Sunday, February 22, 2009

civil war days @ fort zachary taylor

Looking for a quiet day at the beach last week, Jazz and I stumbled upon "Key West Civil War Days" at Fort Zachary Taylor.

Built between 1845 and 1866 and named for the 12th U.S. President, who died in office during it's construction, Ft. Zac today sits within 54 acres of State ParkLand. But back in 1861, after Florida seceded from the Union, Ft. Zac (along with Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas and Fort Pickens in Pensacola) remained in Union hands throughout the war.

Although the fort never saw hostile action, it became the anchorage for Confederate ships captured by the Union blockade squadron. At some point the garrison commanders realized that although the fort was impregnable from the sea, it's back door was wide open to a possible attack by Confederate sympathizers in Key West.

So they quickly pointed ten cannons at the town and turned a section of the land access causeway into a drawbridge. But for all that, an attack from the town never came and, as far as I know, the troop transport, supply and communications rail line that connected Ft. Zac to the East and West Martello shore defenses was never interrupted.

In it's day the Ft. Zac was state-of-the-art military stuff and at any given time there might be 50 to 500 men stationed there doing a lot of thirsty work. But Key West is a "water water everywhere, but not a drop to drink" kind of place so the Ft. Zac had it's own desalinization plant to produce fresh water.

The fort's designers also came up with a tidal flush latrine system. But even though we have four tidal shifts a day here, they are very shallow; too shallow to flush the latrines effectively. So soon enough the waste collected, the water backed up, mosquitos had a new breeding ground and in 1862 Yellow Fever tore through the fort like grass through a goose, killing on average, 15 men a day.

By the time the outbreak was over, better than 300 soldiers were infected with the disease and 70 or so were dead.

At the end of the Civil War, in 1865, troop strength at Ft. Zac was temporarily drawn down only to be re-garrisoned for the Spanish-American War and World Wars I & II. (that's a lot of fighting for a "peace loving nation")

In those years, even though not a shot had been fired in anger to or from the fort, between Yellow Fever, hurricanes and "military justice" very nearly 1,000 soldiers would not be going home again. So with so many needlessly dead guys to it's credit, you might ask, "is Fort Zachary Taylor haunted?" Well I think so, but hell, I believe world peace is possible. So let's go with other folks opinions. . .

Some time in the late 1960's/early 70's a Naval Engineer named Howard England was digging around the fort for artifacts. At some point a bearded guy in a Civil War era uniform asked him, "what be you lookin' for sonny?" England answered that he was looking for guns and munitions and stuff, then asked what the soldier's name was. The soldier introduced himself as Wendell Gardner, told him to dig over here and vanished. Howard England dug over there and uncovered a gold mine of Civil War era armaments and artifacts. It was later discovered that Sgt. Wendell Gardner had indeed been garrisoned at Ft. Zac and had died there in 1862.

Another story comes from Harry Smidt, a park historian who tells of seeing a Civil War soldier while narrating a guided tour of the fort. The soldier, standing guard near a gun emplacement, was seen by everyone on the tour and Smidt stepped up to speak with him. Snapping a salute he said "report soldier" and the soldier came forward toward him. Yes, you're right, Harry had the same "holy sh*t what have I done" moment you or I would have had and quickly snapped another salute saying, "the fort is secure". The soldier halted, returned the salute, did an about face and faded from sight.

Now, I would never had gotten into the ghost thing except that while I was pouring over my pictures, I found this one. . .

Look in the orange square. I had just been around that corner to the left shooting pictures of the latrine. There was no one there but me and, I kid you not, when I shot this one of the long angle of arches (now cropped so you can see the bodily forms better) I didn't see any human shadows. But there they are and enough said. . .

No comments: