An early Florida cemetery that easily pre-dates its title as a National Cemetery, this small graveyard is the main repository for US Army dead from the Second Seminole War.
The St. Augustine National Cemetery is one of the city’s four historic cemeteries located in the old town district of St. Augustine. As national cemeteries go, it’s small, measuring only 1.4 acres (0.57 hectares). It has over 2700 interments and as of 2020 it’s generally closed to new burials.
The US National Cemetery System was created by Congress during the American Civil War to develop a series of federally managed cemeteries due to the vast numbers (at least 620,000) of military casualties during the war. Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington DC, is probably the best-known, but there are a total of 147 in the US as of 2020. The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) manages the majority of them.
Burials at the St. Augustine National Cemetery began in 1821, but the history of the land goes back much further and involves both the Spanish and the British as well as Americans. Founded in 1565, St. Augustine was the Spanish Military’s foothold on the Atlantic shore of North America. Along with the military and some colonists, the Catholic Church had an important role in the settlement, including establishing a Franciscan monastery on the southern end of the settlement, close to the Matanzas River.
In 1763, the British took possession of Florida and like nearly all the Spanish settlers, the Franciscan monks left the territory. The monastery was then converted to the St. Francis Military Barracks. Twenty years later, the Spanish took the territory back, but kept the barracks for their own military. Finally, a third change in power occurred in 1821 with the Spanish ceding the peninsula to the US.
The US kept it as a military installation in connection with the garrison stationed at the Castillo de San Marcos, which they renamed Fort Marion. The Army was reportedly the first to start burials on the site. The cemetery records state that the first burial happened in 1828 and that most of the early burials were “soldiers who died during the Indian War, either in battle or due to sickness and disease.”
The war referred to is the Second Seminole War (1835–1842) when the US attempted to collect all Seminoles in the Florida Territory and force them to move to the Indian Territory – what would become Oklahoma. 1,466 US military deaths were recorded in the Second Seminole War, mostly from disease. The number of Seminoles who died, as well as the number of White civilians isn’t known. The Seminoles were nearly wiped out in Florida with only a few surviving by going deep into the Everglades. The rest were either killed or forced to the Indian Territory.
The cemetery holds the largest number of Second Seminole War US military dead. Included in the memorials in the cemetery are ones for what is commonly known as the Dade Massacre – The 1835 ambush by a group of Seminole warriors which resulted in the death of 107 soldiers out of a force of 110, with an additional one of the three survivors killed the next day. The massacre was the start of the war.
Major Francis L. Dade and the men under his command are among those honored by three large coquina block pyramids. Created in 1842, the pyramids are about 5 foot (1.5 meter) tall and 6 foot (1.8 meter) long on each side of the base. In 1844, an 18 foot (5.5 meter) tall marble obelisk was placed near the pyramids, keeping with the Egyptian theme (The text inscribed on the obelisk is shown below the photos). Reportedly, soldiers of the St. Augustine Garrison donated one day’s pay to cover the cost of the monument. The monuments are the markers for 1468 soldiers intered in the cemetery.
St. Augustine saw little action during the US Civil War. Ft. Marion was essentially abandoned by the Union Army at the start of the war and the Confederate Army took control of it for a little over a year when the mayor of St. Augustine surrendered to the Union and the Confederates left hastily. Not a shot was fired by or at the fort during the war and the Confederacy did not use the military cemetery. The Union began using the fort as a prison during and after the war. It would remain one until the fort’s operational life ended in 1900.
After the war, Union soldiers were buried in the cemetery. In general, it was used only for military who died at Ft. Marion. In 1881 it was reclassified to be an official national cemetery and opened to interments of veterans. In 1893, a surrounding wall was built. The cemetery was expanded between 1912 and 1913.
In 1970, the St. Augustine National Cemetery became part of a National Historic Landmark’s historic district that encompasses the oldest part of the city.
The cemetery is located at the southern end of the historic old city, surrounded by houses. Even on days when St. Augustine is busy with many tourists, the cemetery is generally quiet as the other attractions are not next door. It’s a great place to explore, especially to learn more about the nearly forgotten Seminole Wars and the United States campaign to cleanse Florida of Indians. Those three wars were the longest and most costly wars against Indians in US history and were, by far, the most significant military actions in Florida.
The St. Augustine National Cemetery is one of the most important cemeteries in the Sunshine State.
Inscribed on the obelisk in the cemetery:
The monument has been erected in token of respectful affectionate remembrance by their comrades of all grades and is committed to the care & preservation of the garrison of St. Augustine.
A minute record of all the officers who perished and are here or elsewhere deposited as also a portion of the soldiers has been prepared and placed in the Office of the Adjutant of the post where it is hoped it will be carefully and perpetually preserved.
Sacred to the memory of the officers and soldiers killed in battle and died on service during the Florida War.
This conflict in which so many gallant men perished in battle and by disease commenced 25th December 1835, and terminated 14th August 1842.
The St. Augustine National Cemetery is one of 9 national cemeteries in Florida. It’s the second oldest as a national cemetery (Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola was established in 1968) and the oldest as a cemetery in general.
St. Augustine’s other historic cemeteries are the Tolomato Cemetery, Huguenot Cemetery and the Mission Nombre de Dios Cemetery.