Monday, January 17, 2011

January 17, 1861 - The Steamer Joseph Whitney approaches Fort Jefferson

Fort Jefferson (NPS Photo)
This is part of a month-long series on the Secession of Florida, which took place 150 years ago this month.

January 17, 1861

The largest masonry fort in the western hemisphere was unoccupied in the week after Florida's secession from the Union. Fort Jefferson, named for President Thomas Jefferson, was a massive six sided brick and stone fortress on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, a series of small islands off Key West and the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. Often called the "Gibraltar of the Gulf," it was still incomplete in 1861.

Fort Jefferson (NPS Photo)
Recognizing that the occupation of the fort by secessionist forces could represent a major threat to Union shipping in the Gulf of Mexico, the War Department in Washington launched a secret expedition to occupy Fort Jefferson. General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army Winfield T. Scott telegraphed Brevet Major Lewis G. Arnold of the Second U.S. Artillery with orders to proceed to the Dry Tortugas and occupy the fort as quickly as possible.

The steamer Joseph Whitney was sent to Fort Independence, a strong fort on Castle Island in South Boston, Massachusetts, and on the afternoon of January 10, 1861, Major Arnold set sail with four commissioned officers and 62 enlisted men. The voyage took seven days, but by the night of January 17th - 150 years ago today - the ship was in the Dry Tortugas.

The arrival of the U.S. soldiers the next day at Garden Key would assure that Fort Jefferson remained in Union hands, at least for the time being. I will detail more on the occupation of the fort and what Arnold and his men found there in the next post.

Elsewhere on this date in 1861, future Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens warned the delegates at Georgia's Secession Convention that they were risking the desolation of their state by war if they continued on their present course. Please click here to read more on our sister blog, Civil War Daily.

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