Don't Miss St. Augustine's Historic Forts, Well-Preserved Reminders of Colonial Past
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Founded in 1565 by Spain as a military outpost, St. Augustine, Florida, is one of America’s most historic cities. For military history enthusiasts, no visit to this incredible destination is complete without stops at two historic forts: Castillo de San Marcos and Fort Matanzas.
Both France and England sparred with Spain over control of Florida. In 1564, not far from where Fort Matanzas was erected on the coastal inlet leading to St. Augustine, Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles captured and slaughtered nearly 250 French soldiers marooned there by a storm. From that time forward, the inlet and its river was named Matanzas, Spanish for “slaughters.
Fast forward nearly 200 years. South Carolina’s British Colonial Governor James Moore leads a 1702 expedition against St. Augustine and the new Castillo de San Marcos. The English can’t breach the fort, but occupy the town, burning it to the ground when they retreat after 58 days. In 1740, Gen. James Oglethorpe’s British troops from Georgia attack, blockading the inlet. The Spaniards learn the inlet is a key vulnerability and build the gun tower at Fort Matanzas. From there, the fort’s 5 cannons well-covered the inlet and its access. The fort’s gunners drove off an attempted British incursion in 1742 and then never had to fire their guns again.
A most unique feature of both forts is that they are made of a semi-rare form of limestone called coquina. Visits to a coquina quarry near the state park on Anastasia Island help visitors understand how this rock was removed and transported. Coquina is light and porous, seemingly suboptimal for fortifications. But, its composition let cannon balls burrow in without shattering the walls. The National Park Service uses an analogy of a bb sticking in Styrofoam.
Fort Matanzas, on Rattlesnake Island, is accessed by a pontoon boat ferry from Anastasia Island. Trips run about every hour from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. A visitor center opens at 9. Rangers give informative guided tours. See www.nps.gov/foma.
Castillo de San Marco is literally just across the street from historic St. Augustine. It’s open every day, except Christmas, from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Both locations have superb, informative displays about military service, living conditions and more. Living history reenactors routinely perform at Castillo de San Marco, sometimes issuing the order “Fuego” and firing cannons. Weekdays are least crowded for visits. Free admission for active military and dependents.
For more about some of the fun things you can do in St. Augustine, centered on the town's wild pirate past and paranormal doings, click here.