Hot, humid, the sun glinting off the almost still waters of Matanzas Bay.

That was the background on Friday for commemorating the First Muster of Militia in the United States.

As I watched the re-enactors and heard the weapons fire, the scene was filled with irony. The event we were commemorating took place 453 years ago just as a huge storm threatened our area. On Friday we stood watching the event on a nice day in St. Augustine while we knew that Hurricane Florence was battering the people of the Carolinas, just as a hurricane had done hear during the first muster.

On Sept. 16, 1565, a week after Spaniard Pedro Menendez de Aviles established St. Augustine, he prepared to head north to oust the French from their fort on the St. Johns River. Menendez had orders from Spain's King Philip to remove the French fort, which was built in Spanish-claimed territory in 1564.

Menendez told his soldiers that he saw a good opportunity to overcome the French at Fort Caroline and that it should not be wasted. French ships were forced to put out to sea to avoid the storm and the undermanned fort would not expect an attack in such bad weather. Menendez intended to take about 500 soldiers with him.

He would rely on the 50 or so men left behind to serve as the militia to protect the people of the infant city. Menendez made his brother Bartolome captain of the militia.

Today it all seems so orderly and organized. Not so.

Menendez gathered some of his troops into a meeting to explain in secrecy his plan to assault Fort Caroline. Eye-witness Gonzalo Solis de Meras wrote that Menendez said "we should take five hundred soldiers - two parts harquebusiers and one part pike men." We will take "rations for a week in our packs and, without porters, carrying our weapons on our back." He expected that about 50 of the soldiers would not survive the attack on the French. Much discussion following, both in support of and in opposition to the expedition. Finally it was decided to move ahead.

But Menendez had leakers among his soldiers and they spread the confidential information about the attack among the ordinary settlers. The following morning and after the soldiers had "slept on" the idea, Menendez faced a good bit of opposition. Some of Menendez's company captains balked at Menendez's daring and risky idea and openly opposed him.

Menendez decided to hold another meeting, this time over "a fine meal." He warned that disclosure of the discussions would be considered a mortal sin.

If any of the captains were to change his mind about participating, that man would be stripped of his command.

According to Solis de Meras, on Sept. 18 "at dawn they sounded reveille with the trumpets, fifes and drums. Everyone came to hear Mass and afterward they departed to good-luck wishes."

On Sept. 19, Menendez's party was close to the fort and he went to reconnoiter the land. But there was still not buy-in from some of the captains. Menendez feared if he called a council to discuss strategy for the assault, his men might turn against him. Some were openly defiant and one was so bold as to say within earshot of Menendez: "Look how we are being misguided. He is as ignorant of land warfare as an ass. If it had been up to me, the same day he left St. Augustine on this journey, he would have gotten what is coming to him!" Menendez pretended not to hear him in order to proceed as planned.

As we know, the attack went forward and the Spanish who had marched from St. Augustine took the French fort. I wonder what the naysayers said then.

Note: For the quotes, I have used the recent translation made by David Arbesú in "Pedro Menendez de Aviles and the conquest of Florida, A New Manuscript."

 

Susan R. Parker holds a doctorate in colonial history.