Friday, October 21, 2011

Civil War Geography: Fort Zachary Taylor, Key West, Florida

The location of Fort Zachary Taylor on Key West. (the red circle.)

Fort Taylor, Key West, today.

A couple of days ago I shared a map of the harbor in South Carolina where the various forts were located - in particular Fort Sumter, where the shots that started the Civil War were fired on 12 April 1861.

I should have started even earlier than that. As soon as President Lncoln was elected, certain states started talk of seceeding, and when they eventually did secede, immediately took over various items of Federal propery, in particular forts.

Expecting this eventuality, on November 15, 1860, US Navy Lieutenant T. A. Craven "informed Washington that due to the 'deplorable condition of affairs in the Southern States' he was proceeding to take moves to guard Fort Taylor at Key West and Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas (both Florida) from possible seizure.

(Fort Taylor and the Key West area will later become a vital coaling station for the Union Navy and blockading squadron.)

From Wikipedia:
The Fort Zachary Taylor State Historic Site, better known simply as Fort Taylor, (or Fort Zach to locals), is a Florida State Park and National Historic Landmark centered on a Civil War-era fort located near the southern tip of Key West, Florida.

History of Fort Zachary Taylor
Construction of the fort began in 1845 as part of a mid-19th century plan to defend the southeast coast through a series of forts. The fort was named for United States President Zachary Taylor in 1850, a few months after President Taylor's sudden death in office. Yellow fever epidemics and material shortages slowed construction of the fort, which continued throughout the 1850s. At the outset of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, Union Captain John Milton Brannan seized control of the fort, preventing it from falling into Confederate hands and using it as an outpost to threaten blockade runners. Originally, the fort was surrounded by water on all sides, with a walkway linking it to the mainland. The fort was completed in 1866, although the upper level of one side was destroyed in 1889 to make way for more modern weapons, with the older cannons being buried within the new outer wall to save on materials. The fort was heavily used again during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

In 1947, the fort, no longer of use to the Army, was turned over to the U.S. Navy for maintenance. In 1968 volunteers led by Howard S. England excavated Civil War guns and ammunition buried in long-abandoned parts of the fort, which was soon discovered to house the nation's largest collection of Civil War cannons. Fort Taylor was therefore placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973. Due to the filling in of land around the fort, including the creation of an attractive stretch of beach, the park now occupies 87 acres (352,000 m²).

Truman Annex
The Fort's land that is closer to downtown Key West became part of the Truman Annex to Naval Station Key West, which is about three miles to the northwest. The Annex was originally called the "Fort Zachary Taylor Annex" and it included a submarine base.

President Harry S. Truman used it for his Winter White House for 175 days in 11 visits. The Secret Service had a private beach built on the land for the president's security, but he reportedly only visited it once, preferring the public beaches. The beach name is called "Truman Beach." The fort, along with its related support buildings, was later renamed for Truman.

The Annex was decommissioned in 1974 because the U.S. Navy had decommissioned nearly all of their diesel-electric submarines and contemporary nuclear powered submarines were too big for the existing port. Most of the then-former Naval Station became an annex (Truman Annex) to the remaining Naval Air Station Key West and served as the landing point for many during the 1980 Mariel boatlift of Cuban refugees.

Those buildings in the Annex and associated real estate not retained by the Navy as part of NAS Key West were sold to private developers. There's a museum for the Truman White House and the Navy continues to own and maintain the piers and that portion of the Naval Station property to the south of Fort Taylor, primarily in support of Joint Interagency Task Force - East and the Naval Security Group Activity.

Current uses
In addition to the role of the fort and its adjacent beach as tourist attractions, Fort Taylor is also the location of a number of annual events, including week-long Civil War reenactments. On the weekend preceding Halloween, it is transformed into a haunted fort, much like a haunted house but on a grand scale and with a distinctive Civil War theme.

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