Defending the Presidio : Night Watch

A Night Watch reenactor

We all know about Nights of Lights here in St. Augustine, but what about Night Watch? Let’s learn a little more about this military exercise turned festive.

In the colonial period of St. Augustine, the town was mostly occupied by soldiers at the Castillo or their family members. The town revolved around the fort and protecting the surrounding city from any invaders. St. Augustine needed protection day and night, but in a pre-electricity world, the nighttime shift would have been a challenge. There was only one way to create light after sunset in the 1700s: fire.

Reenactors lighting the torches for Night Watch

The Night Watch tradition in St. Augustine is mostly associated with the British Period (1763-1783), the twenty years in which the Florida colonies were controlled by England between the two Treaties of Paris. At that time, St. Augustine would have been one of only a few cities with surrounding walls on the continent. When night fell, the British soldiers on duty would perform a routine check of each break in the wall, making sure each gate and redoubt were properly protected against invaders. Torches of fire assisted them in fulfilling their duties, but we imagine it appeared quite bright and beautiful amidst the darkness within the walls of the city.

Fastforward a couple of centuries to the 1970s, when the Night Watch was brought back to St. Augustine. But this time, it wasn’t a protective measure, it was a new holiday tradition that added an extra dose of festivity to our Christmas celebrations. This event also included the Grand Illumination, a march from the Castillo de San Marcos to Government House. In colonial times, the townspeople would occasionally join in on the Night Watch with their own candles or lanterns lighting up the streets, ending with a party of sorts that including singing, musket firing, and other merriment. The Grand Illumination parade mirrored this sort of special historic event. The Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board was headquartered at Government House in the 1970s, and helped to make this event a success for many years.

A family in colonial dress with lanterns participating in the Grand Illumination Parade on St. George Street in St. Augustine

Nights of Lights has taken over as our primary mode of celebrating the holidays in St. Augustine, but the Night Watch tradition lives on through the Historic Florida Militia, who commemorates the tradition each December. The event was cancelled this year due to COVID-19, but we look forward to the 2021 holiday season when lanterns and torches will light up our nights once again.

All photographs from the Governor’s House Library Photograph Collection, Box 4, Folder 15 and Box 12, Folder 18.

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