Saturday, July 20, 2013

Fort San Carlos in Old Town Fernandina (Forts of Florida #7)

Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park, site of Fort San Carlos
A little known earthwork fort built by the Spanish played at least a passing role in the War Between the States.  Fort San Carlos, which stood on the Plaza de la Constitucion on Old Fernandina, is #7 in our ongoing series on the Forts of Florida

(Please visit http://civilwarflorida.blogspot.com and use the search function to read previous posts in the series).

The Spanish first fortified what is now Fernandina Plaza Historic State Park in around 1800. The city of Fernandina had not yet been established, but the site on the banks of the Amelia River looked across the mouth of the St. Mary's River to Georgia and the United States. Florida was then a colony of Spain.

Another view of the site of Fort San Carlos
Fernandina itself was founded as a Spanish city in 1811, but the next year was captured by a group of revolutionaries known as the Florida Patriots. They forced the surrender of the town's weak fort and raised their flag over Amelia Island. It flew for only one day, however,  before U.S. troops arrived and took possession of Fernandina. The "revolution" had secret but official U.S. backing.

The revolution was ill-conceived and U.S. forces withdrew quickly, turning Fernandina back over to the Spanish. When Spain returned, work began on a new, much stronger fort - Fort San Carlos. Built in a semi-circular design and armed with heavy guns, the fort was completed in 1816. One year later, however, it was captured by the American-backed Scottish adventurer, Gregor MacGregor.

Plan of Fort San Carlos
A soldier of fortune who had fought throughout South America, MacGregor proclaimed what he called the "Republic of Floridas" and raised his "Green Cross of Florida" flag over Fort San Carlos. When expected reinforcements and supplies from backers in the U.S. failed to arrive, however, he sailed away leaving behind around 100 men to hold the fort.

Spain tried to retake Fort San Carlos with a land and sea attack in September 1817, but failed. A short time later, however, the "privateer" (and well-known pirate) Luis Aury arrived with 300 men. A truce was worked out between Aury and MacIntosh's men and he was named commander in chief of Fernandina.  Because he sailed under a letter of marque from the Republic of Mexico, Aury declared that Amelia Island (and Florida itself) was now part of Mexico.

Earthworks of Fort San Carlos can be seen on the bluff.
The United States by now had decided to try again so with the authorization of President James Monroe, U.S. forces appeared off Fernandina in December 1817.  Realizing he could not hold them off, Aury surrendered.  Although the U.S. officially held Amelia Island in trust for Spain, it never returned the island and in 1821 - with the rest of Florida - it became part of the United States.

Fort San Carlos continued to defend the port of Fernandina until 1847 when construction began on nearby Fort Clinch, a massive Third System work. Confederate troops occupied the plaza and the old Spanish earthworks in 1861, building new earthwork batteries nearby.  The old fort was abandoned by 1862, however, when U.S. forces seized Fernandina and Amelia Island.

In a remarkable sketch, a newspaper artist showed the old semi-circular earthwork of Fort San Carlos on the bluff at what by then had become "Old Town" in a sketch of U.S. forces moving up the Amelia River to take possession of what is now Fernandina Beach.  The entire town had moved in 1853 to take advantage of the building of the Florida Railroad which ended one mile south of the old town.

To learn more about Fort San Carlos, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fernandinaplaza.

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