Exploring Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West

My wife will tell you that I can find Civil War History wherever we go. I’m equally proud and embarrassed to admit that she’s right. We recently joined a few friends for a late season, kids free, just-what-the-doctor-ordered trip to the Florida Keys. While poking our heads into many (ok…too many) of the bars on Duval Street I casually mentioned to my wife that there was a lot of Civil War history in Key West. Construction of the 1848 Key West Lighthouse was supervised by George Meade, sir, that’s right! Our very own general of our very own corps. See that…I quote Gettysburg and I have your attention. Moving on…

Fort Zachary Taylor State Park

Mallory Square, the central nervous system for Key West and parrotheads near and far, was named for Key West native and Secretary of the Confederate States Navy, Stephen Mallory. And then, dear wife, there’s ‘Fort Zach’, a beautiful state park situated on the very tip of the Key West. Any mention of a fort is sure to bring on the eye rolling, so if I wanted to convince her that we saunter off Duval and over to Fort Zachary Taylor it was going to take some work. Thankfully I still had a card to play…

A beach! There’s a beautiful beach at Fort Taylor. Contrary to popular belief Key West is not ringed by long, white sand beaches. The few beaches there are smaller, pocket beaches, not the miles long beaches you recognize from family vacations to the Outer Banks. She relented and I dialed up an Uber before she could change her mind.

Fort Zach Iguana

A few minutes later and we pulled into the parking lot at Fort Zachary Taylor and were greeted by…iguanas. Lots of iguanas. Apparently these iguanas are considered an invasive species, and while they look big enough to take off your leg they quickly scurry away underfoot.

Construction on Fort Taylor started in the mid-1840s and by the time of the Civil War the fort was still under construction. The fort originally included two casemate tiers topped by a barbette (three stories). While the upper tiers were removed in 1898 the fort remains an impressive, if not imposing structure.

Parade ground and barracks (at right)
View from observation deck
Fort Zach Barracks

The fort was garrisoned throughout the war by a variety of regiments, including (but not limited to) several batteries of the 1st US Artillery, four regiments from New York, the 47th Pennsylvania, 1st US Infantry, 2nd Florida Cavalry and two regiments of the United States Colored Troops. The fort did not come under attack during the war…in fact it never saw a shot fired in anger, instead serving as a deterrent to blockade runners. The occupants of the fort instead spent the war fighting mosquitoes, disease and boredom. As I explored the parade ground and barracks I tried to imagine these men from far off New York and Pennsylvania who rode out long stretches of the war at this remote spot.

Early woodcut of Fort Zachary Taylor      (ClipArt ETC, University of South Florida)

Now, I couldn’t keep my saintly patient wife waiting too long inside the walls of Fort Zach, so we headed out for a short walk to the nearby beach. White sand, beautiful blue water…it was stunning. We waded into the water and hunted small shells and coral. I wondered how often the soldiers stationed at the fort could escape from their work and drudgery for a few minutes of splashing and wading at the beach. And while the fort did have beach access during the Civil War, much of the present day public beach was created in the last fifty years.

Fort Zach Beach
Fort Zach Beach

As I got home from Key West and started reading about the history of the fort I came across the following account from a soldier at Fort Zachary Taylor sent to the Sunbury American, dated June 16, 1862…

“A very sad accident happened here one day last week, which has cast a gloom over the whole regiment. First Sergeant Charles Nolf, Co. I, 47th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, was out on the beach with a few friends of his company gathering shells; in front of them were four of the 90th New York boys with loaded rifles on their shoulders, one of them was carelessly playing with the trigger of his gun, when bang! went off the load, the ball entering the forehead of Nolf, killing him instantly. Great excitement was caused by this accident, and for a time (our boys not knowing the particulars) some of them were determined to avenge their comrade’s death, but an investigation pronounced it accidental, when they were satisfied. Nolf was a young man of excellent character, beloved by all who knew him, and it seems hard that he should be hurried into eternity in such a manner, and that too, when the carrying of loaded rifles is strictly prohibited.” [i]

Nolf’s body was returned home to Lehigh County, Pennsylvania for burial. Hist postwar headstone incorrectly shows his date of death as May 9, 1862, a full month before his actual death. The Sunbury American would continue to run an outstanding series of letters from their local 47th Pennsylvania correspondents at Fort Zach throughout much of the war.

View from casemate

His story goes to show that death was never far away during the Civil War and that you can find this history everywhere…even along a stunning beach in Key West. If any of you snowbirds make your way down to the Keys over the upcoming winter I’d encourage you to check out Fort Zachary Taylor. Having cut my teeth on some long neglected battles and corners of the Civil War I enjoy these out-of-the-way locales, away from the expansive battlefields east and west. I look forward to digging more into the history of Fort Zach, perhaps sharing more here in the future.

Go explore Civil War history in the Florida Keys!

*Disclaimer: My wife is actually a really good sport and regularly humors me with history stops, trips and books. I proposed to her on a Civil War battlefield so she’ll always have a connection, right?

[i] Sunbury American – Sunbury, Pennsylvania. July 05, 1862.

5 Responses to Exploring Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West

  1. My significant other for over 30 years decided to plan a vacation away from the regular Civil War locales; so she booked very nice accommodations in Santa Fe. I asked her to inquire of the person taking the reservations where the nearest Civil war battlefield was. When he told her that Glorieta Pass battlefield was only 30 minutes away, she muttered what sounded like an expiative, and with good nature accepted that the Civil War was everywhere.

  2. Entertaining and informative. Thanks for sharing your adventure! Sounds something like the time when I dragged my husband to Fort Pickens and Fort Clinch (more Civil War forts settled on the white beaches of Florida). God bless the spouses and significant others who put up with our hobbies, haha.

  3. Just to clarify, the troops that replaced the 47th Pennsylvania as garrison in February 1864 belonged to the Second Regiment, United States Colored Troops. The 2nd USCI was organized at Camp Casey in Arlington, Virginia from men recruited in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, with a handful of draftees from New York. They also recruited more than a hundred African Americans in Florida from men who had self-emancipated from their enslavers. Neither the 2nd Florida Cavalry nor the other USCT regiment — the 99th, from Louisiana — served as garrison, though elements of all three would fight together at the battle of Natural Bridge. A crack regiment, referred to by Lieutenant Colonel Wilder as “the very beau ideal of Black soldiery,” only half the 2nd USCI served in the garrison for most of this time, as five companies were deployed on the west coast of Florida at Fort Myers and Cedar Keys and actively engaged in breaking up rebel cattle drives. The regiment, also known as the “Second District of Columbia Colored Volunteers” was finally relieved as garrison in December 1865, returning to Alexandria, Virginia for their last muster.

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