Victorian St. Augustine: A General’s Winter Haven


Victorian St. Augustine: A General’s Winter Haven 1

Military portrait of Gen. Hardin seated in chair ca. 1865.

         Born into a prominent family in Jacksonville, Illinois with strong ancestral ties to the state of Kentucky and the young nation itself, Martin Davis Hardin graduated from West Point in 1859. During his illustrious military career, Hardin eventually rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the United States Army during the Civil War. He fought gallantly at Malvern Hill, Second Bull Run, Bristoe Station, Mine Run, Gettysburg, and in many more pivotal battles.  He suffered at least four major battle wounds, two of which nearly cost him his life and led to his left arm being amputated. Hardin was not only a soldier, but a practicing attorney as well as military historian that later became a long-term, prominent winter resident of St. Augustine.

            Beginning in the early 1880s, Hardin and his first wife Estelle travelled south for the winter for their health. Hardin contracted malaria in 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign, and Estelle suffered from tuberculosis. In 1885, General Hardin and Estelle began renting the Tovar House at 22 St. Francis Street for fifteen dollars a month. Shortly thereafter, General Hardin’s health vastly improved. Hardin thus decided to make the most out his winter vacations in St. Augustine.

          Martin Davis Hardin’s time in the Ancient City overlapped with that of another affluent individual, Henry Morrison Flagler. By 1885, Flagler was making tremendous strides in transforming St. Augustine into an extravagant winter colony for affluent visitors, strides which included the construction of the Hotel Ponce de Leon. Known for its opulence and beauty, Hotel Ponce de Leon hosted many extravagant balls and dances, some of which General Hardin attended with his wife. According to The Tatler, a St. Augustine publication for high society, the Hotel Ponce de Leon alone hosted a ball every Tuesday and Friday of the 1891 winter season. Hotel Ponce de Leon was not the only place where balls and dances were hosted, however, as other luxurious hotels were built later that also hosted such events.

          Private residences hosted more intimate balls and dances as well. Both General Hardin and his sister, Ellen Hardin Walworth (one of the founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution or DAR), held their own private balls. One evening in particular made it onto the pages of The Tatler itself. According to The Tatler, “One of the prettiest parties given in this city, in recent years, was the ball given by General M. D. Hardin, in honor of his guests…” The ball was furnished with “a table loaded with delicacies, delicious salads, dainty sandwiches, coffee.” Additionally, “Not the least enjoyable feature of the evening was the last dance, the old time Virginia reel. Sixteen couples advanced and bowed and grew gay over the exhilarating dance that ended as Ash Wednesday dawned.”

Victorian St. Augustine: A General’s Winter Haven 2

Group photo of Union Brigadier General Martin D. Hardin, seated in the center (legs not crossed) wearing civilian clothes, with others around him at Fort Slocum, Washington, D.C., August 1865

          To General Hardin, St. Augustine was not a mere sanitorium for the ill, but a blossoming coastal vacation destination for the wealthy social elite. In honor of an old resident the Tovar House currently hosts an exhibition on Hardin and the Gilded Age of St. Augustine titled, The Winter Colony: Affluent Tourists in St. Augustine during the Gilded Age. Also, the St. Augustine Historical Society will be hosting the Hardin Soiree on April 11, 2024.


Written by: Shelby Fox

Edited by: Robert Covert


Huffstodt, Jim. Lincoln’s Bold Lion: The Life and Times of Union brigadier general Martin Davis Hardin, 1837-1923. Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2015.

Marcotte, Anna M. “Ball.” The Tatler of Society in Florida 1, no. 9 (1892): 8.