Saturday, May 15, 2010

Egmont Key - A Station on the Florida Blockade

One of the guardians of sand that flank the main channel leading into Tampa Bay, Egmont Key is a barrier island on the Gulf Coast of Florida. It is also one of the most significant historic sites in the state.

Used as an internment camp during the Third Seminole War, the island had been the location of an important lighthouse since the 1830s. The original structure, however, had been badly damaged in the Great Hurricane of 1848 and its replacement had just been completed in 1858. The War Between the States erupted a short time later and Southern forces removed the lens to prevent the light from assisting the Union navy in its efforts to navigate the coast.

The Federals responded by occupying the island. A sketch drawn in 1862 shows the Stars and Stripes flying from the top of the lighthouse as small vessels move offshore. The lighthouse tower was used as an observation platform and the navy began resettling refugees on the key during the same year. By the end of the Civil War, it had become the location of an important refugee camp where Southern Unionists came to escape the Confederacy.

Union blockade ships regularly stopped at the island for information and to deliver food. Its location at the mouth of Tampa Bay made Egmont Key an important point on the blockade and the presence of the refugee camp there also made it a key recruiting station for the Federal army. A number of men from the island volunteered for service in the 2nd Florida U.S. Cavalry, a Union regiment raised in Florida. The navy continued to provide food for their families while they served.

The island today is preserved as Egmont Key State Park. The old lighthouse still stands and visitors can also explore what remains of Fort Dade, an important artillery post dating from the Spanish American War. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/egmontkey.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Gamble Mansion & Judah P. Benjamin

One of the most interesting stories of the War Between the States in Florida is the escape down the peninsula of Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin.

With the Confederacy collapsing around them, President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled Richmond in early April of 1865. After stopping briefly at Danville, Virginia, where they met as a full cabinet for the last time, the Southern officialls continued to retreat South. Some, like Davis, hoped to somehow reach Texas and continue the war. Others, like Benjamin, were looking for a way to avoid capture, trial and possible hanging at the hands of the Union army.

Although President Davis was captured at Irwinville, Georgia, Secretary Benjamin made his way south into Florida. He stopped briefly at Madison before continuing down the peninsula. Avoiding populated areas and increasing Federal patrols, he  reached the Gamble Mansion on the Manatee River just below Tampa.

The home had been built between 1845 and 1850 as the center of the sugar plantation of Major Robert Gamble. He had lost a fortune on the operation, however, and by 1865 the house was the residence of Captain Archibald McNeill. A famous blockade runner, Captain McNeill had successfully kept commerce coming and going from South Florida by running his small sloops and schooners out to see under the very guns of the Union blockade squadron.
After allowing Benjamin to rest and prepare for his voyage at the mansion, McNeill slipped into the Gulf of Mexico from the Manatee River in May of 1865. Making his way silently through the web of Union warships, he escaped one final time with important cargo - Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin. The blockade runner reached Nassau and safety and from there Benjamin went on to England. He spent the rest of his life in Europe, practicing law in England. He is buried in Paris.

The Gamble Mansion was saved from deterioration in 1925 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Now owned by the people of Florida, it is the centerpiece of the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park. It is also a memorial to Judah P. Benjamin. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/gamble.