Fort Caroline: Spanish American War Battery

by Tim Gilmore, 11/22/2016

Though the Army Corps of Engineers built the foundation three feet thick of tabby-like shell concrete topped with a mix of concrete and granite, and the battery seems to crawl forth up the bluff from the strength of the earth, just as human existence is a natural outcropping of the planet, this war fort is no monument to bloodshed, but a place of peace.

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The guns never fired. Behind concrete parapets, the two eight foot long, 16-ton “rifles” peered over the bluff, waiting for the Spanish ships to take the St. Johns River into Jacksonville. A tram had crawled up temporary tracks through the woods to haul the guns and munitions to their perch. Six wooden buildings—including stables, a watchman’s house, and a kitchen—surrounded the fort. Two miles of cables secured “floating mines” across the river.

The Spanish American War began in February, 1898, land clearing and construction of the fort began in April, and Spain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris, ending the war, on December 10th.

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I walk with Elizabeth Guthrie, stewardship manager for North Florida Land Trust, down into the tunnels beneath the battery, into the underground chambers where munitions were stored. The concrete walls are thick, bombproof. Heavy metal doors once guarded these rooms. Today, in the darkness lit only by cell phone, we see one small brown bat, hanging upside down from the ceiling, asleep, in pure peace.

Through a small round hole in the dank chamber ceiling, I see the sky breathe blue, a strong oak branch bear green, and Spanish moss drip gray and guru-bearded.

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Around the corner, a crude graffit0 heart etched into the entrance to the munitions magazine declares the love of Ellis Milligan and June Brunson, 1937. That heart testifies to the battery’s history more truthfully than the iron rings on the uppermost stone deck that once housed those massive unfired guns.

Arlington-area historian Cleve Powell says the partying and lovemaking began at the battery in the 1930s, but I suspect this history is older. Teenagers who grew up in the once sparsely populated Arlington area, especially in those houses in the hills around St. Johns Bluff and Fort Caroline, escaped to the old fort on Friday and Saturday nights and less populated Tuesdays at twilight.

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photo courtesy Library of Congress

Hundreds of teenagers for dozens of years, 1940s and 1950s, thought this fort was the original Fort Caroline, built by the French in these woods and hills in the 1560s to challenge Spain for this new land, centuries lost. Kids said the subterranean gunpowder room once was a dungeon where prisoners were tortured to death.

Obviously the place was haunted. Especially if independence in the world was new to you and you brought your date here, and the trees and underbrush rattled and hissed indecipherably, and the moon glowed fulsome when it was full. Obviously ghosts rose from the depths of the battery. Obviously spirits pined for the lovely boys and girls they’d lost to torture and the wasteful and stupid romances of martyrdom and war.

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photo courtesy Library of Congress

The true tales, however, were surely quixotic and Rabelaisian enough. When the Seventh Army Corps poured into Jacksonville and its environs, encamping in areas like Springfield, Fairfield in East Jacksonville, and northward to Panama Park, the entire amassing of some 30,000 troops became known as Camp Cuba Libre. Ostensibly in Jacksonville to fight for Cuba’s independence from Spain after the American vessel, the U.S.S. Maine, exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, the soldiers far outnumbered the population of the city and, as soldiers have done always, drank and fought and whored across the landscape.

But these gun embankments, the most visible and prominent remainder / reminder of the Spanish American War in Jacksonville, remained, from their beginnings, at peace. The guns fired not even in practice.

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original blueprint, courtesy Library of Congress

The mines were removed from the river. The guns were dismantled and sent to Pensacola. A man named B.J. Starling resided at the battery as watchman for $60 a month. Like smoke rising through the oaks, the original purpose of the battery dissipated into the new century.

The view over the river beneath a full moon provided the poetry many a boy could not offer the girl he brought beneath these august oaks. Boy scouts camped in the stillborn fort and hiked the bluffs along and down to the river.

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Kids smoked pot here in the early 1970s and the early 1990s. Before new neighbors encroached too closely with riverfront mansions, kids arrived as early as they could on particular Saturday nights because the crowd at the battery would be standing-room-only.

They told stories of the narrow holes that opened skyward from the tunnels and spoke of deeper tunnels that trapped smaller children and drained them down to the river. Boys and girls lost their virginity on these foundations and within these walls in the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1980s. Perhaps the spirits they believed haunted these grounds and witnessed walking up from munitions tunnels were the ghosts of their virginities.

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The fort moved ownerships for a century until a real estate developer named David Radcliffe purchased the site at a tax-deed auction in 2013 after Duval County seized the property for back taxes.

When Genevieve DeLoach of Atlantic Beach celebrated her 100th birthday, she told her friends the best present they could give her was a donation to the North Florida Land Trust to save the battery. City Hall followed. So did numerous donors smaller and larger. After restoring the fort, the land trust will hand it over to the National Park Service for inclusion in the Fort Caroline National Memorial.

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I witness, so gratefully, as one small man on one living green and blue planet in all outer space, blue-green cedars that grow up from concrete slabs, nativized French Mulberries, palmettos, and camphors that rise from and over human stone.

On this tall hill over the waters, war self-aborted. Soldiers abandoned their artillery. In the subsequent century, boys and girls, and surely I’ve been them, caught themselves up in the glorious cone of descending moonlight. Alcoholics took their first drink. Fundamentalists first found Jesus. At least one Cracker princess laid a man down and proclaimed, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!”