Paradise Lost: Florida’s Egmont Key during the Civil War

Paradise Lost: Florida’s Egmont Key during the Civil War

The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area evokes images of sugar sand beaches and crystal-clear Gulf waters. A stone’s throw from St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Ferry carts beachgoers two or three times a day between Fort DeSoto County Park and Egmont Key State Park. Egmont Key’s informational brochure boasts that it is a “refuge for wildlife and people,” and it surely is a magnificent place to find solitude, but few vacationers, locals, or historians understand the Civil War history of this island paradise.[1] The story of Egmont Key is not that of a major battle or a significant individual. Egmont Key’s story is about local resistance, disease, and the fight for survival. It reminds the public that the sectional conflict reached even the distant corners of the divided nation and illustrates the challenges that war thrust upon the settlers on the Florida frontier.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Tampa Bay area was a sparsely populated borderland rife with mosquitoes and disease. Indeed, in 1861, one New York Times correspondent denounced it as a “miserable, God-forsaken hole.”[2] But the U.S. government disagreed and, even years earlier, had perceived the strategic value of Tampa Bay and of Egmont Key, which stands guard where the bay’s shallow waters meet the Gulf. When Florida became a state in 1845, recognition of the bay’s importance heightened. The following year, Florida’s senators pressured Congress to appropriate funds for a lighthouse to guide ships into Tampa Bay. Three years later, a group of army engineers, led by young Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, recommended fortifying the Key. Fortifications did not materialize, but Congress appropriated ten thousand dollars to construct a lighthouse, which began operating in May 1848. A few months later, on September 25, 1848, a hurricane inundated the Key with six feet of water, damaging the new beacon. The U.S. Congress responded on August 10, 1856, by appropriating sixteen thousand dollars for a new lighthouse. This structure, completed in 1858, stood eighty-seven feet above sea level and could “withstand any storm.”[3] The sturdy lighthouse has needed very few repairs over the years, but one resulted from the actions of loyal Confederates during the Civil War.

A photograph of an 1862 drawing of the Egmont Key lighthouse. Courtesy of Florida Memory: The State Library & Archives of Florida.

In July 1861, approximately thirty to forty U.S. seamen from the steamer R.R. Cuyler fortified the key with three eighteen-pound guns and erected a battery on the island’s east side. But blockaders did not maintain a constant presence at Egmont Key since blockade duty elsewhere along the Gulf Coast often necessitated their presence. In August 1861, Lightkeeper George H. Richards, an opportunist who feigned loyalty in blockaders’ presence but harbored Confederate sympathies, fled to Tampa in their absence. Upon hearing of the Yankees’ departure, members of the Sunny South Guard and pro-Confederate civilians went out to Egmont Key and removed the lighthouse’s lamp and oil to black out Tampa Bay, scuttle U.S. ships, and frustrate the blockade. The crafty Floridians smuggled the lamp to Tampa and hid it so well at Fort Brooke that it was not rediscovered until after the war, allowing the lighthouse to finally resume operating in June 1866.[4]

One New York Times correspondent decried the theft of the light as “a mark of Southern vandalism,” but the Union persisted in its efforts to thwart blockade runners from reaching Tampa by devising a makeshift light. Union military campaigns, the blockade, and Confederate government directives bled Florida residents of necessities as the war dragged on. Consequently, U.S. troops took advantage of the war-weariness of Bay Area residents, especially those with Union sympathies. Captain Eaton, of the U.S. Ethan Allen blockading Tampa Bay, estimated that there were about forty Unionist families in Tampa and, in February 1862, proposed making Egmont Key into a place of refuge for residents seeking U.S. protection. Nine months later, the New York Times reported that a dozen contrabands and four white refugees occupied the buildings surrounding the lighthouse, cleared the island’s ground, and cultivated sweet potatoes. These men and women recognized that Union forces on the Gulf Coast generally, and on Egmont Key specifically, represented their best hope of survival despite the logistical challenges that U.S. troops faced in supplying refugees and contrabands who sought their protection.[5]

General Collection
A photograph of an 1864 drawing of three vessels (the schooner Stonewall, the man-of-war James L. Davis, and a steamer Sunflower) blockading Tampa Bay. Courtesy of Florida Memory: The State Library & Archives of Florida.

Egmont Key remained isolated from major engagements, but the men stationed on or near the island felt the ravages of one of the Civil War’s most deadly assailants – disease. A yellow fever epidemic struck the Key in July 1864 and claimed the lives of sixteen young men – seamen and soldiers – whose ages ranged from sixteen to thirty-six. Survivors buried these casualties, along with four others who died from accidental gunshot wounds as well as from unknown causes, in a modest cemetery under Egmont Key’s sandy soil, where they rested until 1909 when the Civil War burials were reinterred in the National Cemetery in St. Augustine.[6] Egmont Key State Park has nonetheless preserved the memory of these lives lost in a replication of the cemetery. The burial ground, which lies only yards from the lighthouse, is harrowing – it is a restricted area filled with the Gulf beaches’ signature sugar-sand and neatly lined white wooden crosses that mark where Union sympathizers and seamen once laid.[7]

On November 18, 1864, the New York Times mourned one of the men buried on Egmont Key. Theodore Woolsey Twining, Acting Assistant Paymaster on the U.S. Bark Roebuck, which was stationed at Tampa Bay, was one of the victims of the smallpox epidemic. A sense of duty summoned Twining into the ranks, and disease stole his life, inspiring both his family and his Yale classmates to grieve his loss. Lives were not the only losses sustained at Egmont Key. The Key’s Civil War history has largely been washed away, and this parallels its current physical state. A significant portion of Egmont Key has been lost to erosion. Its former boundaries are noticeable by looking at the different shades of blue in the Gulf waters.

Despite this loss of land, Egmont Key is a true gem – not only for beachgoers and bird watchers, but also for its rich history, which visitors usually overlook since they come to the Key to escape reality. Visitors really have to dig – and read in advance – to understand the Key’s Civil War history and its pinnacle of importance, which came during the Spanish-American War. As America became an imperial power, the U.S. military constructed Fort Dade in 1898 to protect Tampa, and from there staged military operations in Cuba. Modest interpretive signs offer visitors a self-guided walking tour over neatly laid brick roads through the fort’s remnants and the now absent military town, both of which were active through World War II. These signs get only passing glances as sun, surf, sand, and relaxation beckon visitors down the brick roads that nowadays lead to nowhere.

Contemporary photo of Egmont Key State Park. Courtesy of the author.

Egmont Key’s Civil War history challenges our assumptions about the memory of wartime conflict. Battlefields of the Eastern, Western, and Trans-Mississippi theaters draw tourists specifically seeking knowledge about the war itself, but most tourists who come to the Gulf coast have a different agenda and forget that the region had an entirely different purpose in the Civil War Era. The wartime history of Egmont Key, specifically, and that of Florida’s Gulf Coast frontier from Key West to Cedar Key, generally, are perfect examples of how formal policy and everyday individuals shaped the war and the lives of their contemporaries. They illustrate the blockade’s economic stranglehold and evidence Unionism, internal dissent, and guerrilla activity on the frontier far removed from main theaters of war. Scholars have only briefly acknowledged this story, but routine beach days and one special trip to Egmont Key can provide inspiration to explore how the few people who inhabited its pristine shores, before it was considered paradise, fit into those narratives.[8]


[1] Florida State Parks, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Division of Recreation and Parks, “Egmont Key State Park,” Created December 2015. Brochure available at Egmont Key State Park.

[2] “From the Gulf Fleet,” New York Times (New York) July 14, 1861, 8.

[3] Donald H. Thompson and Carol Thompson, Egmont Key: A History (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012; Kindle Edition, 2013); Florida State Parks, “Egmont Key State Park,” 2015.

[4] “Egmont Key Occupied by a Federal Force,” The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), August 5, 1861, 1. Tampa resident and former Indian war officer John T. Lesley organized the Tampa Guards in January 1861. This unit later became the Sunny South Guard. It attracted local boys and young men to its ranks. Canter Brown, Jr., Tampa in Civil War and Reconstruction (Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 2000), 26; Thompson and Thompson, Egmont Key; Joe Crankshaw and Nick Wynne, Florida Civil War Blockades: Battling for the Coast (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011; Kindle Edition, 2012). Tampa Peninsula quoted in The Nashville Union and American (Nashville) September 17, 1861, 2.

[5] “West Coast of Florida,” New York Times (New York), November 17, 1862, 1. “Union Feeling in Florida,” New York Times (New York), February 28, 1862, 3. Florida’s residents grew weary of conscription and other Confederate government acts, such as the War Tax Act of August 1861, the Impressment Act of March 1863, and the General Tax Act of April 1863, and the Confederate tithe, which imposed a tax-in-kind of 10% on all agricultural goods. These inspired desertion and heightened Union sympathies by 1864. Canter Brown, Jr., “The Civil War, 1861-1865,” in The New History of Florida, ed. Michael Gannon (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), 239-240. Floridians were offended that the Confederate government, in February 1864, removed salt makers from the list of individuals exempt from conscription. Thompson and Thompson, Egmont Key; Crankshaw and Wynne, Florida Civil War Blockades; for an overview of Floridians’ disaffection, see John F. Reiger, “Deprivation, Disaffection, and Desertion in Confederate Florida” Florida Historical Quarterly 48 (1969-1970): 279-298.

[6] Thompson and Thompson, Egmont Key. One of the men buried on Egmont Key died of typhoid fever. Information from “Civil War Burials – Egmont Key Lighthouse Cemetery,” interpretive marker, Egmont Key State Park.

[7] The Egmont Key Lighthouse Cemetery also houses burials from the Spanish-American War Quarantine Camp (1898), the U.S. Lighthouse Tender “Laurel,” the U.S. Marine Hospital Service, the Seminole people who were detained on Egmont Key in the 1850s, the Lighthouse Keeper’s Family (the Moore and Bahrt families), and one unknown coal tender for the lighthouse. Information from “Egmont Key Lighthouse Cemetery,” interpretive marker, Egmont Key State Park.

[8] The author wishes to thank Mr. Tom Watson, Assistant Park Manager, for the tour of Egmont Key that he provided on July 8, 2016.

Angela Zombek

Angela M. Zombek is Assistant Professor of History at St. Petersburg College in Clearwater, Florida. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2012. Her book manuscript, Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis during the American Civil War, is under contract with Kent State University Press. She can be reached at

2 Replies to “Paradise Lost: Florida’s Egmont Key during the Civil War”

  1. This is a fascinating history story of a popular place. I have never been to Egmont Key State Park but Angie has described it in such a way that I must go and take her story with me!

  2. This is a fascinating history story of a well known popular park I have never been there but must go with Angie’s story in hand!

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