A Visit to Castillo de San Marcos in St Augustine

St Augustine, FL – On a foggy, rainy January morning I visited Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. It was built by the Spanish between 1672 and 1695 out of coquina blocks (coquina is a sedimentary rock composed of layers of compressed shells) quarried from nearby Anastasia Island. It is a square fort with diamond-shaped bastions at each corner which provide crossfires that offer the fort more protection. The Castillo was occupied twice by the Spanish, from its construction through 1763 when they lost St Augustine to the British as part of the Treaty of Paris (1763), which ended the 7 Years War (also known as the French and Indian War) and from 1783 to 1821 when it was ceded to the United States in the Adams-Onis Treaty (also known as the Florida Purchase Treaty). The British occupied the Castillo from 1763 to 1783 when they ceded it back to the Spanish as part of the Treaty of Paris (1783), one of the treaties that ended the American Revolution. During the British occupation, the Castillo was named Fort St Mark and St Augustine was the capital of British East Florida (Florida was split into two British colonies, British East and British West, which brought the total of British colonies in America to 15). When the United States took control of the Castillo in 1821, it was renamed Fort Marion after the Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion. The US Army mostly used Fort Marion as a military prison to hold prisoners from the Indian Wars. In 1924, the Castillo was designated a National Monument and 1933 it was transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service. In 1942, by order of Congress, it was renamed Castillo de San Marcos.

The Castillo is an impressive structure. It was an awesome experience to walk through a fort from the 17th Century; you don’t get that kind of opportunity in very many places in the United States. It’s fascinating to see the graffiti left by soldiers and prisoners throughout the Castillo, from writing to drawings of ships scratched into the walls. A product of Spain’s Catholic heritage, there is chapel integral to the Castillo. Unlike the iron cannons you see at Revolutionary or Civil War forts, you see bronze cannons at the Castillo, many with magnificent detail cast or etched into them; it’s something you just don’t see on American cannons from later periods. It was dismal, foggy, rainy day when I visited (although the sun teased us and peeked out for about a half hour), so I plan on going back one day and getting a better look at the outside of the fort while it’s dry.

 

Castillo de San Marcos in the fog

 

Castillo de San Marcos’ entrance through its Ravelin

 

 

Looking at the San Pedro Bastion from the Castillo de San Marcos’ Ravelin. The Ravelin is a triangular structure that protects the Castillo’s Sally Port by blocking direct access to it.

 

Looking at Castillo de San Marcos’ San Agustin Bastion over the Castillo’s entrance from atop the Ravelin

 

The moat around Castillo de San Marcos

 

Inside one of the Guard Rooms of Castillo de San Marcos; during the Spanish periods, no soldiers lived in the Castillo, soldiers would take shifts on guard and stay in one of two rooms like this

 

Inside one of the Guard Rooms of Castillo de San Marcos; during the Spanish periods, no soldiers lived in the Castillo, soldiers would take shifts on guard and stay in one of two rooms like this

 

Graffiti scratched into the walls of the guard rooms at Castillo de San Marcos; graffiti like this was scratched into the walls by soldiers stationed there as well as prisoners held there throughout its history

 

Graffiti scratched into the walls of the guard rooms at Castillo de San Marcos; graffiti like this was scratched into the walls by soldiers stationed there as well as prisoners held there throughout its history

 

Graffiti scratched into the walls of the guard rooms at Castillo de San Marcos; graffiti like this was scratched into the walls by soldiers stationed there as well as prisoners held there throughout its history

 

The stairs from the Plaza de Armas inside Castillo de San Marcos up to San Agustin Bastion

 

18 pounder bronze cannon on display in Castillo de San Marcos’ Plaza de Armas; it was manufactured in Sevilla, Spain in 1764 and named “El Milanes”

 

I love the details on the Spanish bronze cannons, including this coat of arms

 

The cannon’s name – “El Milanes” (The one from Milan)

 

The inscription on “El Milanes” reads “Thunderbolts from an Angry King,”

 

You can still see traces of the emblem of the Spanish Empire that was painted on the whitewashed walls of Castillo de San Marcos’ Treasury Room

 

The remains of a plastered holy water font in the Castillo de San Marcos’ chapel

 

The British Room; unlike Spanish soldiers, British soldiers lived in the fort so the British put in a second floor and stairs so that they could garrison more personnel in what they called Fort St Mark

 

The original coat of arms removed from Castillo de San Marcos’ Ravelin for preservation

 

After the United States received Castillo de San Marcos from Spain in 1821, the US Army added these Sally Port Doors, which were removed for preservation

 

Looking down into the Plaza de Armas from the St Agustin Bastion. The doorways give you an idea of scale and how small the Castillo is; 1500 people sheltered inside the Castillo when St Augustine was besieged in 1702.

 

Looking out over St Augustine from the gundeck by the San Augustin Bastion

 

A row of cannons on Castillo de San Marcos’ gundeck

 

Looking across at the San Carlos Bastion and the Castillo’s bell tower from the San Agustin Bastion

 

The bell tower and cannons facing the Matanzas River on Castillo de San Marcos’ San Carlos Bastion

 

Bronze cannon and mortar on Castillo de San Marcos’ gun deck

 

Detail on one of the Castillo’s mortars

 

Bronze cannons and mortars on display on Castillo de San Marcos’ gundeck

 

More of the magnificent detail to be found on the Castillo’s bronze cannons

 

I highly recommend visiting Castillo de San Marcos if you find yourself in the St Augustine area. You’ll learn a lot about Spanish History in North America that you don’t learn in school and is rarely mentioned in books. The park rangers give a very interesting guided tour of several of the Castillo’s rooms that place the Castillo in the context of that Spanish and Colonial History.

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