Beyond Tourism: America's Yesteryear

A blog of American History

Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine October 13, 2009

Civilians and Soldiers alike would take refuge inside the fort during sieges

Civilians and Soldiers alike would take refuge inside the fort during sieges

The Castillo de San Marcos was built by the Spanish to protect Florida from their English enemies. Construction began in 1672 and was designed by Engineer Ignacio Daza using the bastion system as its main design feature.  It was finally completed 23 years later in 1695. The bastion system eliminated blind spots and created a crossfire system so that all areas are covered by at least two cannon.  While the Fort did change hands five times it was only during peace time and was never defeated in battle.

During the first British siege in 1702 they would fire upon the fort  and the cannonballs would either bounce off the coquina walls of the fort or be absorbed into the walls and re-enforcing them. During the night the Spanish soldiers would come and repair the plaster and repaint. Coquina is extremely resilient to bombardment because it is filled with air pockets and made it more compressible. You can find more information on the construction of the fort at the National Park Service Website. was able to withstand more than one siege due to the thickness of the walls which ranged from 12 to 19 feet. This made the fort look like it received no damage and led the British to believe that the fort was self repairing. The British finally surrendered when the Spanish fleet came to the fort’s aid and trapped them in the Bay of Matanzas. 1500 civilians plus the soldiers stayed inside the fort for 51 days. During this siege the town itself was burned to the ground but the Fort stood and remained in Spanish possession. The fort during this time had only one source of water which came from a well inside the Plaza de Armas which is pictured. The well itself is now filled in and covered now. The doors you see lead to soldiers quarters, storerooms, and armament rooms, a chapel, and holding cells for prisoners.

When the United States bought Florida from Spain in 1819 for five million dollars it was the last time that Castillo de San Marcos changed hands. The United States already in possession of a fort named St. Mark changed the name to Fort Marion after the famous Revolutionary War hero the Swamp Fox of South Carolina, Francis Marion. Fort Marion became a National Park in 1933. In 1942 Fort Marion’s name was changed back to its original name of Castillo de San Marcos to better represent its Spanish history.

Before it became a National Park the United States used the Castillo de San Marcos to hold prisoners such as Confederates during the Civil War. While Florida did secede from the Union St. Augustine remained a Union stronghold. They also used it to hold Native American prisoners from the West and during the Seminole Wars held the famous Native American Chief Osceola. Today you can visit the Castillo de San Marcos and at night various ghost tours make it a regular stop as a part of their program. It is said that the fort is haunted by a headless man who is thought to either be Osceola or a Spanish soldier who died when a cannon blew up.


The Dry Tortugas and the Lincoln Assassination July 30, 2009

Mudd, OLaughlen, Arnold, and Spangler were imprisoned here after being found guilty of taking part in the Lincoln assassination.

Mudd, O'Laughlen, Arnold, and Spangler were imprisoned here after being found guilty of taking part in the Lincoln assassination.

Ft. Jefferson located on the Dry Tortugas islands 70 miles west of Key West Florida. Construction began in 1846 but was ultimately abandoned 28 years later in 1874. The fort was never completed due to difficulties with numerous construction problems,  bouts of yellow fever and the invention  of the rifled cannon. The Dry Tortugas was discovered by conquistador Ponce de Leon 1513 and was given the name Las Tortugas for the abundance of turtles found on the islands. Due to the absence of fresh drinking water it got the name of Dry Tortugas. In 1935 Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside the Dry Tortugas Islands as a National monument and it was made into a national park in 1992

Just because the fort construction was never completed does not mean that it was not used. During the Civil War it was used as a prison for Yankee deserters. Union forces were able to use this fort because they were able to control Florida’s large coastline rather quickly with their superior naval fleet. While Florida did secede from the Union it had a large population of Union sympathizers. Check out my earlier blog post Today in Florida to learn a little more about Florida’s role in the Civil War.

Dr. Mudd as he appeared when working in the carpenters shop in the prison at Fort Jefferson.

Dr. Mudd as he appeared when working in the carpenter's shop in the prison at Fort Jefferson.

Ft. Jefferson’s most famous prisoner wasn’t even a soldier. He was Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Samuel Mudd was accused and found guilty of  conspiracy to murder President Lincoln. He met with John Wilkes Booth in his home and Washington before the assassination of Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. He was considered part of the conspiracy after setting Booth’s broken leg and giving him crutches to aid him in his movement. He did not report Booth until the next day after Booth left his home in southern Maryland. Mudd at first was considered just a witness until he lied about meeting Booth before the assassination. He was sentenced to life in prison at Ft. Jefferson. On September 25, 1865 he attempted escape when he learned that control of the fort was being transferred to a colored. He was quickly captured and put to hard labor building the fort in leg irons. In 1867 an outbreak of yellow fever occured and Mudd used his skills as a doctor to help end the epidemic. It was this work during the yellow fever outbreak that earned him his pardon by President Andrew Johnson in 1869. He was in prison for four years. After his release he returned home and restarted his practice.

Ft. Jefferson was made into an official National Park in 1992. People can visit the park and even camp on the grounds. For more information please visit the Dry Tortugas National Park (U.S. National Park Service).