Historic Forts in Florida

Historic Forts in Florida

The very first place we went after crossing the Georgia/Florida border heading south was to one of the historic forts in Florida. After Columbus, Spain moved fast to capitalize on the opportunity a “New World” presented. The riches in the new world were ripe for the picking according to their thoughts on the subject. Exploiting the riches required building the forts in Florida and the funds needed to create them.

Unlike other posts about specific locations, this post is about several forts in Florida. It goes into details about the Spanish, English, French, and Americans and spans a lot of history. Next week’s post will be about Saint Augustine.

Amelia Island

The first fort in Florida we visited is at the north end of Amelia Island. It guards the entrance to the Saint Mary River and Cumberland Sound. The Saint Mary River is at the border between Florida and Georgia.

Interior courtyard at Fort Clinch.
Interior courtyard at Fort Clinch.

The fort was built by the Spanish in 1736. The Spanish called it Fort San Carlos. Florida was purchased from Spain in 1819 by the United States who rebuilt the fort in 1847. Today it stands as it was in 1862. The fort was first occupied by Confederate soldiers leading up to and during the Civil War. In 1862 it was occupied by Union troops until the end of the war.

Barracks building at Fort Clinch.
Barracks building at Fort Clinch.

We visited Amelia Island while we were staying in Georgia at the Kings Bay Naval Base. Its location, in south Georgia, made it an ideal starting point to visit several historic forts in Florida including both Amelia Island and Jekyll Island. I previously covered Jekyll Island in the post: Jekyll Island Secrets

Fort San Carlos

Relative little is known about the Spanish Fort San Carlos (built 1816) at the north end of Amila Island. Prior to the Spanish, the French occupied Amelia Island. After Jean Ribault, a French explorer landed in 1562 he established a small military fort at the north end of Amelia Island. Then Ribault established a second more substantial fort named Fort Caroline further to the south on the Saint John’s river. Both the Amila Island location and Fort Caroline fell to a Spanish attack in 1565.

Field Cannon in foreground used as a mobile artillery piece. At the distance are Dahlgren cannons.
Field Cannon in the foreground of this picture at Fort Clinch was used as a mobile artillery piece. In the distance, on top of the wall of the fort are Dahlgren cannons.

A Fortified Mission

After defeating the French, the Spanish rebuilt and renamed the location on Amelia Island as a mission rather than a full-fledged fort. They held the fortified Mission Santa Maria de Sena from 1602-1821. Just to make the timeline difficult for me to follow, the English attacked and destroyed the mission in 1702. The Spanish rebuilt and was followed by a period of English occupation in 1736-1742 at the end of the Seven-Years War. After that ownership went back to the Spain.

Rare 20 star 20-star United States flag of 1818, with stars in Great Star arrangement. In 1818, the arrangement of stars was formally specified only in the case of flags to be bought for the U.S. Navy.
Rare 20-star United States flag of 1818, with stars in Great Star arrangement. In 1818, the arrangement of stars was formally specified only in the case of flags to be bought for the U.S. Navy.

In 1816 the Spanish built Fort San Carlos at the north end of Amelia Island to defend the town of Fernandina, also on Amelia Island. Fort San Carlos was an expansion of the fortified Mission Santa María de Sena. This mission was only three miles south of Mission San Pedro de Mocama (1580). Mission San Pedro de Mocama was on Cumberland Island which is now the southernmost island in Georgia.

Fort Clinch

The Spanish built Fort San Carlos very late in the Spanish ownership period. The United States purchased Florida only five years after its completion. Very quickly after that, the United States rebuilt, expanded, and renamed Fort San Carlos as Fort Clinch. The fort was again rebuilt in 1940 as part of the Work Progress Administration as an effort to make jobs during the Great Depression.

Inside an room at Fort Clinch depicting decorations after the Civil War.
Inside a room at Fort Clinch depicting decorations after the Civil War.

Treaty of Tortdesillias

Historic forts in Florida were part of the colonization of Florida by Spain. In 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and Portugal was all about dividing the lands in the New World between Spain and Portugal. There isn’t any mention of what France and England thought of this treaty. At the time, Spain and Portugal were the dominant sea power. France and England were fighting each other.

Fort Caroline

Spain founded their military outpost in Saint Augustine mostly because the French were establishing a settlement near present-day Jacksonville named Fort Caroline. It was a race between the French (Jean Ribault) and the Spanish (Pedro Menéndez) to see which nation could first lay claim to Florida. Two years earlier Jean Ribault had started a failed colony in present-day South Carolina.

Dahlgren Naval guns mounted on field carriages at Fort Clinch designed to shoot exploding shells
Dahlgren Naval guns mounted on field carriages at Fort Clinch were designed to shoot exploding shells

The northeast coast of Florida was hotly contested at the time when Menéndez founded Saint Augustine. Even before founding Saint Augustine Menéndez attacked four French ships at the mouth of the Saint John River near Fort Caroline.

The kitchen at Fort Clinch with ovens at the back.
The kitchen at Fort Clinch with ovens at the back.

Just after the founding of Saint Augustine, the French attacked Saint Augustine by sea, but the weather (hurricane) ruined the attack protecting Saint Augustine and the Spanish fleet from serious damage. Menéndez correctly concluded that the French attacking force meant that Fort Caroline would be lightly defended. Because of the bad weather, he attacked from land, rather than by sea, destroying the fort and killing all the French except for a few captives he thought might be Catholics.

Saint Augustine

In the early years, Saint Augustine was a walled city established with the primary purpose of protecting Spanish ships that were moving north, laden with gold and silver from Panama. Pirates commonly attacked these ships on their way back to Spain while they were off the coast of Florida.

Main Gate on the north end of Saint Augustine.
Main Gate on the north end of Saint Augustine.

At the north end of the city in Saint Augustine, there was a low wall around the settlement. That wall really couldn’t defend the city from any organized military force. Mostly the walls were enough to keep pirates and perhaps Indians out, but not a military force.

Frances Drake

It wasn’t until Frances Drake led attacks on Spain (1573) that the English were bold enough to establish colonies in the New World. Frances Drake attacked Spain in Panama as an English Privateer. He then attacked Spain at Cadiz burning about thirty ships.

The original Spanish coat of arms indicating the houses of Léon and Castile. It was removed from the exterior in 1957 to preserve it from further weathering.
The original Spanish coat of arms indicated the houses of Léon and Castile joined. It was removed from the exterior of the fort in 1957 to preserve it from further weathering.

Frances Drake also attacked, sacked, and burned Saint Augustine as part of the Ango/Spanish war (1586). As the story goes, Drake arrived at Saint Augustine with a large force. The townspeople decided that they couldn’t win by fighting so they ran away. So Drake took what he wanted (gold, cannons, and arms) and then burned the town and left it in ruins.

Spanish Armada

The defeat of the Spanish Armada (by England) in 1588 shifted sea power. The English were then powerful enough that they took over where Spain left off. Spain still had a strong presence in the Caribbean and Mexico but was no longer completely dominant.

Spanish cannon made in Sevilla in 1764. Notice the coat of arms molded into the barrel.
Spanish cannon was made in Sevilla in 1764. Notice the Spanish coat of arms molded into the barrel.

Spain was still a sea power after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. That worried the English colonists in Jamestown (1607). It wasn’t until 1695 that Spain built a defensible fort in Saint Augustine.

Castillo De San Marcos

This fort was named Castillo De San Marcos at Saint Augustine. It was located at the north end of the city guarding it against attacks from the north. France again attacked Saint Augustine (before the fortress was completed), but the French ships ran aground during the attack ending the threat. Castillo De San Marcos at Saint Augustine was well planned and once it was finished it was never taken in battle.

Spanish cannons and lookout tower on the Castillo de San Marcos facing the Saint Augustine Inlet.
Spanish cannons and the lookout tower on the Castillo de San Marcos facing the Saint Augustine Inlet.

In 1702 the English attacked Castillo De San Marcos at Saint Augustine from the south. They could not breach the fort even after a 58-day siege. All the defenders were in the fort. So again, the English took what they wanted from the town and set it ablaze. This time all the defenders were in the fort and only could watch as the English burned their homes.

Fort Mose

Spain built Fort Mose in 1738 about two miles north of Saint Augustine. Fort Mose was occupied by free blacks and fugitive slaves. The official name was Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose.

In 1740 the English again attacked Saint Augustine including Fort Mose. Even though Fort Mose was temporarily occupied by the English during the battle, the Spanish won the attack taking Fort Mose back. By the end of the battle, Fort Mose was destroyed. Since it protected Saint Augustine the Spanish rebuilt it in 1758.

Draw bridge and gate house across the moat leading to the courtyard at the Castillo de San Marcos at Saint Augustine.
Draw bridge and gatehouse across the moat leading to the courtyard at the Castillo de San Marcos at Saint Augustine.

Again the English failed to take Castillo De San Marcos even after a 28-day artillery bombardment. This time however reinforcements for the Spanish arrived from Cuba and the English left without further fighting. This period was at the end of the Seven-Years War (1756-1763). Currently, Fort Mose is a National Memorial park without any cool fort pictures to be had.

Fort Matanzas

After we left Saint Augustine our intention was to go south to Fort Matanzas. However, it was closed due to damage from recent winds and flooding. We were camping right across the Matanzas River from the fort, but due to the lack of roads and extensive swamp between us and Fort Matanzas, we had to drive more than twenty miles to the National Monument and then take a ferry from the parking lot over to the fort. We never made it. Alas, none of the pictures in this blog post are from Fort Matanzas.

Spanish 15 inch mortar (1724) made in Barcelona. Mortars are made to shoot explosive cannonballs up so that they can fall behind walls.
Spanish 15 inch mortar (1724) was made in Barcelona. Mortars are made to shoot explosive cannonballs up so that they can fall behind the walls.

The Spanish built Fort Matanzas in 1740 as part of their plan to control all the inlets on the Florida Coast leading to inland waterways. They built this fort at the north end of Rattlesnake Island. There are no roads leading to the fort. Earlier, the English used the Matanzas Inlet and inland waterways from the south to attack Saint Augustine. The easiest way to prevent it from happening again was to stop them well south of Saint Augustine at the Matanzas Inlet.

Inside the courtyard at the Castillo de San Marcos at Saint Augustine.
Inside the courtyard at the Castillo de San Marcos at Saint Augustine.

Unlike the extensive Castillo De San Marcos, Fort Matanzas was an armed observation tower. The guns at Fort Matanzas thus could cover the waterway before ships could enter the Matanzas River and then go north to Saint Augustine.

Seven-Years War

When the English won the Seven-Years War, the Spanish handed overall the forts in Florida to the English as part of the treaty ending the war. Mostly the Seven Years War was between England and France and fought in France. France was aligned with Spain during the war. Due to the English win, Spain agreed to hand northern Florida over to the English without further fighting. The English renamed Castillo De San Marcos Fort Saint Mark.

Back to Spain, for a while

After the Seven Years War, in 1779, Spain declared war on England. The goal of this war was to regain losses of the Seven Years War (including Florida) and retake Gibraltar. Since the United States Revolutionary War was also at the same time, England lost focus on the colonies and refocused on Spain. This helped the Americans tremendously even though Spain was not an official ally.

The forts in Florida, all in English hands at the beginning of the war were all captured by Spain during the war. The “Peace of Paris” treaty (1783) returned all the forts in Florida back to Spain.

In 1819 Spain sold Florida to the United States ending the back and forth and all the attacks.

Links to places mentioned in this article.

Fort Clinch at the site of Fort San Carlos and Mission Santa Maria de Sena

Fort Caroline

Castillo De San Marcos at Saint Augustine

Fort Mose

Fort Matanzas

10 thoughts on “Historic Forts in Florida”

    1. We tried to visit all the forts or at least all the monuments associated with these forts but failed to see all the forts.

  1. Stop, Wait, What? Stop, We purchased the land from Spain? And Spain got it from the French?

    I bet Louisiana history reflects a lot of that as well. WOW, I really did not pay attention in history class. Thank you so much for your historical insights.

    I see treaties were not a new thing. I wonder if they honored them better than they did with the Native Americans. I take it, the French and Spanish got along fine with the natives. Only the English and their descendants had conflicts of great magnitude.

    I know the song, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, I guess it did not sink in who purchased what land or did they just take it from the Natives.

    They are still flying a historic 20-star flag? I hope it is a copy and not the original. The details on the cannon speak 1000 words.

    Clear, Gorgeous pictures, I take it you don’t use your phone camera. I take my pictures and then write my story.

    I try to get a tour wherever it is offered. Haven’t had time for much, since I went back to work full time. I am planning a get-away to Independence TX in Jan.

    Your posts create a desire to hit the road and NOW. I can’t for another 10 years.

    1. Wow, that was a lot of questions and I need to clarify slightly. When I mentioned the French, I was referring to French Huguenots. These were French protestants. Ribault did not represent the French King Louis XIV and thus was not supported by the French Government.

      Menéndez attacked and killed the Huguenots not because they were French but rather because they were not Catholic.

      The French in Louisanna was backed by the French Government. Generally, France and Spain respected the territories of each other and both persecuted the Huguenots.

      As for the Spanish, many Indians were taken as slaves and shipped to other Caribbean Islands to be slaves working in Spanish sugar production. So no, they were not friendly to the Indian population, far from it.

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