Paradise Lost: Florida’s Egmont Key during the Civil War

The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area evokes images of sugar sand beaches and crystal-clear Gulf waters. A stone’s throw from St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Ferry carts beachgoers two or three times a day between Fort DeSoto County Park and Egmont Key State Park. Egmont Key’s informational brochure boasts that it is a “refuge for wildlife and people,” and it surely is a magnificent place to find solitude, but few vacationers, locals, or historians understand the Civil War history of this island paradise.[1] The story of Egmont Key is not that of a major battle or a significant individual. Egmont Key’s story is about local resistance, disease, and the fight for survival. It reminds the public that the sectional conflict reached even the distant corners of the divided nation and illustrates the challenges that war thrust upon the settlers on the Florida frontier.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Tampa Bay area was a sparsely populated borderland rife with mosquitoes and disease. Indeed, in 1861, one New York Times correspondent denounced it as a “miserable, God-forsaken hole.”[2] But the U.S. government disagreed and, even years earlier, had perceived the strategic value of Tampa Bay and of Egmont Key, which stands guard where the bay’s shallow waters meet the Gulf. When Florida became a state in 1845, recognition of the bay’s importance heightened. The following year, Florida’s senators pressured Congress to appropriate funds for a lighthouse to guide ships into Tampa Bay. Three years later, a group of army engineers, led by young Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, recommended fortifying the Key. Fortifications did not materialize, but Congress appropriated ten thousand dollars to construct a lighthouse, which began operating in May 1848. A few months later, on September 25, 1848, a hurricane inundated the Key with six feet of water, damaging the new beacon. The U.S. Congress responded on August 10, 1856, by appropriating sixteen thousand dollars for a new lighthouse. This structure, completed in 1858, stood eighty-seven feet above sea level and could “withstand any storm.”[3] The sturdy lighthouse has needed very few repairs over the years, but one resulted from the actions of loyal Confederates during the Civil War.

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The full article can be viewed on the Journal of the Civil War Era Muster blog.