Although the St. Augustine burial ground was not designated a national cemetery until 1881, this hallowed site played a vital role in the colorful history of the oldest city in the nation. St. Augustine was originally established in the 17th century as a Spanish colonial possession. The land that is now a national cemetery was part of a Franciscan monastery, and the southern boundary marks the periphery of the old Spanish-walled city. During England’s rule of Florida from 1763 to 1783, the monastery was occupied by the military. During the second Spanish occupation of Florida, from 1783 to 1821, the property remained in the hands of the military.
When the United States gained possession of Florida in 1821, the old fort barracks was set aside for a post cemetery. According to historical records, the first interment took place in 1828. Most early burials were soldiers who died during the “Indian War,” either in battle or due to sickness and disease—not uncommon in Florida’s subtropical climate. The native Seminoles resisted the U.S. government’s attempts to forcibly remove them from their territory and seven years of fighting ensued.
On Dec. 23, 1835, Maj. Francis L. Dade and his company were ordered to reinforce Gen. Wiley Thompson’s troops stationed at Fort King, Ocala. During the trek from Tampa to Fort King, Dade became lost and announced to his men that they had successfully passed through Seminole-controlled territory. As a result, he failed to take appropriate precautions. The heavy winter garments of the soldiers covered their weapons, so that when the Seminoles staged an attack, Dade’s troops were virtually wiped out—only one soldier purportedly survived. A few months later, when travel in the area was again possible, the massacred soldiers were buried at the site.
In 1842 when hostilities ceased, the Army proposed to transfer the remains of all who died in the territory, including those who fell with Dade, to a single burial ground. Reinterment took place at the St. Augustine Post Cemetery. In addition to Dade’s command, more than 1,400 soldiers were interred in three collective graves. Three distinctive pyramids constructed of native coquina stone were erected in their memory, as well as several nearby plain white markers to designate the graves of Seminole Indian scouts.
When Florida became the 27th state in the Union in 1845, the city was already developing as a winter resort, offering a warm climate that attracted northern visitors. Florida seceded from the Union in 1861 and Confederate troops raised the fourth flag to fly over the city; sentiment in St. Augustine was about equally divided between the North and the South. The Confederate army appropriated Fort Marion and St. Francis Barracks.
The city suffered greatly under federal blockades, and in March 1862 when a Union gunboat entered St. Augustine harbor, the mayor quickly surrendered. It was again a permanent part of the Union. Two decades after the Civil War, St. Augustine again flourished and the commander of St. Francis Barracks recognized the need to assure the proper care and respectful treatment of the old post cemetery. That same year, Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery Meigs proposed that “As Florida is now a resort of many thousands of citizens with their families in search of benefit from its mild winter climate, it will only be becoming to put this cemetery, too long neglected and falling lately into decay, into as good condition as the other national cemeteries.” The adjutant general concurred, and the post burial grounds were declared a national cemetery.
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