ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Nearly 450 years of military history and personnel sacrifice blended together Friday morning, as the Florida National Guard celebrated its annual First Muster event with a special soil-spreading ceremony at its state headquarters.
Over the past two years the Florida National Guard has collected soil samples from battlefields around the world where Florida Guardsmen - or their militia predecessors - served and fought. On the morning of Sept. 13, these 19 different soil samples representing National Guard militia traditions dating back to the 1560s, were spread across the parade field in front of the historic St. Francis Barracks.
Military re-enactors portraying Guardsmen – beginning with the early Spanish conquistadors – escorted dignitaries who spread the soil samples on the manicured lawn of the parade field.
“Today the Florida National Guard is going to reach into its satchel and pull out dirt collected at 19 locations around the world where the men and women of this great state have gone into harm’s way in order to secure the safety of their neighbors, and protect the freedom we so deeply cherish,” Florida National Guard Historian Gregory Moore told the audience of Soldiers, Airmen and civilians who gathered to watch the ceremony. “Each portion of dirt will be spread on the Post of St. Augustine Parade Field to consecrate this ground and serve as a tangible reminder of the blood, sweat and tears of those who have answered the call to duty.”
Many of the dignitaries who sprinkled the dirt samples held personal attachments to the historic battlefields represented in the project.
Noted Florida artist Jackson Walker, who carried soil from the 1838 Battle of Kanapaha Prairie, is a descendent of militia Capt. Stephen V. Walker who was killed during the Seminole Indian War skirmish.
“It was especially nice for me, having an (ancestor) taking part in some of the battles that took place during the Seminole Wars down here,” Walker said after pouring a military canteen cup of sandy Kanapaha Prairie soil on the parade field. “I felt like it was a nice thing to be able to do, and I’m very privileged to be part of it today.”
Several of Walker’s paintings focusing on Florida history have been commissioned for the Florida National Guard Heritage Art collection, including pieces showing the 1565 First Muster in St. Augustine. Walker said the extensive research he does for each painting has drawn him closer the units and members of the Florida National Guard.
“I feel like I’m almost a member,” Walker said.
Adjutant General of Florida Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw Jr. spread soil representing the U.S. Civil War Battle of Olustee. During the 1864 battle near a railroad station west of Jacksonville, Fla., an estimated 10,000 troops skirmished throughout the day, with the Confederate forces – including Florida militia soldiers – declaring victory.
Titshaw’s ancestor James R. Terell fought and died at the battle while serving with the Confederate forces.
According to historical accounts from the battle, more than 1,800 Union soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, while the Confederate forces lost less than 1,000 men.
A World War II and Korean War veteran personally spread the dirt representing the Florida Air National Guard’s contributions to Korean War effort from 1951-1952; wearing his original flight suit, pilot Lt. Col. Tiger Holmes was escorted across the field by Deputy Commander of the Florida Air National Guard Brig. Gen. James Eifert.
“I almost had a tear in my eye thinking of some of the sacrifices these people have gone through...It was very emotional,” Holmes said. “We gave a hell of a contribution to the country.”
Sandy soil from Camp Phoenix in Kabul, Afghanistan, was spread by the widow of Staff Sgt. Joseph Fuerst – a Soldier with the 53rd Infantry Brigade who was killed during a Taliban insurgent attack in 2006. Tara Fuerst, who was also deployed with the 53rd in Afghanistan at the same time as her husband, was escorted by a current member of the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.
The annual ceremony was capped with a traditional Spanish firing detail demonstration by local historical re-enactors.
The “first muster” took place on Sept. 16, 1565, when Pedro Menendez de Aviles gathered around him the soldiers of his small Spanish army, as well as the civilian settlers who accompanied him to the newly established presidio town of St. Augustine. He was about to march north to the French settlement of Fort Caroline near the mouth of the St. Johns River. Because his plan called for the use of the majority of his regular soldiers, Menendez drew upon Spanish laws governing the milicia, or militia, in an imperial province. As both the civil governor and the commander-in-chief of the military establishment, he had the authority to call all free male settlers in the presidio province to active service.