Saint Augustine was founded in 1565 by the Spanish to use as a military outpost for the defense of Florida. At the heart and soul of the city, the coquina fortress Castillo De San Marcos stands as a defense against attacks from vessels traveling the Mantanza Inlet. Unfortunately, the city of Saint Augustine could still be attacked from the rear, and the cannons of Castillo De San Marco were well out of range to prevent encroachment.
During the late 16th century, Francis Drake raided Saint Augustine, and the English continued their harassment so it was of no surprise that the Spanish were constantly fearful of attacks. Around 1740, Governor James Oglethorpe blockaded Saint Augustine with troops from Georgia and began a 39 day siege.
Spanish ships were able to break the blockade and resupply the city, prompting Governor Oglethorpe to give up and go back to Georgia. Of course, with the present onset of the hurricane season, it was even more reason to retreat.
In an attempt to stop the attacks and protect the inlet, masons constructed Fort Mantanzas with slave labor, convicts, and troops from Cuba. The fort was 50 feet on each side and was built of local shellstone. Lime from burned oyster shells was used for the mortar and the foundation was a combination of pine pilings that were driven into the ground for stabilization. Soldiers on rotation from Saint Augustine spent one month at a time at Mantanzas. At one time, the fort could be occupied by an officer in charge, 4 infantrymen, and two gunners.
During a crisis, up to 50 men would occupy the fort, although from my personal visit it seemed inconceivable to have more than 10 people at a time in the confines of the space. The soldiers were usually crammed into the furnished room on the gun-deck which consisted of 4 beds, a fireplace, and small table for meals. As you make your way up the steps into the officers quarter, you enter into a tiny, cramped, vaulted room, which had a small opening to the upper deck and wooden ladder to get there.
I had the pleasure of climbing through the tiny opening in the officers room and I actually got stuck, so I can only imagine what it was like during a siege with officers in full gear.
The fort had five guns which could reach a target of half a mile away in the inlet. Small openings in the coquina walls were used by infantrymen to fire muskets, although at times it was almost impossible to stay on target in the small enclosure. The fort also served as a resting area, a coast guard station, and a visitors center for vessels heading to Saint Augustine. It’s primary use was to protect the inlet from enemies approaching, however after the British attempted to cease the inlet in 1742, the fort never fired the cannons or the guns in battle again.
The inlet was now prepared for attacks, or at least, it was in the position to warn the troops stationed at Castillo De San Marco to be on the defensive.
In 1742, Governor Oglethorpe arrived at Matanza Inlet with 12 ships, however the cannons of Mantanzas were able to drive off his war ships, therefore protecting the security of the inlet for the first time.
With the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian War, Florida was transferred to Britain in 1763. A second Treaty of Paris returned Florida back to Spain in 1784. Fort Mantanzas and the Castillo De San Marcos were poorly maintained, and with the affects of weathering, the forts started to completely deteriorate to the point that soldiers could no longer reside there.
Spain transferred Florida to the United States in 1819 and they took possession of the forts in 1821. At that point, the forts were unsafe to use, so they lay dormant until restoration began in the early 20th century.
A Personal Ghost Story of Fort Mantanzas
Part of living in Florida is appreciating the history that was made here. So in an attempt to educate myself further on the Mantanza Inlet, I made a special trip with my mom to explore the grounds.
I made my way up the steps to the gun-deck and sat for 15 minutes while the tour guide told us the tales of Mantanzas. As far as what was explained, the fort was said to be a site that never experienced death firsthand. I found this to be quite odd, especially considering Mantanza means “massacre”. I was never one to challenge history, however I knew the stories of Fort Caroline and I had painted a completely different picture in my head before I ever set foot on Rattlesnake Island where Fort Mantanzas was constructed.
I stepped softly into the furnished room where soldiers had crammed into the beds and had hung their jackets neatly above them. I took out my camera to take a shot, and out of the corner of the frame a faint ball of light floated by. I looked in front me and I saw nothing, but in the frame the apparition was clear as day. I was stunned, and as I gasped almost in silence, I stood in place not knowing what to do next.
I called my mom over and she, for lack of the better sense, shrugged it off. I had never experienced the supernatural before, and I certainly never expected to see anything that day. So I guess, in some small sense, I came face to face with history. I had to smile as I left for the ferry, and I gazed at the fort as we made our way across the inlet back to the visitors center. I guess it was my gift to share.