Castle of the Week 77 – Castillo de San Marcos

For this week’s Castle of the Week, we turn to a country that hasn’t been looked at in this feature and is, in fact, not normally associated with castles. The country is the United States, and the reason that it isn’t associated with classic castle building is that European settlements weren’t being built in North American until well after castles became obselete as fortifications.

Now, this isn’t to say that the United States is devoid of castles entirely, but many are newer structures built in the style of (or sometimes as exact replicas of) the structures of Europe. In addition, it isn’t an uncommon practice to refer to a large mansion as a “castle” to make it sound grander than it is, such as Hearst Castle in California.

The closest structures to classical castles within the United States are forts that were built before the Civil War. These forts served as citadels, and even often created fully walled in cities with defenses, moats, drawbridges and other trappings that were built into castles. Between the castles of Europe and the forts in the United States was built the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida.

The city of St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States, and the Castillo holds the distinction of being the oldest standing masonry structure in the United States. Construction began in 1672 and continued until 1695, and it served as a primary outpost for Spanish influences in the New World, and specifically served to protect the city of St. Augustine. It was not the first fort built in the New World, but was the first to be constructed entirely of stone. The stone used was a locally mined limestone called coquina, composed mostly of shellfish fossils. This stone served to protect against British shelling, absorbing the shots of cannon fire that made castles obselete in Europe.

Ownership of the Castillo changed hands, reflecting the political climate of the United States through the years. Initially owned by the Spaniards, it was assailed by the British for years before being captured, not by siege, but by treaty at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. St Augustine served as the capital of British occupation in the New World during the American Revolution, and so 1775 saw the beginning of repairs and renovations to the fort to prepare it for a potential siege by the colonials. It also served as a prison for POWs captured by the British, a role that it would again serve under American control.

Spanish assistance during the Revolutionary War caused the Castillo to move back under their control, along with the rest of Florida in 1784 as a result of the second Treaty of Paris. This occupation lasted until 1821 when Spain finally ceded its Florida territory to the United States.

Under American control, the Spanish name of the Castillo was dropped in favor of Fort Marion, in honor of the “Swamp Fox.” During this period it served as a prison for Seminole indians during the American government’s second war against the native tribe. During this time it held Chief Osceola, perhaps the most famous prisoner the Castillo would hold.

The final changing of possession of the Castillo happened during the US Civil War. The Castillo was initially ceded to the Confederates without a single shot being fired, and was captured by the Union a year later, again without a shot being fired, when the Confederates evacuated, and locals surrendered the town of St. Augustine and the Castillo in 1862.

From this point on, the Castillo served primarily as a military prison until it was handed over to the National Park Service which maintains it as a National Monument today.

While not a true castle in the traditional sense, Castillo de San Marcos perhaps stands as one of the closest examples that the United States has of a classical castle, in terms of architecture, purpose and military significance. It does have many structures that are often associated with European castles, including turrets, though lower than the ones in European structures, and a moat with drawbridge.

For further reading on the Castillo, check out the USNPS website.

Write-up by thurdl. Pictures courtesy of Bismuth


Download Castillo de San Marcos by Bismuth