ECW Weekender: Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas


Located 67 miles off the coast of Key West, Florida and comprised of 16 million bricks sits the still unfinished Third System Fort Jefferson. Construction began in 1846 and the installation was named after the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Future American Civil War officers, Horatio Wright who supervised the construction of and Montgomery C. Meigs who drafted the plans, played a major role.

Aerial photograph of Fort Jefferson
(author collection)

Construction had not finished when the Civil War broke out, a detachment of the 2nd U.S. Artillery, under Major Lewis G. Arnold, numbering 62 men, were ferried to the fort, which was enough manpower to keep the fort in United States hands. The isolated installation was a perfect option for a military prison and the first prisoner soldiers arrived in the fall of 1861. Two years later Fort Jefferson held 214 military prisoners, by June 1864 there were 753 inmates, and near the end of the year in November that number had increased to 882. The one statistic that stands out though is the startling fact that eight of the housed prisoners were able to escape from the island.

However, the four most famous inmates arrived after the end of hostilities in July 1865. Dr. Samuel Mudd, Edmund Spangler, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen. The four were sent there due to their involvement in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth and subsequent plans to terminate other cabinet members. Although Dr. Mudd tried to escape once, posing as a stowaway, he ended up having his sentence commuted when he provided medical care to the garrison during an 1867 yellow fever epidemic. O’Laughlen would be one of the victims of that 1867 epidemic.

Yellow fever, frequent hurricanes, and evolving technology made the fort obsolete by the time the seawall was finished in 1872. None of the armament, including the 15-inch Rodman guns, which there were six of, were ever fired. By 1889 the fort was handed over to the Marine Hospital Service as a quarantine station until 1898 when the fort was briefly reactivated during the Spanish-American War. The USS Maine made a coaling stop there before its last voyage to Havanna, Cuba.

The fort was officially abandoned in 1906 after a hurricane a few years prior had wrecked the coal rigs and water distilling plants that the Navy Department had installed on the Dry Tortugas.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on January 4, 1935, signed into being the Fort Jefferson National Monument to be administered by the National Park Service. On October 26, 1992 the park was officially renamed to Dry Tortugas National Park. The Spanish had named the islands in the 16th century “tortugas” due to the sea turtles found there. The word “dry” was added to navigational charts to alert sailors and seamen that the island contained no natural fresh water source.

Today Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the most inaccessible parks in the lower 48 states. Unless you own your own water transportation and keep in mind it is 67 miles from Key West, the only way to arrive there is by seaplane or ferry boat. Both of which are official concessionaires of the National Park Service. I chose the seaplane route.

On the narration out to the park, the commentator guide stated that “it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.” I’d agree. Take the trip, you can have that drink in Key West when you return!

4 Responses to ECW Weekender: Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas

  1. It was one of the idiosyncrasies of Civil War study: why did the Confederacy allow all those forts in Florida to remain in Union hands?
    The State of Florida had insufficient manpower and almost no ships, so Fort Jefferson and Fort Taylor (Key West) simply remained in Union hands, reinforced with soldiers, artillery pieces and ammunition (by a Union Government with plenty of ships.) It appears that early in 1861 there was belief that secession of those bits of Federal property to State of Florida, or to the overarching Confederate Government, would be part of a negotiated settlement, either with or without war. Instead, beginning with Fort Pickens (held by the Union at Pensacola, due to unexplained delay in Rebel Militia forces not occupying that empty bastion first) Federal troops fought, or sometimes simply walked in, and reoccupied all the seized property: Fort Marion (St. Augustine) March 1862; Fort Barrancas and the Advanced Redoubt at Pensacola (May 1862); Fort Brookes at Tampa Bay (1864). And with the end of the war in 1865, the U.S. Government regained control of everything else.

  2. If you are a mystery fan, I highly recommend “Flashback” (2004) one of an excellent series of novels by Nevada Barr starring NPS Ranger Anna Pigeon. In this one, she is assigned as supervisory ranger to the Dry Tortugas and must deal with a murder mystery reaching back to the Civil War. The story alternates between the present and the war. Great story, great atmosphere, great characters (including Dr. Mudd and the Lincoln conspirators imprisoned there), and great historical context. Civil War and a murder mystery. How can you beat it!

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