Florida Keys News
Saturday, February 9, 2013
No shots fired, 200 supply ships captured
Politics, Civil War not a big issue on the island in 1860s

It seems an odd point of history that many townsfolk of America's Southernmost City viewed the ideologies that divided the nation in the mid-1800s with indifference.

By the 1850s, Key West was full mainly of New Englander and Bahamian wreckers, spongers and fishermen more concerned with sourcing their next dollar, said Monroe County historian Tom Hambright.

Politics seemed far off. Figuratively and literally.

"Union military guys who were stationed here during the Civil War wrote that there didn't seem to be strong sentiment for either side," Hambright said.

Though a well-heeled group of local Confederate supporters voiced secession, their numbers were not enough to sway majority opinion or confront the obvious obstacle -- the Union regiment stationed at Fort Zachary Taylor on the island's western edge.

Those Union troops had been in Key West for years. The federal government had responded to the British assault of 1812 by amassing forts up and down the fledgling nation's seaboard. Fort Zach and Fort Jefferson (now Dry Tortugas National Park) were erected as part of that response.

Indeed, the fort's commander reported in Dec. 11, 1860, that "there had been no demonstration made on the fort to that date, and that he then had no apprehension of an attack from the people of Key West, but he had no doubt that a force would soon appear from the mainland, and urged that reinforcements be sent him, and one or two vessels of war stationed in the harbor," wrote historian Jefferson B. Brown in his 1912 book, "Key West: The Old and the New."

That Confederate, mainland force would never materialize.

Northern troops had long been a local fixture in Key West, for good or ill, given one's politics at the time, and Key West remained a Union stronghold for the duration of the Civil War.

"There was never a shot fired in aggression," Hambright said with a smile as he thumbed through the archives.

Indeed, Brown continued in his history: "The sentiment of Key West was strongly southern, but with the fortifications in possession of the federal troops and no military organization here sufficient to wrest this control from them, the secessionists were deterred from taking any active steps to capture them."

Today and Sunday mark the 27th annual Civil War Heritage Days at Fort Zach. The "living history" event features demonstrations and performances by period actors and tradesman along with a sea battle featuring schooners and land soldiers.

"It's an opportunity for everyone to come and see what life was like for the soldiers living in the fort during the 1860s," said Assistant Park Manager Jayne Blatherwick.

The soldiers spent much of their time watching the horizon for blockade ships, said Hambright and fellow Monroe County history aficionado Nancy Klingener.

Throughout the Civil War, a Key West-based armada of 20 to 30 ships -- called the East Gulf Blockading Squadron -- captured about 200 ships thought to be running Confederate supplies.

That blockade was proved to be Key West's legacy in the Civil War.

"That was the lasting significance of Key West's role, cutting off those exports coming out and supplies before they got to port," Hambright said.

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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