Florida was the third state to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy. It was also one of the pivotal states when it came to the blockade, which intended to keep the South isolated from trade with foreign allies and make supplying its army more difficult. With expansive coastlines and plenty of hidden inlets, it is no wonder that the Union forces struggled at times to maintain the blockade. This is one of the many reasons why Egmont Key is significant.
Used as a base and refugee camp for Union sympathizers, starving Floridians, and escaped slaves, Egmont Key’s location provided easy access to the waters of Tampa Bay and a convenient lookout position. Whether their motives were to bring in supplies for the army or turn a profit with luxury goods, Confederate blockade runners found that the Egmont Key lighthouse disrupted the darkness they needed to slip in and out of the area unseen by Union blockade squadrons. To this end, capturing the lighthouse’s lens was a necessity.
During the war, the island served as a refugee camp for Floridians who had pro-Union sentiments, as well as escaped prisoners of war and former slaves.
Luckily for the Confederates, the lighthouse keeper, George Richards, had Southern sympathies. Shortly after Union forces began an occupation of the island, Richards smuggled the lighthouse’s lens as well as 96 other machinery pieces to Tampa’s Florida Railroad Depot, where it remained for the rest of the war. Despite this, Union forces remained on the island, utilizing the lighthouse as a lookout station and creating a haven for locals looking for refuge.
During the war, the island served as a refugee camp for Floridians who had pro-Union sentiments, as well as escaped prisoners of war and former slaves (the last numbering almost 200 by the end of the war). As the war dragged on, more and more people came to the island. Some came after abandoning their homes as resources became short and the Confederate government became more desperate for food to feed its army. Although citizens were paid in Confederate dollars, the currency was practically worthless and soon many civilians were starving. Living on the island, they were given protection and rations that were often supplemented by planting potatoes.
25 Number who fell ill with yellow fever on the clipper ship Roebuck sent to Egmont Key from Key West
Along with caring for the refugees and soldiers, Union forces on Egmont Key faced the threat of yellow fever in 1864. The disease came from Key West aboard ships sent to Egmont Key by the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. On the clipper ship Roebuck alone, 25 were ill. Of that number, 15 wouldn’t survive. They were buried, along with those who died from war-related wounds, in a small cemetery just south of the lighthouse. Many of these remains were disinterred in the early 1900s and moved to the National Cemetery in Saint Augustine. A replica of the cemetery is on the island today.
The lighthouse remained out of service almost a year after the official end to the Civil War. Today, Egmont Key is a state park that is accessible only by boat and mostly serves as a wildlife refuge. For more information, be sure to save 3 p.m. Oct. 19 on your calendar, when the Florida Maritime Museum will be hosting Egmont Key Alliance member, Richard Johnson, for a talk about Egmont Key’s history. Admission to the museum (including the Egmont Key: Then and Now lecture) is free and is open to the public 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. The Florida Maritime Museum is located at 4415 119th St. W. Cortez. For more information please visit floridamaritimemuseum.org or call 941-708-6120.