Book Review: Storm Over Key West

Storm Over Key WestStorm Over Key West: The Civil War and the Call of Freedom
By Mike Pride
Pineapple Press, 2020, $26.95

Reviewed by Jon-Erik Gilot

A few months before the COVID pandemic hit I had the opportunity to travel to Key West, which I discussed in this ECW post. While I cannot say I was overly familiar with Florida’s Civil War history prior to my trip, after visiting Fort Taylor on the southern tip of the island – an incredibly impressive site even though a full story lower than its Civil War size – I was hooked. I came home and landed Lewis G. Schmidt’s exhaustive six-part study on the Civil War in Florida and dug in. If we are being honest, studying Florida’s role in the Civil War lends itself well to someone like myself who has a penchant for West Virginia’s Civil War history. Both were bemoaned as military backwaters by the officers and enlisted men stationed there, where boredom and disease were more likely to claim a soldier than shot or shell.

Beyond Schmidt’s books for many years there had been a dearth of studies on Florida in the Civil War. More recently we have seen several books seek to fill that gap, notably A Forgotten Front: Florida During the Civil War (Seth Weitz & Jonathan Sheppard, and University of Alabama Press, 2018) and Florida’s Civil War (Tracy J. Revels, Mercer University Press, 2016). I was especially excited to hear last year that Pineapple Press was releasing a new study by Mike Pride, focusing on Key West during the Civil War. Civil War historians would recognize Pride as the author of the terrific 2003 study on the Fifth New Hampshire Infantry, My Brave Boys: To War with Colonel Cross & the Fighting Fifth. While New Hampshire and Key West are seemingly at opposite ends of the Civil War spectrum, Pride is well suited to cover both. A native of Florida and a graduate of the University of South Florida, Pride now makes his home in the Granite State.

Storm Over Key West is laid out in three sections, each containing between nine and eleven chapters. The first section serves to introduce us to the individuals who called Key West home, including free African American Sandy Cornish; William Marvin, a federal judge who would later serve as the state’s postwar provisional governor; future Confederate navy secretary Stephen Mallory; and New Hampshire native Emily Holder, who lived at Fort Jefferson with her husband, among others.

The author also covers the history of slavery in the Key West, including the practice of renting local slaves to the US government to be used in the construction of Fort Zachary Taylor at Key West and Fort Jefferson on nearby Garden Key. Where the author notes that Key West slaveowners prided themselves on practicing a more “genteel” form of slavery, they were also quit to skirt the law. When US Senator Stephen Mallory was informed he could no longer enter into government contracts by renting his slaves, Mallory transferred ownership of his slaves to a trust in his wife’s name to be controlled by her brother-in-law and continued collecting his rent.

Slavers would attempt to navigate the waters around the Keys to deposit their human cargo. In the spring of 1860 Key West would make national news when two slavers were intercepted with more than 1,000 Africans aboard, bound for sale into slavery. A barracoon was constructed near Fort Taylor and sickness claimed the lives of hundreds before the men, women, and children were eventually recolonized in Liberia. The squadrons tasked with capturing slavers were soon replaced with a US naval blockade following Florida’s secession, all but ensuring Key West would remain an occupied city for the duration of the conflict.

In the second section Pride covers the increased presence of Federal troops in Key West and Fort Jefferson in early 1862. Regiments from Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and New York marveled at the tropical climate before cursing their new station when smallpox and yellow fever tore through the companies. The author allows these men to speak for themselves in highlighting letters sent to hometown newspapers from men in the 47th Pennsylvania, 90th New York and other regiments.

The final section of the book covers another one of the regiments most closely associated with Key West during the Civil War, the 2nd U.S. Colored Troops. Pride covers how the regiment was received by both the local populace and the other Federal troops stationed in the area. While African Americans had long been perceived as immune to yellow fever, the 2nd USCT suffered in the Keys as much as the white regiments. In this section we also have the only battle coverage in the book, detailing the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865, which included troops from the 2nd USCT. The author likewise covers the imprisonment of several of the Lincoln assassination conspirators at Fort Jefferson.

The author mined an impressive number of sources, including papers, letters, and diaries from eleven institutions, as well as numerous articles and dissertations, and more than 115 period newspapers. The endnotes would be more helpful if numbered, as it can take a bit more time slogging through unnumbered endnotes in looking for specific citations. Clocking in just north of 300 pages, the book includes two original and numerous period maps, as well as two dozen images. Also included are four attractive sketches by the author’s wife, Monique Pride.

Given the scope and breadth of Pride’s work I cannot envision the need for anyone to revisit Key West in the Civil War anytime soon. Now armed with a better understanding of the island’s fascinating wartime history, I look forward to my next visit to Key West, where I believe a seaplane to Fort Jefferson will be in order…after a few beers on Duval.

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