Focus on the 450th: Fort Mose rebuilds to bring history to life


Imagine the sound of a booming cannon sounding off in the distance and the smell of gunpowder slowly rising and wafting through the air. There are Spanish soldiers dressed for war with rifles in their arms pointed at the British waiting for them to make their move.

It may be hard to make this scene really come to life but the re-enactors of Fort Mose Historic State Park have managed to do just that.

This weekend is when the Fort Mose staff invites visitors to take a step back in time to the day the British attempted to invade the fort and claim it as their own at the Bloody Battle of Mose.

The historic site where the re-enactment takes place is the home of the very first free African-American settlement in the United States.

More than 170 years after Pedro Menendez de Aviles found St. Augustine, Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, otherwise known as Fort Mose, was founded as an establishment for African-American freedmen as well as the northern defense post for St. Augustine.

Fort Mose State Park Director Warren Poplin said, “In 1693 the Spanish issued an edict that promised freedom in St. Augustine to slaves that fled from the British plantations in South Carolina and Georgia. The Spanish hoped to attract enough slaves that it would weaken the economic base of the British colony and strengthen the Spanish colony with workers and militia, therefore the establishment of Fort Mose.”

The Spanish accepted the runaway slaves on one condition. They had to defend the city and convert their religion.

“This is a group of African-Americans that were told that they could have their freedom. They were escaped slaves, many of them. They could have their freedom. All they had to do was convert to Catholicism — Spanish Catholicism — and defend the city,” said Dana Ste. Claire, 450th commemoration director.

To defend the city at that time, the builders of Fort Mose tactfully built it to face Robinson Creek. This way, if the enemy attacked from the north, soldiers could escape by water to retreat to the Castillo.

Playing the part

Richard Shortlidge, who is a volunteer of Florida Living History, embodies a Spanish Royal Marine, named Ricardo Sanchez Solana, who lived around the time Fort Mose stood.

Speaking as Solana, Shortlidge recalled Fort Mose to have an earthen base and stand in the shape of a square with palm logs on the sides of the construction.

On the outskirts of the fort, there was a moat filled with Spanish Bayonet and prickly pear to keep enemies, like the British, out.

In the very center of the fort was a watch tower that allowed the watchdogs to see high above the fort.

This fort thrived until it was abandoned because of James Oglethorpe’s attack on St. Augustine and the Mose.

The establishment came tumbling down when Oglethorpe and his troops used it as a place to lay their heads at night. Instead of building the fort back up, the British tore it down further. They did not realize this was a grave mistake because of what was coming next.

“Early in the morning on the 26th, about 300 Spanish soldiers, led by the Black militia and our Yamassee allies, we attacked the British in Fort Mose. The amazing thing about it is we caught them by surprise because you would think that within the 2 mile distance within the city of St. Augustine, which really had no trees, there was nothing to hide behind, but they were so cavalier, that they didn’t think we’d every do anything. They actually thought we were more cowards. We were chickens. We weren’t going to come out of the city and attack them. So you can imagine their surprise when we show up unexpected,” said Shortlidge.

Shortlidge went on to say only three men were lost out of 300 Spanish soldiers. The British lost almost half of their force and about a quarter were captured and 25 percent escaped.

This was the Battle of Blood Mose and although the battle was won, Fort Mose lay in ruins and the inhabitants lost their homes.

When the British took possession of Florida, Fort Mose residents packed up and moved to Cuba to form a new town.

Luckily, that’s not where the history ends.

Becoming a landmark

Fort Mose was bought by Florida and made a national landmark.

In order to recreate that day so long ago and make the re-enactments more impactful, the Fort Mose Historical Society and the African-American Community of Freedom has banded together with Focus 450 to raise funds and get the perimeter walls of Fort Mose rebuilt.

Thomas Jackson, central region supervisor at the St. Johns County Recreation and Parks Department and vice president at Fort Mose Historical Society, recalled a woman he met during the Olympics of 1996 when the torch was traveling through St. Augustine.

Jackson said she spotted a sign he was holding that read, “Fort Mose Historical Society welcomes the torch — the Olympic torch.”

When the lady approached Jackson, she asked where Fort Mose was located. She said she wanted to just stand on the ground of Fort Mose, which was only bushes at the time, because it was sacred to her.

“It was something significant to her and I think that’s what we need to be diligent about, telling the story, keeping the history alive and not letting other people tell all the story of what we experienced. We need to be the storytellers,” Jackson said.


What: Scenes from the Battle of Bloody Mose

When: 11 a.m. today

Where: Fort Mose

Information: Call 823-2232 or go to