Florida: Essays and Poems


Thirty Months at the Dry Tortugas

Additional Information
  • Year Published: 1869
  • Language: English
  • Country of Origin: United States of America
  • Source: Excerpt from "Thirty Months at the Dry Tortugas" The Galaxy Miscellany, June, 1869, pp 282-288.
  • Readability:
    • Flesch–Kincaid Level: 10.8
  • Word Count: 3,740


For thirty months I have been a soldier of the garrison of Fort Jefferson. It is the fortress that stands on Garden Key, and frowns over the waste of waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Within these small nine acres are congregated about five hundred souls, fairly anchored out at sea, and almost out of the world, we feel sometimes. Of our life here, and of the little world of our own that we inhabit, let me send tidings to the great world beyond.

The Dry Tortugas comprehend a group of four small islands, lying about sixty miles from Key West, in a south-westerly direction, about ninety west of Cuba, and nearly the same distance from the mainland of Florida.

East Key, which lies about six miles from Fort Jefferson, contains some fifteen acres, and rises about five feet above the level of the sea. It is a complete waste, barren and uninhabited, its surface covered with thick brushwood and a species of cactus, which we here call prickly pear, impassable and almost impenetrable. It is, how ever, a favorite resort of turtles and sea-birds. In the turtle season, parties of men, generally accompanied by one or more officers who may like the sport, start for this island, in the evening, from the fort, lie out all night, and gene rally succeed in catching a turtle or two. The moonlight being exceedingly brilliant, the men lie concealed in the shrubs. When the monstrous turtle crawls up from the water, like a silly, love-loin maiden, "to complain to the moon." a rush is suddenly made upon him by the boys; some head him off from the water, while the rest lay violent hands upon him. He is quickly turned upon his back, and his feet, or flippers, are adroitly secured by a strong line. If not the next morning consigned to the tender mercies of the post butcher, a string is placed round his neck, to which is attached a small board, marked with the letter of the company to which he belongs. He is then thrown into the breakwater, or moat, that surrounds the fort, to float around in lazy indolence until the company cook intimates that his presence is needed in the kitchen. At times, more than a dozen of these animals may be seen floating about in the still water of the moat, lifting, for a moment, their strange, half-human faces above the surface, to take in a long breath and sink again. This island is also the resort of myriads of sea-gulls and pelicans. At night they lie so thickly all round that the men, if so inclined, can easily knock them down with a stick or seize them with the hand. Basketsfull of their eggs are brought off daily in the season, and, when properly cooked, they make a firstrate addition to the company mess.

The foundations of Fort Jefferson, built entirely of coral rock, were laid on the island of Garden Key in the year 1846. The cost of the fort, from its foundation to the present time—and the engineers are still actively at work upon it must have been immense. Every brick, every plank, and every trowel of mortar had to be transported from the North at incalculable expense. What idea possessed those then in power to undertake so great work at such cost is not easy to imagine. It is alleged that the place was intended as a rendezvous for our ships in the Mexican waters; but for this purpose we already possessed Key West, where a similar fort (Fort Taylor) stands, and where there is ample accommodation for supplies of coal and naval stores of all kinds. Again, it is asserted that it commands the Gulf; how, I fail to understand. No ship of war of a hostile nation need come within range of our guns. The navigation round here, owing to the hidden reefs, is extremely intricate and dangerous; nor could we, with our three hundred guns, hurt the enemy keeping well outside the reefs. The only use, it seems to me, that is or can be made of the fort, is that which it ically serves at present—as a prison. But whether it was, in the first place, worth while to erect such a structure, for such a purpose, in such a climate, entailing, also, the necessity of a battalion of soldiers, equally prisoners with those they guard, I leave to wiser heads to determine.

Professor Agassiz,in his interesting work on the "Study of Natural History," devotes a pleasant chapter to the age and formation of coral reefs, and explains the means by which may be approximately determined the age of these islands and surrounding reefs. He says that an intelligent head-workman employed here watched the growth of certain coral that established themselves in the foundation, and recorded their rate of increase. Other facts, from a variety of sources, confirmed the testimony thus received. This workman had shown the Professor rocks on which coral had been growing for some dozen years, during which they had increased about half an inch in ten years. A brick placed under water in 1850, by Captain Wood, of Tortugas, with a view to determine the rate of coral growth, and taken up eight years later, had a crust of meandrina upon it a little more than half an inch in thickness.

Similar testimony as to the growth of coral was furnished from Fort Taylor, Key West. Fragments of meandrina that had been growing from twelve to fifteen years averaged about an inch in thickness—some specimens, however, not more than half an inch. From these and other data the Professor estimates the growth of coral at one-half a foot in a century. Proceeding upon very moderate calculations, he assigns to the Florida coral reefs an age quite sufficient to harass the chronological faith of those who believe the world to be but six thousand years old. Indeed, upon the lowest calculation, based upon facts thus ascertained as to their growth, we cannot suppose that less than seventy thousand years have elapsed since the coral reefs already known in Florida began to grow.

Very beautiful specimens of white branching coral are cAlected by the men, and, when occasion offers, sent North to their friends. A few feet, very often scarcely a foot beneath the surface of the water (except in the channel, which is deep) may be seen, as one glides over it in a boat, a very forest of coral trees, with branches beautifully regular and wide-spreading. Nor is the sea here devoid of other interest. Fish of strange form and color, not seen in Northern waters, abound. The storm rolls in shoals of porpoises, and sharks are constant visitors. Shells, also, of rare and exquisite beauty, are gathered on the reefs, and a species of moss, which, impressed on cards, makes a beautiful picture, for grace of form and variety of color.

In the calm evening it is pleasant from the ramparts to watch the golden sun sink to rest, and just as it touches the edge of the horizon to hear the bugles sound "Retreat," and before the last note of music has died away in space, the placid rest broken for a moment by the thunder of the evening gun; the Stars and Stripes, that have all day long flaunted their glory from the sallyport, are run down; the toil of the day, with its petty cares, is over,, and some one, as he breaks ranks, indulges in the by no means original exclamation ".Another day in for Uncle Sam." The beauty of the setting sun in this climate surpasses anything I have elsewhere seen. Whether it is in reality more beautiful than in other places, or whether being about the only beautiful thing we really have here, and on that account liable to be over-appreciated, I am unable to determine.

After sunset, sometimes, owing, I suppose, to some peculiarity in the waning light, or its reflection, or the position of the clouds, one might easily imagine himself; so placid is the sea , gazing upon some inland lake. The clouds hanging low down and thickly clustered together, form, as it were, a boundary, like the base of a hill. In the distance is Loggerhead Island, with its tall and beautifully-symmetrical light-house, the feeble light just struggling into existence, though momentarily increasing in brilliancy as the pall of darkness deepens. Nearer still is the rugged little island of Bird Key, where our dead rest, the white head-boards yet distinct in the fading light. Alas since last years’ yellow fever they are thickly-crowded together, and mark where the poor young soldiers lie far from their northern homes.

Fort Jefferson is an irregular hexagon in form. It mounts three tiers of guns (ri-inch Columbiads); two in the casemates, the third on the parapet, about forty feet above the level of the sea. They are capable, I have no doubt, of giving a Warm reception to any power foolhardy enough to make a trial of strength with the young Republic. A considerable portion of the island lies outside the fort, on which are erected the wooden buildings used by the engineers, workshops, stables, etc. There are also three docks, or wharfs, projecting into the channel, to which are moored the boats arriving.

Two schooners run almost every week between the fort and Key West. A steamer also arrives semi-monthly from New Orleans, bringing commissary and other stores. The arrival and departure of these boats with the mails are almost the only incidents that rouse the "inhabitants of the isles " from their usual condition of torpid monotony, relieving the dull routine of drills, roll calls, guard mounts, dress parades, and other military duties. On such occasions there is an eager rush for and anxious waiting at the post-office. There are some who joyously bear off the coveted letters or papers, and others who, scarcely believing that for them there is absolutely nothing, turn away with faces wearing an air of blank disappointment. We have a good, library, pretty well stocked with books, and receive also some New York papers, besides other publications; so that in this respect we are very fortunate, isolated as we are from the outer world.

The entrance to the fort is through a handsome; well-built, and massive sallyport, immediately inside which is the garrison guard-house. The view, on entering, is, I imagine, to a stranger, rather pleasant. On the right of the entrance is the light-house and residence of the keeper; on either side are cocoanut trees, furnished with a dozen or two large green nuts that never seem to ripen. Trees, green all the year round, and Spanish grass, planted with great care and watchful tenderness, greet the eye quite refreshingly. Underneath the trees, long ranges of shot piled symmetrically and great guns not mounted yet, remind the visitor, should he for a moment be inclined to forget the fact, that he stands within the inclosure of one of the greatest fortresses in the United States. A well-kept, hard-cemented walk leads in a straight line from the sallyport to the officers’ quarters. In the centre of the fort is a miniature garden, nicely railed in, in which tropical fruits and vegetables are supposed to grow. What its actual production for the last two years has been I am unable to state. It is, however, well watered and kept in good order, and makes a nice show to strangers, which is something. Our best water is the rain, which we catch and confine in cisterns. We have also steam machinery in full running order, capable of condensing several thousand gallons per day. Part of the troops, owing to the other buildings being unfinished, are quartered in the upper casemates, which are perfectly airy, pleasant, and constantly whitewashed. The greatest want experienced on the island is that of vegetables. Occasionally we get watermelons, bananas, and pineapples from Cuba, which sell at very extravagant prices; a good head of plain vulgar cabbage, so little esteemed in the outside world, would sell readily for a dollar here. The wonder is that some "live Yankee" does not settle somewhere on the coast of Florida and supply this place and Key West with vegetables, fruit, eggs, and butter. One with a moderate capital and energy would. shortly realize a fortune. An attempt was made last summer to establish a garden on Loggerhead, two miles distant from the fort. This island contains about twenty-five acres, the soil consisting altogether, of coral sand, covered with cactus; but the idea was abandoned, the labor, expense, and inconvenience attending it being too great a price to pay for any doubtful good to be derived.

During the prevalence of the yellow fever at the fort last year, when the garrison suffered terriuly, Dr. Samuel Mudd, sent hither for complicity in the assassination of President Lincoln, was at one time our only physician. It is simple justice and gratitude to acknowledge the skilful and self-sacrificing service he rendered. I may add that nothing can be more exemplary than the conduct of the three political prisoners now on the island (Michael O’Loughlin having died of yellow fever last year). They perform the work assigned them without complaint, and with apparent cheerfulness; if the iron sometimes enter their souls, or the bitterness of their situation be felt, it is never exhibited. This, at least, if not much more, must in justice to them be told.

We have, as before stated, a good library; we have, also, for those who desire to attend, the occasional services of an Episcopalian chaplain; and we have that which decidedly draws greater crowds than both the chaplain and library together, a very good theatre,gotten up entirely, at very great cost and labor and well supported, by the present battalion. There are performances nearly every week. The plays are sent on from New York, and the dramatic company is kept pretty well informed in theatrical matters. The great difficulty that the managers labor under is the want of female characters, personated by real women. Soldiers do not, as a rule, make good lady characters, and especially here, the face of every man being so well known, their employment in the female department destroys the illusion of reality so necessary to good playing. A shout of derisive laughter often greets the false woman in expansive crinoline; the awkwardness of the figure and long stride betray the deception. Besides, despite of care, very ridiculous accidents in the dress arrangement will sometimes occur, pins will get out of place, and skirts will fall, betraying the masculine trowsers. For a brief period we had indeed a "real live woman" character; the very pretty and very talented wife of a non-commissioned officer, since promoted to another department, consented to act with the boys. Her acting and deportment were both excellent, and the enthusiasm on such occasions among the audience was unbounded. On the evening previous to her departure a benefit was given her, and a goodly pile of greenbacks raked in.

Notwithstanding the strength and security of this place as a military and general prison, many atteml.)ts at escape have been made from time to time. In nine cases out of ten, such attempts meet with detection, entailing, of course, increased restraint and severer punishment. Yet sometimes reckless daring and ingenuity will baffle the most watchful vigilance. At retreat or sundown the general prisoners are confined to their quarters in one section of the casemates; the military prisoners, when there are any, are placed in the guard-house. A sentinel is placed at retreat at the prisoners’ bastion, who allows neither ingress nor egress to any without proper authority. Another sentry is, of course, day and night on duty at the sallyport, who allows no one unauthorized to pass out after tattoo. A third is stationed over the small fishing and pleasure boats at "No. i " wharf; these boats, after retreat, are secured within a wooden enclosure. Another sentry is on duty at the next wharf some thirty yards distant, where there are no boats; these sentries outside have orders to allow no boat to leave without the inspection of the corporal or sergeant of the guard, and with the permission of the commanding officer and officer of the day. From this it will appear plain that escape by means of the boats is (if the sentries do their duty), almost an impossibility. However, escapes are made.

Some three years ago a white prisoner named Adair, accompanied by a negro, managed to get out of one of the portholes unobserved. On a plank they crossed to Loggerhead; there they secured one of the light-house boats, and reached Cuba in safety. Adair, however, who, if all accounts be true, was a very hard case, with unparallelled baseness and unblushing audacity endeavored to effect the sale into slavery of his dusky companion. The African, naturally enough, failed to perceive the justice or morality of this Caucasian philanthropist, and in order to avoid a worse fate than that he had ventured his life to escape from, stated the real circumstances of the case to the Spanish authorities. The result was that both gentlemen were quietly given over to the captain of one of the island boats, then at Havana, and were furnished with transportation to their late marine residence. About eighteen months ago, this Adair, still aspiring after a freer field of action than the island afforded, made a second venture for liberty. Though then wearing a ball and chain weighing some twentyfour to thirty pounds, he again placed faith in a plank, and reached Loggerhead safely, though the channel is infested with man-eating sharks. In his expectation of securing a boat he was, however, disappointed. For a few hours he succeeded in hiding himself in the thick brushwood of the island, but was speedily brought to bay by a corporal’s guard, and forced to make an unconditional surrender.

During the prevalence of the yellow fever last year, a successful escape was easily effected by a corporal of the regular service, three guard-house prisoners and one "general" prisoner. The latter had been sentenced to be hanged at Key West for murder. After having tried to "break jail," and beinn shot down by some colored troops, he had his sentence commuted to imprisonment for life at the Dry Tortugas. This corporal, who escaped or deserted, had been detailed to superintend the party almost constantly engaged in burying the dead in the adjacent little island. The sentry over the boats had orders to allow him and his party of men to leave at all times, day or night. The three military prisoners were on this burying party. In this case, so far as securing the boat was concerned, all was plain sailing enough. The corporal simply betrayed the trust reposed in him. The general prisoner must have (it is supposed) crawled through an embrasure, swam across the breakwater, and met the boat outside.

The next, and it is now believed successful attempt to escape, was made a few months ago, by a man of some notoriety, commonly styled Colonel St. Leger Greenfel. Colonel Greenfel is one of the many Englishmen of aristocratic tendencies, whose sympathies went with the "Lost Cause." He had seen a good deal of the world, and by his own account, which there is no reason to doubt, had experienced rough fighting and hard campaigning both in the Old World, and also in the barbarous monarchies and semi-civilized yepublics of South America. A man of restless and impetuous temperament, and by natural disposition a revolutionist, he threw himself into the cause of the South. Colonel Greenfel served, I believe, on Morgan’s staff and attained the rank of brigadier-general. Owing, it is said, to some difficulty with Mr. Davis, he threw up his commission in the Confederacy, reached Havana and proceeded North. In New York he had an interview with Mr. Stanton, then Secretary of War, whom he deceived (as he often has declared with a spice of great satisfaction) both as to the strength and disposition of the Confederate forces. For this, he alleges, Mr. Stanton did not forgive him; and we should be rather surprised if be did. Be this however, as it may, the old colonel was finally pulled up for complicity in the Chicago conspiracy and the projected attack upon Camp Douglas. He was tried with others by a military commission, and sentenced to imprisonment for life, with hard labor, at Tortugas.

Failing in many attempts to influence the executive through external and foreign pressure, the colonel determined to achieve freedom for himself or perish in the attempt. He must have succeeded in bribing or seducing from his allegiance one of the soldiers of the garrison. It was on the occasion of the latter being posted over the boats that the escape was made. With him were associated the irrepressible Adair of the Cuban expedition and two general prisoners, one of the latter a man of notoriously desperate character. The soldier deserted his post with his arms and equipments and cast his lot with the daring Englishman. The night on which they trusted to the mercy of the waves in a frail open boat was wild and stormy almost without precedent. To risk one’s life on such a night seemed insanity, and we all conjectured that they must have been swept into eternity before they were three hundred yards from the fort. It seems, however, from Southern newspaper accounts, that Colonel Greenfel did actually reach Cuba, and at last accounts was about to sail for Europe.

I have endeavored to give some idea of this out-of-the-world fortress and its surroundings. Strangers landing here for a few hours, no doubt, may indulge in rhapsodies about its beauty, its few cocoanut trees, just like those iii pictures that adorn little missionary tracts, its apocryphal banana trees, its luxuriant grass and evergreen foliage; but perhaps if they were doomed to a three years’ residence on this barren, broiling, coral island, their ideas would be considerably modified, and a good deal of the rosy tinting bleached out of their pictures.