In 1738, Spanish militia Capt. Francisco Menéndez was the commander of a North Florida military garrison in St. Augustine known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose. The area was later named Fort Mose, but according to the National Park Service, Fort Mose when commanded by Menéndez, was the first free black community in what would become the United States. Menéndez was black.
Black slaves fled British territories to live free at Mose. They also served in Mose’s militia which is considered by historians, including some in the Florida National Guard, to be the predecessor of the modern-day Florida National Guard. In fact, historians have proof that the Spanish militias were the first European militias to muster in what would become the United States and that they existed more than 70 years before the British Anglo militias organized and mustered.
In 2020, the Depot Blog published a four-part series that did an in-depth investigation into this topic. Although the Anglo militias in 1636 are given lineage credit by the U.S. Army and the National Guard claims those militias are its predecessors, the fact is that Spanish militias, which included freed black slaves, were truly the first European militias in what would become the United States. A phenomenon known as the Black Legend would align history to ignore the Spanish and African lineage that contributed to the development of this country.
Born in West Africa, Menéndez fled slavery in the British territories through Georgia, making his way to Florida in 1724. In exchange for emancipation, like other former slaves, he converted to Catholicism and joined the Spanish militias. The garrison and community thrived until the British came to Florida.
In May 1740, Gen. James Oglethorpe, founder and governor of the British colony in Georgia, marched on St. Augustine and captured Fort Mose which had been abandoned to prevent civilian bloodshed as the British approached. The townspeople retreated from Mose and gathered inside the walls of St. Augustine to regroup and plan.
One June 26, the attack known as “Bloody Mose” crushed Oglethorpe’s forces and caused them to retreat to Georgia.
“At length they came on again sword in hand and entered the gate. At the same time another party entered one of the breaches so that the fort was once full of Spaniards, it being then about half an hour before the day,” a British soldier wrote of the battle, according to the Florida Park Service and the Fort Mose Historical Society.
Florida’s Spanish Governor, Don Manuel de Montiano, wrote shortly after the battle that he had “sent out 300 men to make an attack on the Fort of Mose … Our people swept over it with such impetuosity that it fell with a loss of 68 dead and 34 prisoners.” According to historical records, only two dozen British soldiers survived.
The post was reclaimed and rebuilt by the Spaniards (free blacks). Menéndez joined a Spanish privateer and in 1741, he was captured and sold into slavery in the Bahamas. It is unknown if he escaped or if he gained freedom because the Spanish paid a ransom for him, but in 1759 he returned to Florida to again lead Fort Mose.
Fort Mose prospered until 1763 when Florida was ceded to Britain by treaty. Menéndez was evacuated to Cuba with others from Fort Mose. In Cuba, he established San Agustín de la Nueva Florida, a similar free black community like he had helped build in Florida.
The site of Fort Mose is now designated a National Historic Landmark after the original site was an archeological dig in the 1990s.
It is not known when Menéndez died or where.
Steve Alvarez is the author of Selling War A Critical Look at the Military's PR Machine published by Potomac Books.