At the Dry Tortugas During the War, Part 2

At the Dry Tortugas During the War, Part 2

at the dry tortugas during the war continued by emily holder on january 1st 1861 a rumor came that mordassi the owner of the isabelle had offered her to carolina for a man of war our mail contract going with her there was a cloud on the horizon that looked larger than a man's hand and it affected our spirits people began to be suspicious of their neighbors those who claimed to be northern sympathizers owned their servants there were many southerners in key west but a goodly number were originally from the north who dwelling many years in that climate and owning simply their house servants were doubtful whether if florida succeeded they ought not stand by the state of their adoption the northern residents who did not own slaves were true unionists from the first the slaves seemed to be the turning point the conchs as people from bahama were called were boisterous in their demonstrations of loyalty to the south but at the first suggestion of their doing duty in case of necessity they packed their goods and sailed for the british isles one morning the first news that greeted the gentleman on the street was that the militia of the town had attempted to take fort taylor during the night a futile effort however as captain brannon had sent the two companies of regulars from the barracks the night before after dark leaving the harmless gun carriages covered so that no one suspected the removal of the guns captain hunt had turned the workmen into soldiers and they had been employed all the previous day in taking the wharf away and every available means of entrance so that an unexpected bath would have been the result of the attempt to gain entrance over the planks innocently leading to the open spaces a great state of excitement now prevailed letters that were sent to washington were opened and destroyed and our own from the north were delayed purposely and sometimes not forwarded from charleston so that we began sending our mails north via havana i was beginning to weary of the very name of succession for there was little else discussed and it made us gloomy if we allowed ourselves to dwell upon the outlook although no one yet admitted that there was to be a war affairs began to assume such a serious aspect that captains meags hunt and brannon held a council on board the mohawk resulting in our leaving for tortugas the next day captain mafit met with the officers but he resigned the next morning leaving his ship there he afterwards commanded the confederate privateer florida there were joking remarks made by our friends that if we found the fort in possession of the successionists we could return not in the least cheering to us although we treated them with as much levity as they did but i think when we were near enough to our little island home to discern with a glass that the flag that floated over it was the stars and stripes it was a greater relief than perhaps any of us wanted to acknowledge our defenseless situation was almost an invitation to the enemy to capture us and why they did not was rather a mystery to us the weindotzy we heard was on the way to take possession of both forts and could have taken fort jefferson simply by steaming in and claiming it for there was not a single gun on the island active work began on our return a drawbridge was made and raised every night all communication with the outside being cut off the evening of the 17th of january captain meeks called and i remember his reading shakespeare aloud and discussing some of the historical plays with my husband they were both students of shakespeare in the midst of it mr howells came in saying that the sheriff had arrived from key west to arrest the fishermen and they had sent for captain meags to intercede for them the facts of the case were that the state of florida had made a new law that none of the fishermen could obtain a clearance to go to havana without paying a fine or license of two of three hundred dollars of course they could not pay it and the object was to drive them home they were mostly from connecticut and there were 14 smacks in the harbor they came down every winter to fish taking their catch to havana market captain meags sent word to them not to pay it and to the sheriff that he was governor of that island and he had better return to key west then he sent mr howells off privately that night to key west for guns he felt it was time to take the responsibility even if he was censured for it i asked if he apprehended any danger he looked at me as though he were thinking whether it was best to alarm me and said no madam but i want to be prepared in case of emergency if we had a few guns we should not be molested guns are not so much to use as to keep people away he was the man for an emergency and i think general scott instead of censuring him praised his prompt action fully the following morning january 18 1861 our excitement culminated in the news that a man of war was in sight and steaming up the harbor everyone was wild with excitement running to the bastion with glasses to see what flag she floated yet even that might have been a deception if it proved to be the red white and blue but she carried no flag a fact we considered suspicious captain meags sent dr galland to meet them as they stopped outside the reef sending a boat ashore in a spot known to us as very dangerous unless the navigators knew the channel exactly it was a narrow opening in the reef called the 5 foot channel and only used by our small sailboats dr galland carried orders that if they were enemies they could not land a verbal resistance was the only one he could offer but as soon as the two boats met a signal was given to those on board the steamer and the stars and striped flew to the masthead the feeling of those who were watching from the fort can better imagined than described and none of us realized the tension we had been under until this relief came it proved to be the steamer joseph whitney with major arnold in command from fort independence at boston with troops for our relief the reception they received must have left no doubts in their minds regarding their welcome we were more than overjoyed and the commotion and excitement of unloading the steamer for she was to return immediately as her expense to the government was six hundred dollars a day was something that tested the ability of everyone it did not take long to put us in a state of defense and everything in military order we were now aroused at sunrise by the revelli a sentinel walked in front of the guard house at the drawbridge and one was posted in the lighthouse tower already our quiet life was a thing of the past the large guns came from key west were soon mounted and we began to feel as though we were on a war footing yet with all this major arnold did not think there would be war and we surely hoped not the new orleans boat was taken off and our only method of sending and receiving mail was through havana where the schooner tortugas was sent for it the papers now received were old but did duty all over the garrison the officers would meet and discuss the prospects but even the firing on the star of the west in charleston harbor did not convince major arnold that we would have war i presume we heard strange rumors that never made an impression at the north they were so quickly followed by others of greater importance the news from pensacola was warlike 2 000 men surrounded the fort and the commanding officer's wife going into town to do some shopping was taken as a spy and detained as a prisoner it was said that the senator from florida before he resigned examined the plans of fort jefferson and fort taylor in key west captain meags thought if he came there then he would find something not in his copy when florida succeeded she appointed all the old government officers and my husband was told that under the new law he was a member of the engineer court those were very exciting times to us not that we expected to be attacked but we were within the line of attraction we heard that the officers in washington had concluded to send their families out of the city captain meeks advised his family to go to philadelphia how strange it seemed to think of such things in our own country at this time two large ships of war came in bringing guns and news of more troops on the way one of the ships came from portsmouth new hampshire where it was 13 degrees below zero major arnold said that he expected to find us in the hands of the successionists general scott gave him orders that if the fort had been taken to retake it if possible if he failed to cruise around fort jefferson for 60 days with the understanding that he was to be reinforced by a war steamer from pensacola january 22nd the mohawk came back to ply between key west havana and tortugas regularly all the able-bodied men had been put upon the roll and guns and ammunition dealt out to them at that time there were in the harbor two steamers of war one side wheel steamer a revenue cutter two barges and some dozen sloops and schooners we were no longer out of the world yet the steamer magnolia from new york stopped and left a month's collection of mail the last of february brought news of the succession of six of the southern states and that a southern confederacy had been formed at montgomery alabama with jefferson davis as president on march 5th lieutenant gilman arrived with major tower of the engineers having arrived in havana from new york just in time to come over in the tortugas lieutenant gilman belonged to lieutenant slemmer's command at fort pickens he was granted permission to go through the invested district but preferred going that way and landing under the protection of the stars and stripes the two coast survey schooners were there at the same time with lieutenant tyrell and three assistants on their way to new york they were at charleston harbor but their tents and instruments had been stolen and they concluded to go to havana sending their schooners home but we kept one of them as the tortugas had to take lieutenant gilman to pickens with dispatches from general scott to lieutenant schlemmer soon after this we had a great disappointment in the order that came from captain meags to return to washington we could not help rejoicing on his account yet felt that half the life of the place would go with him captain hunt came down from key west to take charge until relieved but fortunately for him the new orleans boat came near enough that night to quietly send a boat ashore with lieutenant reece who had unceremoniously been put out at fort gaines at mobile without even having time to remove his personal property he came to assist lieutenant morton whom we expected to fill the place vacated by captain meeks lieutenant reece said that he was looked upon with great suspicion on board the steamer as he was taken out to it in a small boat ostensibly as a passenger for havana but he told his story to the captain who made an excuse to stop for fuel and so landed him as much to his own surprise as ours he of course had news from the southern posts to give in exchange for much that we could give him for he had been entirely alone all the workmen left him but he could not leave the fort until had had orders to do so from washington or it was taken from him the latter not a difficult thing to do he was very glad to get among friends and was a pleasant acquisition to our now constantly changing society one day a little smack came into the harbor flying the palmetto flag the first we had seen major arnold sent word for him to haul it down and put up the proper colors and salute them he was promptly obeyed and they came and apologized the steamer daniel webster now arrived with provisions and recruits but took the latter with her as she was going to texas to meet the five companies that were leaving the dust of that state behind them as it had succeeded and general twigs had been dismissed from the army work was going on rapidly the engineer had a large force at work at the bastions where they were to mount six heavy guns everything was bustle and a great deal was accomplished in a very short time reports from key west were very unpleasant officers of the army were followed about the streets and insulted some of the mob were annoying peaceful citizens threatening to take our schooner and fort taylor one copy only of lincoln's inaugural address came to key west it was kept quite a week before it reached us at tortugas and people there thought they could smell gunpowder on it i think for its size fort jefferson was one of the busiest places on the continent at this time and the excitement was kept at a fever heat either by some stray rumor from the many vessels coming in or the detention of the male and a dearth of reliable news making us apprehensive of the imaginary evil the horizon was watched not only by the sentinels but by everyone i remember one day before the troops came that captain meeks discovered smoke away to the southwest as of several steamers moving in a very suspicious manner to us who were so on the alert and were almost expecting invaders we all went to the ramparts and with glasses watched them making out distinctly 10 or 12 large vessels steaming about with concerted movements and we could hear heavy firing but they came no nearer and after watching a long time we came to the conclusion that it was the spanish fleet of war practicing which we found to be the case some days afterwards from a fishing boat which had been near them the last of march 1861 the steamer daniel webster returned landing one company reporting the rush just behind with the others the webster came early in the morning and just before dark the rush arrived with a band playing patriotic heirs the troops cheering lustily it was a motley crowd camp women children and all the paraphernalia of camp life a portion of them had marched from forts duncan and brown some 400 miles down the rio grande to brazos where they took the steamer on the way the rear of the battalion had an engagement with the indians during which several of the latter were killed the indians had commenced hostilities as soon as the troops were ordered to leave the state the officers had sent their families home by way of new orleans as they did not know how long they would remain or what kind of place they were coming to there were discontent and disaffection among them and two of the officers before many days sent in their resignations as the state they came from had gone out of the union we numbered at that time about 400 and represented a busy little town the fort at night was brilliant with lights and the place was active with the bustle of many people all this commotion brought comforts in the way of food to us who had only seen fresh beef and vegetables semi-occasionally for a steamer was charted to bring a six cattle at stated times with other necessaries the tortugas returned from fort pickens with no new news except that major tower of the engineers was not allowed to land having to remain on the brooklyn lieutenant morton and his two assistants arrived proving a most energetic and efficient officer one whom we like exceedingly he had just returned from making a survey for a route across the isthmus of panama naturally none of the officers fancied being sent here it was like imprisonment when there was so much excitement in the north but they all did their duty conscientiously on april 4th a loud call from the sentinel on the lighthouse tower announced a steamer and as usual we took the glasses to the ramparts where could plainly be seen a vessel loaded with people and on the wheelhouse we distinguished officers we felt that there were as many people on the island as could be accommodated and wondered what it could mean as the steamer neared the wharf to our great surprise we recognized captain meags the other officers proved to be colonel brown and staff and they had come under sealed orders when captain meeks called to see us i asked him what it all meant he laughed and replied that is the secret no one but colonel brown and myself know but what we are here for is to get some light guns lieutenant reese an overseer 20 negroes 30 men a scow and a load bricks and we can only stop two hours and a half they brought papers only a week old but new to us they had on board 400 men besides the officers and crew and 60 horses lieutenant reece had that morning arrived from havana with an assistant of captain hunt he joined the excited party and before dark they were steaming out of the harbor with the schooner scout and a load of bricks in tow the destination of captain meeks and his party was a secret it naturally aroused much conjecture on our little island but we soon heard that the expedition had arrived at fort pickens and that the object was to reinforce the garrison there even this movement did not convince our genial commander major arnold that war was imminent yet with the diligence of the soldier he was prepared for the struggle that was to come and began a series of fortifications that would have made the island a difficult place to capture in fact fully armed the dry tortugas was almost impregnable and everything pointed to the conclusion that the garrison would soon be in a position to defend itself against the world the outside fortifications began with a breast work on bush key which hitherto had been the home of the seagull the trees were cut and made into fan scenes sand key was to have a battery and finally we learned that the fort was to become a naval station vessels being on the way with stores key west was now under federal authorities new officers were appointed to command the 400 men on the ground and we were assured that more would be sent if necessary i asked major arnold if it was fear of a foreign power that all this preparation was being made as no one thought england or france would acknowledge a southern confederacy he replied that possibly the government thought that in case of war spain might stand ready to pick up what spoils could be easily taken during a national explosion lieutenant morton now went to key west for shovels wheelbarrows and workmen he had sent to new york for 300 men and some sappers and miners who came on the last boat and work on bird key began at once one day men discovered a large cannon several feet from the shore in very good condition it had been spiked and had the english arms and date of 1700 on it we invested it with a romance at once probably not far from the truth as it belonged to the pirates who must have been followed and who had spiked and thrown it overboard to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy these islands were known to have been the resort of spanish buccaneers years before captain benners the lighthouse keeper found several thousand dollars in spanish doubloons on east key 10 miles nearer key west and many stories were told of other finds it was summer the men worked bravely in the broiling sun the mercury stood at 91 degrees on many days yet no case of sunstroke occurred but other troubles came the men began to have scurvy for want of proper food and some had to be sent north the day we received the news of the attack on fort sumter was a memorable one the officers were demoralized for none of them i think had fully realized that the end was to be war and the country's scenes of bloodshed they felt as restless as though they were imprisoned all wanted to go to the front and share in the glory and excitement and it certainly was very trying to remain here doing nothing but guard a fort that now would not in any probability be in danger of an attack so well fortified were we they told us that if there should be an attack the women and children were to be put in an empty reservoir under one of the bastions farthest from the enemy and our plans were all laid and rehearsed by the children day after day one day after having been to bird key we saw a very dense smoke on the horizon which was moving slowly along speculation was rife at once as we came up the walk major arnold called from the upper piazza to know if we were going out on the water again as sentinels were posted on every side the large guns were loaded and two brass field pieces in the gateway were also prepared with the men ready to use them at a moment's notice my houseboy told me that there was a rumor that the fort was to be attacked and that a workman an american lately engaged who came from afanna had been arrested as a spy but that they were not able to prove anything against him a sample of the rumors in our little settlement the next morning the steamer was still in sight going back and forth in a mysterious manner and we could see that some sailing vessels had joined her they disappeared before night however and we heard nothing from them but later news came that the confederate yacht wanderer was out as a privateer by permission of president davis so we concluded that it was she while the steamer might have been a convoy one day i suddenly heard the sentinel on the east face shout corporal of the guard post number one in a shrill excited tone this was taken up by the next sentinel corporal of the guard post number one still another repeating it until the word reached the guard house in a few moments a corporal went up the walk on the run and i soon saw him on the fort then the men began to go up and soon we were all on the ramparts away on the horizon was a steamer headed for the channel the suspicious black smoke was rising every moment she evidently knew the channel my husband was the health officer and i soon saw his eight-oard barge pulling across the long key reef with the officer of the day it was their duty to intercept the vessel off the second buoy on came the steamer a black suspicious looking craft still showing no signal and such headway did she make that she passes the sand key buoy before the barge reached her and steamed on rapidly paying no attention to their signals heading now for the inside buoy the long roll was sanded the men fell in and in a trice the big guns were manned and with a roar the first gun belched forth its warning from the dry tortugas a solid shot whistled across the bow of the incomer so near the cut water that half an hour later i heard the captain say well major arnold i must compliment you on that shot three more turns of our wheels and you would have blown my bow to splinter the steamer was a transport in need of coal and its officers had simply misunderstood the signals they brought no news except that the spanish government had refused to admit vessels flying the confederate flag into the harbor of havana which was in a measure comforting to us the following day the man of war saint louis came in her officers added much to the social life of the key during their stay lieutenant morton invited us down to see the oath of allegiance taken by captain wilson and the crew of the schooner tortugas it was quite an impressive ceremony after which they were provided with two brass guns and small arms and we called her our gunboat the coming in of so many steamers relieved somewhat the monotony of our lives yet we did feel very far away and the officers were still impatient at the isolation the tortugas now went out as a gunboat flying the stars and stripes saluting it with 13 guns captain wilson evidently enjoyed his command a steamer came in with news to the 11th ordering the st louis back to fort pickens and taking all the sandbags we had made to stop the open spaces in our second tier of casemates as we had no fear of needing them then anxiety continued to increase mutterings of war were heard on every hand neither side seemed likely to yield and if an agreement could not be brought about it must inevitably result in that most horrible of all wars a civil one the southern states were arraigning themselves one after another like line of battleships bristling for an engagement and every man who had lived in any of these states immediately felt that his duty called him to stand by it regardless of the constitution one officer sympathized so strongly with three states that he had a fever of succession as each one threw off the yoke of allegiance to the union but he managed to stand by the colors he was educated under until the last of the three fell out of line when he sent in his resignation and became a non-combatant these were sad days those sadder ones were to follow yet i think no one dreamed that if war came it would be a long one a few months would settle the difficulty i think that was the feeling of all the older officers the population increased so rapidly that in june 1861 the census was taken showing that 550 souls were living on this sandbank of 13 acres too large a number we deemed for safety little thinking that before long fort jefferson would be the home of several thousand men by enforcing a strict quarantine my husband kept the specter of yellow fever that was in havana 60 miles away through the strict confinement told upon us in other ways in june the gulls always came in thousands to lay their eggs on bird key the season being in the nature of a festival and feast for us as we made up egg collecting parties the eggs were enjoyed by us and they were luxuries here the quantity of eggs may be imagined when it is known that we could hardly walk in some places without stepping upon them and would often take away a flower barrel full of the speckled beauties this year the men had taken possession of and were engaged in throwing up a battery on the island and we were interested to learn whether it would result in the birds seeking some other place at first they were shy and distrustful but when they found that the soldiers did not disturb them they took possession of the old places and could be seen from the fort hanging over the key like a black cloud while near at hand their cries drowned the voice on the night of the 1st of july we saw the comet of 61 from the top of the fort its appearance was sublime as it extended over nearly half of the heavens the colored people were inclined to be superstitious and many wondered if the world was not coming to an end on the night of the 4th of july captain morton whose nervous energy never seemed to flag took us to bird key in the barge with chinese lanterns at the top of each of the two masts the black boys accompanied us with their banjos and guitars and made very sweet music there we built bonfires and displayed some fireworks celebrating our fourth on this little coral island in the gulf the afternoon had its excitement in the arrival of the steamer state of georgia with two companies of wilson suaves it was supposed they were sent here as a safe place to drill them as we had all the troops that were needed on the 17th a bark from new york came in and also the steamer vanderbilt from fort pickens bound directly for new york we concluded to avail ourselves of the opportunity of going north on a visit and sailed on the evening of the 20th of july leaving the fort with the most beautiful sunset for a background the gorgeous colors streaming up behind the fort looking almost as though it were going to be consumed in a blaze of glory that covered all that part of the sky it was so impressive that we watched it from the deck of the steamer until the fort stood grim and dark against the sky we were four days going to new york the steamer carried but nine passengers officers who had been promoted and were going to join their regiments all eager to go to the front the captain of the steamer had some fear of the florida which was cruising in those waters and watched the horizon for black smoke he kept one engine banked as the steamer was short of coal until we were up the coast beyond north carolina when he put on all steam and we almost flew through the water when we took on a pilot off barnegat we heard of the first bull run disaster during our stay north we visited captain woodbury in washington what a contrast to our visit of less than two years before when the grass was literally growing in some of the streets and it seemed a sleepy restful place where people took life calmly and enjoyed it now the streets were deeply cut by heavy wagons transporting guns everybody was rushing about with an excited heir most of the men one met on the street wore uniforms significant of their duties and we heard little talk beside war and rumors of war while here we also met captain meags and captain craven the latter they are awaiting orders one day during our visit my husband came home and reported that he seen the smoke of the battle of munson's hill from the top of the treasury a fact which brought home the reality that the seat of war was not far from the national capital my husband felt that his services were need at the fort as he was acclimated so our visit was cut short and we were soon on our way back to tortugas on the old transport philadelphia which we afterwards learned had been condemned we left in a driving snowstorm and lay off fort hamilton until morning when we took on board major haskins with one company of troops for key west and some officers for fort pickens my sister and mrs c who was returning from a summer spent north were the only ladies besides myself on board the old philadelphia was not the most reliable ship but she carried us safely and did much more duty even after she had been finally condemned the morning before reaching key west major haskins surprised us all with revelli which sounded very cheerful in the still morning air very soon afterward we met the rhode island which hailed us and sent a boat with her pilot and took letters from us for new york she had on board an officer whom we left at tortugas and they also gave us the news of the bombardment of fort pickens which place the steamer had just left it was quite an excitement for although she was not more than 100 yards distance the little boats in going back and forth were entirely hidden by the waves the next morning found us anchored safely in key west harbor where we spent the day and left my sister with mrs c in her lovely home under the coconut trees the next night at 10 we were outside the buoy at tortugas where the captain of the steamer threw up rockets and burned blue lights but no pilot came out until morning when we were soon anchored opposite to the sally port where captain morton met and escorted us up to our old home there had been a great many changes during the few months of our absence major arnold had left and most of the troops had been exchanged but one great pleasure i found on my return was in the addition of three ladies to the garrison i presume it will be difficult to realize fully the isolation of that kind of fort life even a great contrast to a life on the plains miles away from any town or ranch we were in an enclosure of 13 acres 60 miles from havana with nothing outside of the towering brick walls to walk on but a narrow sea wall enclosing it 60 feet away wide enough for two people to walk with water on each side on the plains if one wearied of their surroundings or were tired of their neighbors they could ride out of sight returning when they chose but here it behooved people to keep up amiable relations with their surroundings as they could not get away from them i have been told by people who have crossed the plains with parties who were most desirable companions for the first few weeks that the isolation and constant companionship of the same persons day after day changed them entirely developing freaks of nature unknown to them before which proves that a change of scene and people is good for human nature generally this life was certainly a test of our dispositions in that respect for we were entirely dependent upon ourselves for all our pleasures and i might almost say comfort for a want of harmony very materially interferes with that captain morton's assistant had brought his wife with him and they formed a mess in the quarters we occupied before going north he gave us the choice of remaining with them or taking a small house across parade which the engineer department was building we accepted the house remaining with them until it was finished the newcomers were mr and mrs j mrs r who had been an army lady and mrs h whose husband had been promoted from the ranks with mr phillips family consisting of a wife son and two daughters and with the wife and niece of the lighthouse keeper we could gather quite a party of ladies making us feel much less out of the world and we soon became quite sociable the increase of people brought many necessaries which added to our comfort although everything was expensive butter 50 cents a pound lard 20 and other things in proportion the government began to tax all salaries exceeding 800 dollars and many other things which with some whose patriotism was exceedingly sensitive when it touched their pockets so directly caused no little grumbling later in the season while my husband was on the mainland he came across a camp of irregular florida calvary and the following lines in pencil were handed him nameless as to authorship but whoever it was evidently felt that the cause hardly warranted all he was going through we are taxed for our clothes our meat and our bread and our baskets and dishes our tables and bed on our tea on our coffee are fuel and lights and we are taxed so severely we can't sleep o nights and it's all for the great god can this be in the land of the brave and the home of the free we are stamped on our mortgages checks notes and bills on our deeds and our contracts and on our last wills and the star-spangled banner in mourning doth wave or the wealth of the nation turned into the grave and it's all for the etc we are taxed on our office our stores and our shops on our stoves and our barrels our brooms and our mops on our horses and cattle and if we should die we are taxed for our coffins in which we must lie and it's all for the etc we are taxed for all goods by kind providence given we are taxed for the bible which points us to heaven and when we ascend to the heavenly goal they would if they could stick a stamp on our soul and it's all for the great god can this be in the land of the brave and the home of the free the end read by lorraine montgomery for lit to go on the web at you

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