by Frank Howard
August 18, 1995

Siege is a word one commonly associates with Castles, Europe, Crusades, and such. It brings to mind forced starvation, battering rams , and stories of pots of boiling oil ready to pour over the attackers. But then, Siege is not a word we commonly think of when we think of Florida History.

St. Augustine was established in September 1565, by the Spaniard, Pedro Menendez de Aviles as his troops chased away a few French stationed there.. It was established as part of efforts to keep the French from continuing to occupy a position so close to the route of the Spanish Treasure Fleets. Those ships were frequently in plain view there as they sailed from Mexico up the Gulf Stream and home to Spain twice each year.

Fort at St. Augistine as it looks today.
The St. Augustine Fort as it looks today.

It was immediately following this action that French soldiers and sailors had been marooned on a nearby island when 3 ships of the French fleet sank in a storm. Menendez and his troops found them. Although they outnumbered Menendez' men, the French surrendered (Oct. 1565). Menendez decided the only way to deal with so many was to separate them into small groups and execute them. The men were bound and then beheaded. The site where the survivors of the three French shipwrecks were executed is still called Matanzas (Spanish for slaughter).

In 1586 St. Augustine was a scene of turmoil. The famed Freebooter (Pirate with a royal licence to be so!) Sir Francis Drake was sailing along the coast and spotted a lookout tower. Drake landed to investigate, found a village with it's little fort deserted (upon seeing the sails, the garrison had fled!) and proceeded to sack the town. What he didn't take, he destroyed so thoroughly that even the fruit trees were uprooted. He even took the bronze cannon from the fort!

After this the Spanish decided a big stone fort was needed. The oldest masonry fort in the North America was completed, after nearly 30 years of construction, in 1696. It was considered an extreme expense then, even with most of the labor being provided by enslaved Indians. The Spanish king had exclaimed that he must see this place as it's gates must be of the "finest gold!"

The Castillo de San Marcos is an imposing sight today to the many visitors that walk it's walls and hear it's history from the park rangers and re-enactors. But in 1702 it's site was imposing both to the town's inhabitants and to the English who had come to destroy it.

During this time, history calls it "Queen Anne's War", the Governor of East Florida, Governor Zuniga received a message from Fort San Marcos at St. Marks telling him that a Chocato Indian woman there had overheard English plans to march overland and capture St. Augustine.. The Governor ordered all town residents to take supplies with them and come into the big Fort.

He also ordered one of the two ships attached to the Fort to go for help. That ship, the Nina, was sunk as it left. The other ship, La Gloria, was rowed out at low tide and sneaked away.

One rarely can take enough food, provisions, and arms to survive a long siege and a long siege was not expected. They did not suspect the siege would last 50 days! The part of the town away from the fort was quickly destroyed by the English soldiers. Imagine the residents as they watched from the Fort's parapets as their homes were torn down and burned. The English were hoping to simply starve the residents out of the fort while they awaited the arrival of the remainder of their naval fleet for their attack on the fort. Food not only became scarce, but hay for the animals was already gone. Each time residents would sneak out of the fort to cut grass for their livestock the English would kill or capture them.

Imagine having to go out and burn your own house! Houses near the Fort had not been burned, instead, they were being used as points of ambush by the English as women and children went out to cut grass for the livestock. The Governor ordered a contingent to go out and burn those homes close to the Fort.

Able to see as many as 14 English ships either at sea beyond the fort, or, anchored in the harbor, the Spanish wondered why the English had not "bombed" the fort. They did not know the English were awaiting the arrival of two specially rigged "bomb" ships. To add to the agony the Spanish received a message from Fort San Marcos de Apalachee (St. Marks) that no help would be coming from them, Pensacola, or the French at Mobile (although now allies, they had their own troubles!). Their only hope was that the La Gloria had reached Havana and help.

At a stage in the siege when all food was almost all gone, water was being rationed, and overall fright was on the faces of the residents, two ships were sighted on the horizon. The English Bombships? Maybe not.

The English soldiers were excitedly carting their supplies and munitions down to the beach. Much activity was seen on the English ships anchored in the harbor. The sailors seemed to be making ready to set sails!

The Governor soon realized the ships had to be Spanish but they were not giving the appearance of coming ashore. He sent three of his Indians to sneak out in a canoe and contact the Spanish ships. The ships' Captains were surprised as they had assumed the Fort to have been captured and were setting sails to leave. The Spanish Captains quickly saw they could catch the English with their sails down and sail right up to the Fort. As they did this the English realized all was lost and ordered their anchored ships burned to avoid capture.

The English rightly figured no one would follow them as they escaped overland to a beach from which their other ships could more safely rescue them.

The siege of St. Augustine had ended after 50 days. No one had starved to death, there was no boiling oil and no battering rams. The Castillo de San Marcos had remained Spanish.

An interesting note is that this was a part of the broader efforts of the English to eliminate the Spanish from Florida. Another of those efforts struck a little closer to home as the English and Creeks invaded our area just over a year later in 1704. This caused the small Spanish garrison to abandon Fort San Luis de Apalachee (Tallahassee) and led to its subsequent destruction as the invaders burned it and most every thing around it. That was the end of the last Spanish Fort in inland Florida.

more articles by F. Howard
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