FIRST BATTLE FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
by Wallace Ruff 33°
My peace of mind was disturbed by seeing on the front page of a prominent daily paper a picture of many robed Catholic priests, followed by a multitude of admirers, and underneath the picture was this inscription: "Catholics of St. Augustine join the annual Low Sunday pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of La Lache, site of the first mass celebrated in the United States in 1565."
My peace of mind was disturbed because the Catholic celebration of that mass was in reality a Catholic celebration of a Catholic massacre of innocent Protestants, and I fear that none of the admiring throng who trailed behind those handsomely robed priests realized what they were doing or knew the truth about that first mass. I resolved then and there to make known the facts to our own membership as soon as time could be found in which to do so.
Few realize that the first battle for religious freedom fought in America — and probably the most momentous battle of them all — was fought on the banks of the St. John's River, near Jacksonville, Florida, in 1565. That battle was fought forty-two years before the English landed at Jamestown, fifty-five years before the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock, and fifty eight years before the Dutch built their fort on Manhattan. At that battle the issue was this: "Are you Catholics or Lutherans?"
The Spanish were the first white settlers to make any headway in America but they were not the first white settlers in America. The first white settlers in America were French Huguenots who had embraced the Lutheran faith, and were seeking a place to live where they could live according to the doctrines and faith of Martin Luther.
Martin Luther was born in 1483. His influence spread over Germany and into France. At Tours, in France, his followers were accustomed to gather at night at the gate of King Hugo, a French king, who made it a habit to go out only at night, and from this fact a monk, in derision, suggested calling these new religionists "Huguenots," and so they were named.
In 1564, a band of French Huguenots, under René Goulaine de Laudonnière, settled on the banks of the St. John's River, south and east of Jacksonville, near the present village of Mayport. They built a fort and called it Fort Caroline.
The St. John's River at that time was called the River of May, because of the fact that another Frenchman, Jean Ribault, had explored it in 1562, and, having arrived there on the first day of May, he called it the "River of May." The first settlement there was under the command of Laudonnière, and was made in 1564. A year later a second Huguenot expedition arrived under the command of Jean Ribault. If upon his arrival he had gone at once to Fort Caroline, all might have been well, but instead he spent a week or more exploring the coast line before landing. In the meantime a Spanish fleet under Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived. When Menéndez arrived off the entrance of the St. John's, the French Fleet was unprepared for battle since most of the crew were on shore, and those in command of the French vessels ordered a retreat. Two vessels went north and three south. They outdistanced the pursuing vessels of Menéndez, who thereupon withdrew to the south, landed at what is now St. Augustine, and at once began to fortify his encampment there.
During the attack by the Spanish Fleet, Ribault was on shore at Fort Caroline directing the unloading of supplies and the strengthening of the fort. Naturally, he was incensed at the unprovoked attack of the Spaniards and, when on the following day his own fleet reassembled, he determined to sail at once to St. Augustine and give battle to the Spaniards. This plan met with almost united opposition from those in command, and especially from Laudonnière, who was sick with a fever. However, Ribault was a man of great courage and determination, all fighting men were ordered on board, and the fleet set sail for St. Augustine to attack the Spanish Fleet. Then followed a series of disasters to the French, which for their continuity are unparalleled in history. Upon their arrival at the inlet of the Matanzas River, opposite St. Augustine, they almost succeeded in capturing the Spanish Flagship, but it finally got safely into the harbour, and by this time the tide had receded to such an extent that the French vessels, which were of a heavier draft than the Spanish, were unable to enter the harbour. Thus the Spaniards were saved, and thereafter the victory was theirs.
The French were forced to withdraw to await a more favourable tide, and, in the meantime, the Spanish commander, Menéndez, reasoned thus: "Yesterday the French vessels fled from me, today they return and attack me. Evidently they have been reinforced and, if so, those reinforcements have been taken from their Fort Caroline; consequently the defense of Fort Caroline has been weakened and now is my chance. I am cut off by sea, but I will march there by land and make a surprise attack." At once he set out to do so.
His judgment was good. Fort Caroline was taken by surprise; it was wholly unprepared, and soon it was captured and destroyed, its defenders killed, and a sign posted by the Spaniards reciting that the inhabitants had been slain as heretics.
Hardly had this slaughter taken place before a hurricane swept down the coast, driving the French Fleet to the south, wrecking a part of them. A band of those who survived the shipwreck reached shore and set out to return by land to Fort Caroline, but soon found themselves marooned on a sand bar, with no food to eat, no water to drink, no shelter from the blistering rays of the sun, and no way to escape.
Indians carried the news of the shipwreck to Menéndez, who set out immediately to investigate. When he came near to the French, he conducted a series of negotiations with the French for their surrender that was bold, cunning and bloodthirsty, and utterly disastrous to the French. He positively refused to accept their surrender with any provision for safety to them, but assured them he would treat them as might be best. Being parched from the lack of water, half starved from the lack of food, blistered by the pitiless rays of the sun, sick from bites of mosquitoes, and on the verge of despair, they were forced to surrender.
Then followed a unique performance. They were treated to a sumptuous meal. Each ate to his heart's content. They were then brought over to the mainland, a boat load at a time. On being landed they were told that, as they were enemies of their captors, they could not be entrusted to be taken back to St. Augustine without being handcuffed, as otherwise they might arise against their captors. This sounded reasonable, so each submitted to being bound. Then they were asked this tragic question:
"Are you Catholics or Lutherans, and are there any who wish to confess?"
Upon answering that they were of the Lutheran faith, they were led beyond a sand-dune, across a line which had been drawn there in the sand, and as each crossed the line his head was cut off.
The following day native Indians came again with news that another party of Huguenots was to the south of the point where this first body had been found. Several of their vessels had gone on the rocks, and were being broken up by the tide. Menéndez again hastily assembled his soldiers and set out for a point on the coast just opposite the helpless vessels. There he found Jean Ribault himself in command of such of the vessels as had been left afloat by the hurricane, and again there ensued the same cunning and blood thirsty negotiations. Again the French were told that, if they surrendered they must do so unconditionally. Ribault believed that, if he surrendered he would thereafter be able to buy the ransom of himself and his followers, and accordingly he agreed to do so. However, before surrendering he left it to each of his men to decide for himself as to whether he would surrender or would take his chances upon reaching land and thence the interior, with the hope of ultimate assistance from the Indians. A large number refused to surrender and jumped overboard, and such of them as were not drowned before reaching shore disappeared into the woods, and were never heard of again. The majority were too nearly famished to put up much resistance, and they, in company with Ribault himself, surrendered to the Spaniards.
As on the event of the former surrender, the Spaniards served their new captives with a generous meal, and then, as before, they shrewdly explained that, as there was enmity between France and Spain, the Spaniards could not trust their French captives and that it would be necessary that they be bound. Accordingly, the hands of each were then tied behind his back and, this precaution having been taken, Menéndez likewise submitted to them the fatal question: "Are you Catholics or Lutherans, and are there any who wish to confess?"
Then for the first time Ribault realized that his life's work was about to be ended, but, being the brave man that he was, he received his fate stoically, and philosophically remarked that under ordinary conditions he would not have lived more than about twenty years longer, and that "twenty years more or less were of little account in the life of a man," and "from earth we come and to earth we must return," and having spoken thus he was led across the same fatal line in the sand and his head was cut off.
The word Matanzas, by the way, means "slaughter." That is why the Beach there is so named.
Thus we see that on the banks of the St. John's River in the State of Florida 42 years before the English landed at Jamestown, 55 years before the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, and 59 years before the Dutch settled Manhattan, the first battle for religious freedom in the New World was fought, and fought upon this issue: "Are you Catholics or Lutherans?"
Too long have Virginians boasted of the settlement of Jamestown in 1607; too long have New Englanders boasted of the landing of the Pilgrim Fathers upon Plymouth Rock in 1620; too long have New Yorkers boasted of the settlement of Manhattan in 1623! It is high time that the citizens of Florida, and particularly members of the Lutheran Church, proclaim to the world that the first battle for religious freedom was fought by Lutherans on Florida soil in 1565.