St. Augustine was sacked numerous times, notably by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and by pirates in 1668. After the latter attack, the Spanish monarchy decided to build an enormous stone fort to protect the Florida colony.
Finished a few years later, the Castello de San Marco soon gained a reputation as one of the most formidable fortresses in the Americas. In 1702, San Marco withstood an English siege for almost two months. The English, who had arrived desirous of expanding their colonies in America southwards, instead turned back in disgrace on a long march to South Carolina after burning the town of St. Augustine in frustration. The fortress withstood a second English siege in 1739. It wasn’t until 1763 that England took control of St. Augustine following the Treaty of Paris, which awarded the Florida Colony to Great Britain.
Following the American War of Independence, Britain ceded Florida to Spain once again, who in turn ceded it to the United States in 1821. During the Seminole Wars, the fort entered a dark period when it was used as a prison for captive Native Americans. It was periodically used as prison for most of the 19th century. During the American Civil War, the fort changed hands twice without a shot being fired. The Castello de San Marco was decommissioned from military use in 1900.
When the Castello De San Marco was built, it was the largest and strongest colonial fortress in what later became the United States. It features a classic square layout with four large diamond-shaped bastions protecting the corners. One of the rare features of this fort is the construction material. The outer walls were built using coquina, a limestone-like rock made from small shells. This stone, unique to the region, is very strong but at the same time gave slightly, making the place virtually impervious to cannonballs which bounced right off.
As is typical of colonial forts, the interior buildings completely line the outer walls, enclosing a central open courtyard. Most of the building interiors were rebuilt and strengthened in the 18th century. It was these changes that allowed the fort to be used as a prison. The interior displays now include restored prison cells, as well as gunports, barracks and the like. There are also displays of weapons and artifacts from the fort’s history. The Castle is now surrounded by broad, well-manicured lawns on three sides and the Atlantic Ocean on the fourth. There is also a series of low, external walls which were designed to give defenders an advance position, but that would also serve to slow enemy advances. The main entrance is also guarded by a smaller, secondary bastion and causeway, now used for tourists.
The Castello De San Marco is located on Florida’s Atlantic Coast in St. Augustine, approximately 50 miles south of Jacksonville and 120 miles north of Orlando. It is open every day of the year (except December 25) from 8:45am-5:15pm. Admission is $6.00 for adults and free for children ages 15 and under. Web: www.nps.gov/casa (official website).
From the 16th to the 18th century, the American Colonies were a major battleground among the British, French, Spanish, Americans and Canadians. Many forts were built along the Eastern Seaboard and near the Great Lakes, some of which still exist. In addition to San Marco, some of the most important surviving forts are Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, and Fort Ticonderoga in Upstate New York. America’s greatest pre-Revolutionary fortress is West Point, which is now home to the United States Military Academy.