Copyright 2008 by Dale Cox
All rights reserved.
Fort Jefferson - Dry Tortugas, Florida
Fort Jefferson
The largest masonry fort ever constructed, Fort
Jefferson stands in the Dry Tortugas.
(National Park Service Photo)
Fort Jefferson: Gibraltar of the Gulf
The largest masonry fortification ever constructed in the United
States, Fort Jefferson stands nearly seventy miles from Key West on
tiny Garden Key in Florida's Dry Tortugas islands.

Construction on the massive fort began in 1846 and continued for
thirty years, but it was never completed. The development of rifled
cannon and armored ships made Fort Jefferson obsolete even
while its construction was under way.

Much of the work of building the fort during the years before the Civil
War was done by enslaved laborers. In 1847, one of the boldest
attempts every made to escape slavery was made by seven workers
at the fort. Commandeering or disabling as many schooners and
boats as they could, they set out from Garden Key in a desperate
attempt to sail away to freedom. To learn more about the dramatic
escape attempt and its outcome, please
click here.

The huge six-sided fort was occupied by Union troops during the
Civil War and, due to its remote but strategic location at the entrance
to the Gulf of Mexico, was called the "Gibraltar of the Gulf." Protected
by its location from Confederate attack, Fort Jefferson nevertheless
remained an important Union post throughout the war. At one point
as many as 2,000 lived at the fort, including soldiers, their families,
prisoners and laborers.

More than 16 million bricks were used in building the fort, which
included 37 powder magazines and was designed to mount 420
heavy guns, some of which weighed 25 tons a piece and could fire
at ships up to three miles away. Six of these 15-inch Rodman guns
can still be seen at the fort. It is the largest collection of Rodman
guns still to be found in the world.

Near the end of the Civil War, the 99th U.S. Colored Infantry stopped
briefly at Fort Jefferson on their way from Louisiana to a new
assignment at Key West. A short time later they participated in the
campaign resulting in
the Battle of Natural Bridge, Florida.

In July of 1865, the fort became the prison for three of the men
convicted of involvement in the assassination of President Abraham
Lincoln. Among these was Dr. Samuel Mudd, a Maryland physician
who had set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth.

There was little evidence that Dr. Mudd knew of or participated in
planning the assassination of President Lincoln, but his role in
treating the escaped assassin assured his conviction as a
conspirator. His name is the origin of the term "His name is Mudd."

Dr. Mudd spent three years in a cell at Fort Jefferson, but risked his
life during a yellow fever outbreak there in providing treatment to his
jailers and the soldiers of the fort. He was granted a pardon by
President Andrew Johnson in 1869 in recognition of his courage in
battling the disease.

The fort was an active military post until 1874, but remained an
important stopping point for military and civilian ships long after that
date. In 1898, the battleship
U.S.S. Maine last stopped at the Dry
Tortugas before sailing on its ill-fated voyage to Havana, Cuba.

Fort Jefferson today is maintained by the National Park Service as
part of the 100-square mile Dry Tortugas National Park. Accessible
only by seaplane or boat, the fort is one of Florida's most fascinating
heritage attractions. Several companies provide trips to the fort at
reasonable prices.

In addition to the fort, the park preserves the seven islands of the Dry
Tortugas. Discovered by Ponce de Leon in 1513, these islands are
part of a pristine marine ecosystem and are carefully protected. A trip
to the fort, in addition to providing a chance to see a site of intense
historical interest, also allows visitors access to one of Florida's
most interesting snorkeling areas.

To learn more about Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas National Park,
please follow the links below:
The Sally Port of Fort Jefferson
The main entrance and bridge leading over the moat
into Fort Jefferson can be seen here.
(National Park Service Photo)
Fort Jefferson and Lighthouse
This view shows one of the walls of the fort and the
old lighthouse built atop Fort Jefferson.
(National Park Service Photo)
Inside Fort Jefferson
More than 16,000,000 bricks were used in the
construction of the massive six-sided fort.
(National Park Service Photo)
Hot Shot Oven at Fort Jefferson
The oven seen here was designed to heat solid
cannon shot to be fired at attacking ships.
(National Park Service Photo)