Guest Column: Ill-Fated Mission Remembered
By Michael Isam
St Augustine, FL
The actions of a shallow-draft vessel saved St Augustine from British takeover.
Pomp and circumstance with pipes and drums, two local color guards and plenty of re-enactors, were the order of the day at Oglethorpe Battery Park in Davis Shores as over 400 people turned out for the dedication of three 18th century replica cannons.
Due to the foresight of Governor Manuel de Montiano sending a courier to Havana asking for supplies to endure a rumored siege by the British, it would be over 273 years before cannons were fired from Anastasia Island toward Fort Matanzas. Three symbolic mortar rounds fired by local re-enactor Brian Bowman, and answered by the cannoneers at the fort who kindly returned a cannon shot of their own.
According to records at the Fort Matanzas National Monument, James Oglethorpe, the Governor of the British colonies of Savannah, the Georgia Colony, and Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island used the War of Jenkins’ Ear as an excuse to capture St. Augustine and its formidable fort.
The 1,100 pound cannons were secured by donations to the St. Augustine 450th Military Commemoration Committee in cooperation with the Veteran’s Council of St. Johns County, the St. Augustine British Club, and the St Augustine North Davis Shores Neighborhood Association.
Speeches given by dignitaries included British Rear Admiral Tim Fraser who said “Talking about activities that place Britain on the other side can, at times, feel a little uncomfortable.” Fraser went on to say the on-going relationship with the United Sates is “one more of family than of just friends.”
After Fraser’s talk, the St. Augustine British Club, led by Gen. James Oglethorpe, portrayed by Scott Hodges, from Darien, Ga., proudly raised the British Colonial Flag, which will fly permanently at the park.
Other speakers were U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Sinclair M. Harris, Retired U.S. Army Col. Rik Erkelens, local historian Roger Smith, and Col. Ron Radford, chairman of the 450th Military Commemoration Committee.
Smith gave a delightful oral presentation of the historical event, beginning with “Y’all do know this is a British commemoration, right? You do know Pedro’s not coming.” “You will notice,” continued Smith, “that the cannons are not of the field artillery type with large wheels so as to be easily transported and moved into position.” “These are deck cannons from ships,” said Smith, “and have very small wheels. If the weather in 1740 was anything like today, the British sailors and soldiers who literally ‘dragged’ the cannons, were appropriately pooped by the time they arrived at this spot.” “Remember,” said Smith, “this was ‘Old Florida’, not Davis Shores.”
“It must have been very disheartening to the British,” Smith continued, “to wake in the morning and not see evidence of any cannon strike anywhere on the walls of the fort.” “Of course, what the British did not know was the Spanish would remove the imbedded cannon balls from the walls and then paint over the holes.”
On July 7 the courier who had been sent to Cuba returned to St. Augustine with news that six supply ships were at Mosquito Inlet, known today as Ponce de Leon Inlet. The courier also reported the British had withdrawn the vessel blocking Matanzas Inlet, and re-provisioning the city could begin.
Information from a British deserter told of an impending night attack sometime during the next seven days. When no attack came after 6 days, Montiano sent five small vessels down the Matanzas River, out the Matanzas Inlet, and on to Mosquito Inlet to fetch the supplies.
According to more records at Fort Matanzas, “The returning boats met two British sloops, performing soundings, at Matanzas Inlet.” “The sloops opened fire and took up chase until twilight when they returned to their squadron. This withdrawal gave the Spanish flotilla the needed opening to enter the Matanzas Inlet, sail up-river, and anchor at St. Augustine.”
Fearing the approaching hurricane season, out of ammunition, now facing a Spanish flotilla and a well-supplied city, Gen. Oglethorpe and the British fleet sailed north for safer waters and raising the siege on July 20, 1740.
Radford offered “the glorification of war is not our agenda, but rather to establish St Augustine as the premier destination for learning about the vital role of the military, as demonstrated by 450 years of continuous protection of our city, our state, and our nation.” They appear to be off to a good start.
Photo credits: © 2013 Historic City News contributed photograph by Michael Isam