Reflecting on St. Augustine’s National Cemetery

Tucked away between Marine Street and Charlotte Street south of the Florida National Guard Headquarters is the St. Augustine National Cemetery. Like the Oldest City itself, the cemetery has quite a long history. The land the burial ground occupies was originally part of a Franciscan monastery at the southern edge of the city. Military forces first occupied the site during the British Period, from 1763 to 1783. Following the transfer of Florida back to Spain as a result of the American Revolution, the location remained under military control. The United States continued this tradition after it gained Florida as a territory in 1821.The old barracks situated there were demolished by the U.S. and converted into a cemetery for the military post. The first burial at this location took place in 1828. Of significance at the site are three coquina pyramids, which mark the interment of U.S. soldiers killed during Dade’s Massacre in 1835. Originally buried at the site of the battle, after the cessation of hostilities, these men were transferred to St. Augustine. A monument was erected later in front of the pyramids to honor those who had perished during the conflict as well.

Reflecting on St. Augustine’s National Cemetery 1

The memorial pyramids and obelisk to Major Dade and his men located at the St. Augustine National Cemetery

The cemetery and the St. Francis Barracks remained in use through the Civil War, though they fell into disrepair in the years after the fighting. With the Confederates as well as the Miccosukee and the Seminole subdued, there was no need for an Army headquarters in the area. The cemetery and the post began to receive necessary updates and upkeep again following the arrival of Brevet Brigadier General Frederick T. Dent at the end of 1875. On December 7, 1881, Commanding General of the United States Army William Tecumseh Sherman issued a general order declaring the Post Cemetery of St. Augustine a national cemetery. By 1893, a coquina wall was constructed to enclose the cemetery. The Spanish-American War of 1898 necessitated the expansion of the grounds, as honorably discharged veterans and casualties of that war were granted permission to be buried there. Also, the early 20th century saw the cemetery begin using marble headstones, the first arriving in August of 1905. In 1912 and 1913, two parcels of land were acquired, and the cemetery reached its present-day size. Efforts to modernize the cemetery during this time, however, sparked controversy. Several marble slabs had been removed, and there were plans to remove one of the pyramids. The St. Augustine Historical Society participated in local efforts to prevent these changes, which were ultimately successful.

In 1938, a new superintendent’s lodge was constructed, though by the late 1940s, the cemetery was approaching capacity. Fort Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola was the only other military cemetery in Florida, until the establishment of the Florida National Cemetery at Bushnell, near where Dade’s Massacre occurred, in 1987. During the early 1950s, there were attempts to gain additional land in St. Augustine and on Anastasia Island for burials. Florida National Guard Adjutant General Mark W. Lance, Florida State Senator Verle Pope, and St. Augustine civic leader Carl W. Hawkins, among others, were all involved in these efforts. As a result of limited space and little headway on expansion, burials during the latter half of the 20th century were limited to the spouses of those already interred or veterans who had reserved a space when that practice was still allowed. With the establishment of the National Cemetery in Bushnell, the Superintendent’s Lodge in St. Augustine was left vacant. The St. Augustine National Cemetery’s maintenance was contracted out or handled by staff from Bushnell. In late 1987, the National Guard was allowed to use the space, which was first occupied by the Director of the Historical Services Division of the Florida Department of Military Affairs, Robert Hawk.

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The St. Augustine National Cemetery today.

In 1986, Hawk began working with the Florida National Guard, tasked with the development and implementation of historical programs. Most notably, Robert Hawk established three museums of Florida military history: St. Francis Barracks, the Tovar House, and the Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park. In addition, he compiled over 150 volumes of archival records related to the Florida National Guard, which have been reproduced and distributed to libraries and archives around the state. He left his position with the Florida National Guard in 1992, though he remained active in the history field. Robert A. Hawk would pass away in 2001, and is one of the many noteworthy individuals buried in the St. Augustine National Cemetery. He is interred with the likes of men such as Brigadier General Martin Davis Hardin, Major Francis L. Dade, and U.S. Navy test pilot Charles Eugene Richbourg. Recently, personnel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visited the Research Library to view our resources on the St. Augustine National Cemetery, as they are beginning a rehabilitation project concerning the wall and the lodge. See what they have to say about the project below, provided by Kristina Whitney, Historic Preservation Technical Lead, and archivist Mindy Phillips. Both work for the Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections. A special thanks to them for providing the following write-up and some of the featured images!

According to Kristina Whitney and Mindy Phillips, “The National Cemetery Administration has partnered with the US Army Corps of Engineers to rehabilitate key historic features of St. Augustine National Cemetery. This is part of a nationwide programmatic effort to bring these unique Superintendent Lodges up to modern standards of livability and functionality while also providing critical maintenance updates. Currently, the lodge faces structural issues with the second-floor cantilevered gallery that will require substantial repair. Additional updates include a new roof, new gutters, and repairs to the doors and windows. The perimeter wall and fence will also receive work, as well as other small features at the cemetery. The wall is out of plumb; this project will correct that issue and improve the foundation. The fence is not historically appropriate and has deteriorated significantly; it will be replaced with a fence that matches the original design. Preparation for this work has so far involved a 3D laser scan of the entire cemetery, multiple building assessments, and a design charrette involving the private sector design team and representatives from NCA, USACE, Florida National Guard, the City of St. Augustine, and the Florida State Historic Preservation Office.”

Written by: Robert Covert

Sources Consulted:

Moore, Gregory A. Sacred Ground- The Military Cemetery at St. Augustine. United States: InstantPublisher.com, 2013.

“St. Augustine National Cemetery.” National Cemetery Administration. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Accessed March 7, 2024. https://www.cem.va.gov/cems/nchp/staugustine.asp#ed

“Cemeteries- National Cemetery.” Vertical File Collection, St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library.

Email correspondence with Kristina Whitney, Historic Preservation Technical Lead, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, Mandatory Center of Expertise – Curation and Archives

Images from the collections of the St. Augustine Historical Society.