In mid-January I spent a long weekend in Key West. I enjoyed the food, music, and atmosphere of a truly great town, and also saw some of the place’s interesting historic sites.
What really surprised me was the Civil War history I found down there.
In 1861, Key West was the second-largest city in Florida. It became the only Confederate port occupied by the United States for the war’s duration, and was base for the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. A Key West-based ship, USS San Jacinto, captured the British ship Trent in November 1861, precipitating a diplomatic crisis between the United States and the British Empire.
Key West Lighthouse was built under the supervision of George G. Meade, a name familiar to ECW readers through his extensive service in the Army of the Potomac. The Army garrison at Key West in 1861 was commanded by Captain John Brannan, whose decisive actions secured the port for the Union. Brannan led an infantry division at Tullahoma and Chickamauga, and later was Chief of Artillery of the Army of the Cumberland.
Stephen Mallory, Confederate Navy Secretary, was from Key West, and the city’s main plaza is named Mallory Square.
One of the more interesting characters connected with Key West is Asa Tift, who made a fortune as a salvor/wrecker in the 1850s. He and his family supported the South, and fled to Louisiana early in the war. He financed the construction of several ships and invested in industry in Alabama. He returned home after the war and resumed his role as one of Key West’s leading citizens. His house, one of the largest on the island at the time, was bought and renovated by Ernest Hemingway (and today is open for tours). Hemingway kept the ironclad-shaped planter Tift had placed outside the front door.
Lastly, there’s the monument pictured below, out side the old Customs House (now a superb museum about Key West’s history) just off Mallory Square. It is one of the few I’ve seen by a former Confederate to Union personnel.
Top: A modern view of Key West, looking north from the lighthouse.