Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mullet Key and Robert E. Lee

The potential of Tampa Bay to develop into an outstanding deep water port had been evident from the earliest days of Spanish exploration of Florida.

It is generally believed that Hernando de Soto landed here in 1539 (although some support a second theory that he landed more to the South) and the U.S. Army was quick to establish Fort Brooke on the bay shortly after Florida became an American possession in 1821. The city of Tampa eventually grew up around the fort.

Because of its location and potential for development, the U.S. Government looked carefully at the possibility of locating harbor defenses at the mouth of the bay to protect it from foreign attack. Turning to one of its best known officers and engineers, the U.S. Army sent Bvt. Colonel Robert E. Lee to inspect Tampa Bay in 1849.

Heading a team of three other engineers, Lee spend a number of days surveying the area around the entrance to Tampa Bay with an eye to its defense. He particularly concentrated on two offshore islands, Egmont Key and Mullet Key. The two small islands commanded the entrance to the harbor and at Lee's recommendation, they were reserved by the U.S. Government.

The fortifications recommended by Lee and the other engineers never became a reality, as events overshadowed planning and the nation soon broke apart and brother fought brother in the War Between the States.

In fact, it was not until 1898 that the government seriously recognized the wisdom of Lee's recommendations. The United States declared war on Spain that year and fear spread that the Spanish Navy might attack Tampa and other key harbors along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts.

Tampa was a particular thorn in the side of the Spanish as the port had become a major center for smuggling weapons and other supplies to the revolutionaries in Cuba. It also became a key embarkation point for U.S. troops destined for the invasion of Cuba, among them Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.

To defend Tampa Bay against Spanish attack, engineers began the construction of major fortifications on Mullet and Egmont Key. The concrete batteries were unfinished when the war ended, but ultimately would protect Tampa Bay for more than two decades. The installation on Mullet Key, Fort De Soto, is now a historic site maintained by Pinellas County and is easily accessible by car from St. Petersburg. To learn more, please visit www.exploresouthernhistory.com/fortdesoto1.

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