Friday, January 7, 2011

January 7, 1861 - Seizure of Fort Marion (Castillo de San Marcos)

Castillo de San Marcos (NPS Photo)
This is part of a month-long series on the military aspects of the Florida's secession from the Union, which took place 150 years ago this month.

January 7, 1861

 The Apalachicola Arsenal having been successfully taken on the morning of the 6th, Florida's military forces wasted no time in moving against other military facilities in the state. The next facilities to fall were St. Francis Barracks and Fort Marion in St. Augustine.

Fort Marion was the name applied during the 19th and early 20th centuries to the Castillo de San Marcos, a massive Spanish fortification that is now a national monument on the waterfront of St. Augustine. Begun in 1670, the fortress is the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. Although it was nearly 200 years old in 1861, it was still a U.S. Army installation.

St. Francis Barracks
The seizure took place on the morning of January 7, 1861, when a company of state militia appeared at the St. Francis Barracks, now the headquarters of the Florida National Guard, and took Ordnance Sergeant Henry Douglas into temporary custody. They demanded from him the keys to the fort and magazine:

I demanded them to show me their authority. An aide-de-camp of the governor showed me his letter of instructions authorizing him to seize the property, and directing him to use what force might be necessary.
Ordnance Sergeant Henry Douglas
January 7, 1861

Perhaps the most surprising part of the move by state forces to seize the Castillo is that the U.S. Army had knowledge of the plan at least four days earlier, but took no action either to prevent or even to alert Douglas to the possibility.

On January 3, 1861, when the George militia moved to seize Fort Pulaski at Savannah, Captain W.H.C. Whiting, then at Fort Clinch in Fernandina and commanding the forts along the Georgia and Florida Atlantic Coast, learned that a move was also afoot to seize the fort at St. Augustine:

On Saturday, 3d instant, the regular mail-boat from Fernandina to this place (i.e. Savannah), by which I intended to travel, was taken off line by the governor of Florida and ordered, as I was informed, to St. Augustine, with a force to seize the ordnance mounted in the water battery of Fort Marion for the purpose of arming Fort Clinch.
Captain W.H.C. Whiting, U.S. Engineers
January 7, 1861

Whiting, who would later become a Confederate general, did not write a report describing the situation until the 7th, the same day that the state troops appeared in St. Augustine. While state authorities had taken control of the telegraph lines and he could not send a wire through to Washington, he made no effort to warn the ordnance sergeant commanding in St. Augustine that something was afoot.

Castillo de San Marcos
As a result, Douglas was taken by complete surprise. Faced with an overwhelming force, he could only submit:

Upon reflection I decided that the only alternative for me was to deliver the keys, under protect, and demand a receipt for the property. One thing certain, with the exception of the guns composing the armament of the water battery, the property seized is of no great value. The gentleman acting under the governor’s instructions has promised to receipt to me for the stores.
Ordnance Sergeant Henry Douglas
January 7, 1861

The Florida troops quickly took possession of the fort and, despite Whiting's claim to the contrary, seized an impressive quantity of military ordnance and supplies in the process. Included were four 8-inch guns in the water battery, sixteen older 32-pounders, six field batteries made up of twenty-four 6-pounders and two 12-pounders,  more than 300 muskets, rifles and carbines, 931 pounds of gunpowder, 15,000 percussion caps and 147,720 fixed cartridges for small arms.

Later that day the Florida Secession Convention reconvened in Tallahassee and, after considerable debate, passed the following resolution by an overwhelming margin:

WHEREAS, All hope in the preservation of the Federal Union upon terms consistent with the safety and honor of the slaveholding States, has been finally dissipated by the recent indications of the strength of the anti-slavery sentiment of the free States; therefore, be it Resolved, By the People of the State of Florida in convention assembled, that as it is the undoubted right of the several States of the Federal Union, known as the United States of America, to withdraw from the said Union, at such time and for such cause or causes as in the opinion of the people of each State, acting in their sovereign capacity, may be just and proper, in the opinion of this Convention, the causes are such as to compel the State of Florida to proceed to exercise that right.

The state would secede from the Union three days later.  To learn more about the Castillo de San Marcos, please visit

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article and an excellent blog! VERY pleased that even though you're a southern historian you make no attempt at all to gloss over the reasoning behind Florida's secession. You probably already know this but in case you hadn't heard a "declaration of causes" was recently found in the Florida archives, similar to the declaration of causes published upon secession by the conventions of South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas. Well, Florida's declaration of causes remained unpublished for reasons unknown to me but it was all written up anyway, by the outgoing Governor Madison Starke Perry. The text of it is available here:

Again, great blog and keep up the good work.