Charles II, the last Spanish Habsburg king, died on November 1, 1700, without a biological heir. His will designated Phillip of Anjou, the grandson of Louis XIV of France, as his chosen heir to the throne of Spain and its entire empire, uniting the royal families of Spain and France. William III of England had foreseen this alliance as a major threat to England’s hopes in the New World, as well as to peace in Europe, and so had reached out to Austria, Brandenburg-Prussia, the Netherlands, most of the German states, and Portugal to form his own alliance. When William III died, his sister-in-law became Queen Anne of England. In May of 1702, Queen Anne and her Grand Alliance declared war on France and Spain. The War of Spanish Succession, also known as Queen Anne’s War, had begun.
Their opening movement was an attack on the Spanish Netherlands. At first look, the Grand Alliance would seem quite the match for Spain and France, but this was only the case in appearance. The majority of the alliance’s members were small nations with no true power unless they banded together with larger nations. Spain had been a global empire for two hundred years by the start of the war, while France, under Louis XIV, had been moving toward becoming the dominant power on the European continent. With Spain, France, and England all having colonial holdings overseas, it would only be a matter of time before war broke out among the people in those colonies in the name of their home countries and kings.
Carolina Declares War
To any intelligent Englishman in North America, it must have seemed obvious where the primary threat to Charles Towne, Carolina, was. Only a week’s sail to the south, the strong Spanish fortress of Castillo de San Marcos and the garrison at St. Augustine were like a loaded gun aimed at the heart of the Carolina Colony. Something had to be done. In late August of 1702, on hearing of the outbreak of Queen Anne’s War, the Carolina Commons started entertaining the idea of an attack against the Spanish in La Florida.
By September, the Commons approved the plan for an attack, proclaiming “the Encouragement to free Plunder and a share of all Slaves,” and “all persons that go on this expedition shall have an equal share of all the plunder.” At the head of the expedition, the Commons placed James Moore, the governor of the colony and the man who first proposed the attack on Spanish outpost.
Moore was not a military man. He was a colonial planter of some success who was described as an “ambitious, active, aggressive high-churchman, an outspoken colonist, and a ruthless slave dealer.” He was known to hate and think lightly of the Spanish, while at the same time holding the French in respect and fear. While he was seen as a powerful man, the Commons still thought it best to place at his side Colonel Robert Daniel, who had been considered for leadership of the expedition. It was thought that Daniel’s military experience would improve the chances of success.
The Siege of St. Augustine
Early in October, Moore moved with his nine ships to Port Royal (Beaufort, SC) to await the arrival of Daniel and their Indian allies before pushing on to St. Augustine. Moore’s fleet left Port Royal on October 16th bound for Florida. While the English forces were out to sea, the Spanish would have no intelligence until the English came ashore somewhere in La Florida to attack.
Commanding the Spanish at St. Augustine was Joseph de Zúñiga y Zérda, the governor of Spanish Florida. Zúñiga was a man of over twenty years experience with the Spanish military in a number of different posts throughout the empire. Often described as “a thoughtful, inspiring, and cautious leader,” Zúñiga would prove himself in the defense of St. Augustine. As early as October 27th, intelligence of an impending English attack was coming in from the frontier through Spain’s native allies. Zúñiga quickly began to arrange his men and materials. He called for the recent harvest to be brought from the farms to the town to be stored. All livestock was to be driven into and corralled in the dry moat of the Castillo de San Marcos. These supplies, along with the two months worth of rations already in the storerooms at the Castillo, would allow the garrison to hold on until help arrived from the nearest Spanish post: Havana, Cuba. Upon receiving the news of an impending attack, Zúñiga sent word to Havana, Pensacola, French Mobile, and his own outlying posts in La Florida asking for additional troops and aid, but it could take two or three months before reinforcements might arrive. Zúñiga called his own reserve officers and militia to active duty and barred anyone from leaving the town without his permission.
Moore’s forces landed at midnight on November 3rd, attacking the Spanish mission at the north end of Amelia Island. They held all of the island and its missions by the end of the next day. With the loss of the outposts on Amelia and with the knowledge of his own garrison’s weaknesses, Zúñiga made the decision to use the strength of the Castillo to hold out until relief could arrive to break a siege. At dawn on the 8th of November, while Zúñiga was inspecting the Castillo’s artillery, the English fleet came into view off the mouth of the inlet. All that day and into the next, supplies and equipment were moved into the Castillo as the English fleet moved to blockade the harbor of St. Augustine. On the 9th, with the arrival of Spanish refugees from the surrounding countryside, came word of an English Army moving overland toward the city, speeding up the evacuation. By the 10th, almost 1500 people, had taken refuge inside the Castillo.
Upon arrival, the English land forces burned the Mission at Nombre de Dios, a few hundred yards north of the fortress. This attack was broken up by a Spanish patrol stampeding of 163 head of cattle through the forming English lines and down into the Castillo’s moat. That day also saw the garrison’s greatest tragedy. An old 16-pounder iron cannon exploded while being fired, killing three men and wounding five others. Half of this cannon is on display inside the Castillo today.
The attack now settled into a siege. Unable to attack the Castillo by direct assault, the English surrounded the fort and cut off its supply lines. Digging a series of trenches, the English inched closer to the Castillo, attempting to get their cannon in a position to breach its walls. The Spanish fired constantly on the English to slow their progress. By November 22, the English realized their small cannons were ineffective against the fortress walls. They sent to Jamaica for larger cannons, mortars, and bombs. The heaviest fighting of the siege was November 25th, when both sides engaged in a twenty-four hour gun duel that included both sides setting fire to sections of the city to clear lanes for firing.
On Christmas Eve, supply ships from Charles Towne arrived in support of Moore’s forces, but this was followed on the 26th by the arrival of the much hoped-for Spanish relief force from Havana, in the form of four Spanish man-of-war. His position untenable in the face of a fresh army behind him and the Castillo still before him, Moore’s attack was over. After setting their ships ablaze, the English troops marched up the beach toward the mouth of the St. Johns River. Daniel’s troops and native allies marched up the inland waterway after burning the rest of St. Augustine to the ground.
The siege lifted, the Spanish began to refortify and strengthen the city and the Castillo. The English retreated, but continued to strengthen their American colonies. Conflicting interests in Europe would continue to create warfare across the globe. St. Augustine would be attacked again; it was only a question of time. The Spanish were determined to be ready.