The St. Augustine Record reported yesterday that city archaeologist Carl Halbirt had unearthed another section of a wall constructed of coquina stone that once surrounded the city. Known as the Rosario Line, the wall was constructed around 1762, at the very end of Spanish control over Florida, and once stood between six and seven feet above ground. The Record states that discovery appears to support some historians’ assertion that St. Augustine was once the most heavily defended community in this nation. “Some communities like Charleston used its resources to develop a plantation economy,” Halbirt is quoted as saying, “[while] (Spanish) St. Augustine used all its resources to defend itself against the English.”
While I agree that this is an exciting archaeological discovery, my enthusiasm is tempered by two historical points.
First, the Rosario Line, described as a relatively narrow stone wall approximately six to seven feet high, would have been a very antiquated—even impractical—style of fortification line by the middle of the eighteenth century. Stone walls shatter when hit by cannon fire, necessitating costly and time-consuming repairs. By the 1760s, the era of the Rosario Line, European military engineers like John Muller were advocating the use of thicker walls made primarily of earth as a more practical alternative. With the exception of the brick “wharf wall” along Charleston’s eastern shoreline, and the tabby bastion walls constructed in the 1750s, this city’s walls were mostly of the earthwork variety.
Second, St. Augustine’s long history as a walled city is inextricably linked to the rise of similar fortifications in colonial Charleston. Between the founding of this English city in 1670 and the end of Spanish control of Florida in 1763, Charleston and St. Augustine engaged in a sort of colonial arms race that spurred the construction of urban fortifications in both towns on a scale not witnessed in most other North American communities. While Carl Halbirt asserts that colonial Charleston spent its fortunes on developing a plantation economy, he is not yet aware of my recent research proving that Charleston’s urban fortifications were colonial South Carolina’s greatest public works project and that this city’s landscape included defensive walls, bastions, moats, and drawbridges from the 1680s to the 1780s.
I believe there are two important lessons to be learned from the recent archaeological discovery in St. Augustine. First, the city of Charleston should follow the example of St. Augustine and create a position of “city archaeologist” and enact an ordinance to mandate an archaeological survey of all public and private digs within a specified historical zone. Second, there should be a more robust line of communication between Charleston and St. Augustine so that we can accurately tell the story of the colonial tensions between these two great, old cities. Members of the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force have enjoyed some informal communication with Carl Halbirt in the past, but the time has come to establish a more substantial dialog that will enhance the historical narrative of both of our communities.