Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Castillo De San Marcos

The city of St. Augustine in Florida is the oldest city in the United States.  It is said to be one of the most haunted cities in the country and the area certainly seems to carry an otherworldly feel.  On a small hill at the center of the main tourist area stands a rare medieval structure built from coquina shells, a concrete like substance infused with shells.  The coquina shells are so strong that they are able to endure the blast of cannon balls.  The material was perfect to use in the construction of a fort, particularly this fort found in St. Augustine, the Castillo de San Marcos.  The Spanish built the fort between 1672 to 1695 to protect the city, which had been sacked several times.  The Castillo de San Marcos never fell, no matter where the attack came from and it has stood under the flags of several countries or governments including the Spanish, the British, the United States of America and the Confederacy.

In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded the Presidio of San Agustin.  The Spanish needed to protect
Coquina material
their trade route and the area was the perfect spot from which to do that.  Unfortunately, the Spanish built a series of forts that did not last because they were built of wood.  Not only is wood no match for heavy artillery, it is no match for the elements in Florida.  So the Queen of Spain, Queen Mariana, commissioned a stone structure be built.  Oyster shells were baked until they crumbled and the material was mixed with sand and water to make lime, which cemented the coquina blocks together.  The coquina blocks were quarried from nearby Anastasia Island.  And the resulting fort has stood the test of time for centuries.

Interior of the Castillo
The British tested Castillo de San Marcos several times, but were never successful in taking the fort.  General James Edward Oglethorpe made the final attempt to take the fort by force, using a base of operations in Georgia.  The British finally gained ownership of the fort in 1763 when the Treaty of Paris gave Britain all of Florida.  The British did not possess the Castillo for very long.  The American Revolution broke out and after the war was concluded, Spain again retained control of the city of St. Augustine in 1784.  In 1821, the Americans took ownership of St. Augustine and the Castillo.  They changed the name to Fort Marion in honor of General Francis Marion, a Revolutionary War hero, and converted the fort into a prison.  Early on, most prisoners were Native Americans.

During the Civil War, the Union handed over Ft. Marion to the Confederacy as Florida had joined other southern states in fighting the Union.  The Confederates soon abandoned the post and the Union retook the fort after threatening to destroy the city if it did not surrender.  In 1898, while the Spanish American War raged, the fort was used once again as a prison and held around 200 deserters from the American Army.  By 1900, the fort was officially retired and became a national monument.

Because of the wartime past and the hundreds of prisoners housed at the fort, the possibility of paranormal activity is high and there are many tales of supernatural activity.  Along one wall outside the Castillo, prisoners were lined up and executed by firing squad.  To this day, many people catch ghostly images on their cameras when photographing the wall.  Spanish soldiers have been spotted walking about the upper tier of the Castillo, seeming to carry on their guard duties.  Booted footsteps are heard everywhere inside the Castillo.

Chief Osceola's head is sometimes seen floating about.  The reason there is no body is because a doctor at the fort decided to decapitate Osceola and keep the head in a jar of preservative.  The story is that Chief Osceola became ill while at the fort and a local doctor named Dr. Frederick Weedon diagnosed the Chief with malaria.  Osceola was sent to another fort where he died.  Dr. Weedon attended the funeral for Osceola and severed his head when he was alone with the body.  Now the good doctor could not just walk out carrying the head, so he wrapped a scarf around the Chief's neck and followed the body to the gravesite.  He then took some time alone with the body again and grabbed the head.  The doctor apparently wanted to make a death mask - could this not have been done with the body fully in tact - and he kept the head for many years.  Dr. Weedon had a sick sense of humor as well and used to scare his children into good behavior by hanging the head from their bedposts.

One particular cell named the Carcel has claims of hauntings.  The room is cold and dark with a heavy creepy door.  Many prisoners were kept in this room as special punishment.  Voices are heard in the cell at times.  There is also a tale about a secret room where bones were found after a heavy cannon fell through the ceiling of the room, revealing the secret place.  Rumor has it that a Commander at the fort caught his wife and First Officer having an affair and sealed them up in this room to die.  Did it really happen?  That's for the reader to decide, but supposedly the wife's perfume wafts from the room on occasion.  Or was it a powder keg room sealed up to keep the powder dry with animal bones littering the ground?

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