Visiting Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, or Civil War Ft. Marion, St. Augustine, Florida
The history of St. Augustine, Florida goes a long way back in time. The city was founded by the Spanish in 1565 and is the oldest continuously inhabited town settled by Europeans in the United States. From 1565-1763, the city was under Spanish rule. As part of the treaty ending the Seven Years War between Great Britain and France and France’s ally Spain, Florida was transferred to British rule. That lasted until 1783, when Florida was returned to Spain in the 1783 Treaty of Paris at the end of the American Revolution. Spain ceded Florida to the United States in 1821.
Between 1672 and 1695, the Spanish built a masonry fort called Castillo de San Marcos at the mouth of the Matanzas River in St. Augustine’s harbor to protect the city from invading armies and marauding pirates and privateers. (The city was sacked and burned by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and again by Robert Searle in 1668). The fort withstood lengthy sieges by the British in 1702 and 1740.
When the U.S. took control of the area, Castillo de San Marcos was renamed Fort Marion, in honor Francis Marion, an officer who conducted extensive irregular operations in the South during the Revolutionary War. The fort became part of the U.S. system of coastal defenses.
Florida seceded from the Union in January 1861 as the Confederate States of America were forming and the Civil War was approaching. That month, 125 Florida militia men marched on Fort Marion and demanded its surrender. At the time, the only U.S. soldier in the fort was an ordnance sergeant. With little choice in the matter, he reached an agreement to turn the fort over to the militia in exchange for a receipt for the fort and the government property inside it. This was agreed to, and the militia occupied the fort.
Fourteen months later, the USS Wabash sailed into St. Augustine harbor to capture the city. All Confederate forces, including those in Fort Marion had withdrawn from St. Augustine. The commanding officer of the Wabash, Commander Christopher P. Rodgers, accepted the surrender of the city from civilian authorities. U.S. forces reoccupied Fort Marion, and St. Augustine remained under Federal control for the rest of the war. You can read more about the capture and recapture of Fort Marion in this post.
Both before and after the Civil War, the fort was used to house Native American prisoners from various Indian wars. In the 1870s, some Native Americans from western and plains tribes were brought there for education and conversion to Christianity in an effort to assimilate them into non native society. The fort was used as a prison for deserters during the Spanish American War in 1898.
In 1924, Fort Marion was declared a national monument, administered by the War Department until 1933 when it was transferred to the National Park Service. The fort’s name was restored to the original Castillo de San Marcos in 1942. During World War II, the fort was used for a military purpose one last time, serving as a U.S. Coast Guard training base.
Visiting Castillo de San Marcos (Civil War Fort Marion)
The fort is located on the St. Augustine downtown waterfront. There is a parking lot in front of the fort; a fee is charged. The fort is also a stop on the Old Town Trolley for those who are using that to tour the historic parts of the city. There is an admission fee charged to enter the fort itself. After paying admission, go over the drawbridge, which spans a dry moat, and enter the fort through the sally port, the only entrance and exit to the fort. Once inside, it’s a self guided tour. The rooms on the ground level surrounding the interior courtyard have exhibits and signs explaining what they were used for. Mobile apps for the park are available for both Android and iOS devices from the Google Play Store and Apple.
The top level has several cannon, many of which are of Spanish origin. Though much of the structure remains pretty much the same as is it was when it was a Spanish military installation, the U.S. did fill in the moat on the Matanzas River side of the fort to create an artillery battery on the water for more firepower against enemy ships. A small building called a hot shot furnace is located with the water battery; it was used to heat cannon balls to fire at wooden ships to set them on fire.
Castillo de San Marcos National Monument is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. For more information, see the monument’s web site.
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