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Defending San Marcos

Castillo de San Marcos is a textbook design adapted to a frontier situation. It is a fortification style evolved from the medieval castle. Toward the end of the Middle Ages when the gunpowder cannon was invented, towering castle made fine targets for the artillerist. Stone walls that had turned aside the powerful bolt of the crossbow and resisted for days on end the slow pounding of the catapults tumbled into the rubble after a thundering siege from bombards and culverins.

So the engineers lowered their target-like walls, and in front of them they piled great hills of earth to stop the cannonballs before they could hit the stone. Yet, because those walls must yet be too high for the scaling ladders, the engineers kept their moats. The circular tower of the ancient castle evolved into the bastion, an angular, roomy salient from which pikemen, arquebusiers, and artillerists could see to defend all adjacent walls. The new fortification thus became a rather complicated series of straight walls and angles-a sort of defense-in-depth-plan-and in the center of it could usually be found the garrison quarters and the magazines.

For most defense problems there was an answer in the book, though the brilliance of the engineer might well be measured by his ingenious use of natural defenses, as achieved by Daza at Castillo de San Marcos. Fortification was, in fact, a remarkably exact science and one universally respected. "Many argument," wrote an eighteenth-century expert, "might be alleged to prove the usefulness of fortified places, were it not that all the world is convinced of it at present, and therefore it would be needless to say more about." A fort, however, could never win a victory. It was a defensive weapon to protect vital points and delay the invader. And, as was the case with the historic fort in Florida, it could be a citadel and pivot of maneuver for colonial troops.

There were as many different kinds of forts as there were uses for them. They promoted and protected trade, they guarded the pass into a country, or, like San Marcos, they secured the country from invasion. The following dogma, written many years after the Castillo was started, might apply directly to the fort at St. Augustine: "In small states which cannot afford the expense of building many fortresses, and are not able to provide them when built with sufficient garrisons and other necessaries for their defense, or those whose chief dependence consists in the protection of their allies; the best way is to fortify their capital, which being made spacious, may serve as a retreat to the inhabitants in time of danger, with their wealth and cattle, till the succours of their allies arrive."

To attack a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century fort, the enemy had first to cross natural barriers, advance over level ground exposed to fire from the fortification, drive the defenders from the outer works, cross the moat, and then (if there were any of him left) scale the main walls and fight the defenders hand to hand. It was not easy. His usual approach was to dig trenches for protection, and advance the trenches right up to the outworks.

Meanwhile, his artillerymen tried to get their guns close enough to breach the walls. Once he could bring his artillery to bear, the unfortunate defenders found themselves to be stationary targets subjected to devastating fire, particularly from the heavy mortars throwing 50- or 100-pound bombs into the confines of the fortification.

Most important of all, however, was food. The invading army was often far from its base and to some extent had to live off hostile country. But if the invader could isolate the fort, as he invariably tried to do, the siege lasted no longer than the food and water in the fort. For this reason, at least 5 of the 20 main rooms in Castillo de San marcos were for food storage, and three wells were dug in the courtyard. As long as the provision magazines were well filled, the citadel was strong.

The test of its strength was not long delayed. With France, there was peace again, but border animosities flamed high, fed by Indian rumors of an impending attack on St. Augustine itself by the Carolinians. Spain's Indian allies were restive, anxious to move out of the zone of conflict. And for good reason: the incursions by English-led Indians continued.

As tensions increased, Governor Jose de Zuniga y Cerda looked at the St. Augustine defenses with jaundiced eye. True the Castillo was a bulwark, but Zuniga knew, after a military career spanning 28 years (including the two-year siege of Melilla), that strong walls were not enough. Castillo guns were ancient and obsolete-many of them unserviceable. The powder from Nueva España so fouled the gun barrels that after "four shots, the Ball would not go in the Cannon." Arquebuses, muskets, powder, and shot were sorely needed.

1686 Profile of Castillo de San Marcos

Once again Captain Ayala sailed directly to Spain for aid. It was a race against time, for now it was 1702; England declared open war on Spain and France over the succession to the Spanish crown. Already Governor James Moore of Carolina was moving against St. Augustine. By snatching it out of Spain's hands, he would clap an English lock on the Bahama Channel and forestall Spanish-French designs on Charleston.

En route south, Moores' forces destroyed the Franciscan missions in the Guale country. At St. Augustine they swiftly by-passed the castillo and occupied the town. The people could do nothing but flee to the fort. South and west of its walls, where the outskirts of the town crept near, the Spanish burned many houses which could have hidden the enemy advance toward the fort.

Moore's 500 Englishmen and 300 Indians vastly outnumbered the 230 soldiers and 180 Indians and Negroes in the Spanish garrison, but he was ill-equipped to besiege the Castillo. He had only four cannon, and the Spanish boasted that continuous fire from the fort kept them out of range.

Moore settled down to await the arrival of more artillery from Jamaica, and thus matters stood when four Spanish men-of-war sailed from the south and blocked the harbor entrance, thus bottling up Moore's fleet of eight small vessels. He burned these ships, left many of his stores, and retreated overland to the St. Johns River. St. Augustine he left in ashes, but the Castillo survived the holocaust.

Damage to the town totalled 56,520 pesos, and the ease with which the English had taken and held it for almost two months made it clear that more defenses were needed. Moreover, English-Indian obliteration of the missions in Apalache, Timucua and Guale had squeezed Spanish control down to the tiny mile-square area directly under the Castillo guns. This had to be held at any cost.

1740 profile of Castillo de San Marcos

In the two decades that followed 1702, out from the Castillo went strong earthworks and palisades, buttressed at strategic points with redoubts. These made St. Augustine a walled town, secure against invasion as long as there were enough soldiers to man the walls. But in those dark days who could be sure of tomorrow? In 1712 came La Gran Hambre, the Great Hunger, when people ate even the dogs and cats.

The war ended at last in 1714. The hostile noose around St. Augustine slackened, but it was an uneasy kind of peace with many "incidents." In 1728 Colonel William Palmer of Carolina marched against the presidio. The grim walls of the fort, the unwinking readiness of the heavy guns, and the needle-sharp points of the yucca plants lining the palisades were a powerful deterrent. Palmer "refrained" from taking the town. For their part, the Spaniards set off their artillery, but they made no sorties.

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