Dry Tortugas was a Part of American History

Fort Jefferson with Lighthouse, circa 1863
Fort Jefferson with Lighthouse Circa 1863

National Park Service Archives

One of the largest of America's 19th century coastal forts, Fort Jefferson is one of the central features of the seven "Dry Tortugas
Islands" in the Gulf of Mexico. The construction of the fort began in 1846 and was planned and supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The labor force during the early years was made up predominantly of slaves from Key West. Although construction of the fort continued for 30 years it was never completed largely due to changes in weapon technology, which rendered it obsolete by

After the Civil War, the fort was used as a federal prison. Among the prisoners kept there were several of the "Lincoln Conspirators."
One of these was Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the physician who set the broken leg of President Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. In 1867, during an outbreak of Yellow Fever, Dr. Mudd helped prison doctors fight the epidemic.

Two years later the physician's sentence was commuted and he was released. The Department of the Army officially abandoned Fort
Jefferson in 1874;established as Fort Jefferson National Monument in 1935, it was rededicated and renamed Dry Tortugas National Park on October 26, 1992.

Couple walks along moat wall circa 1899
Couple walks along moat wall, circa 1899

National Park Service Archives

As you explore the fort, imagine life here during the hectic 1860s. At its height nearly 2,000 people lived within this remote city on the sea. Crowded onto the island were long walkways flanked by lush trees, impressive brick buildings, large wooden storehouses, and numerous tents. Soldiers marched and trained in the broiling sun. Laborers and prisoners hauled bricks and supplies to the masons who continued their never ending task of building the fort. Women and children, though fewer in number, were a welcome sight here. Surrounded by disease, death, and suffering, one wife described Fort Jefferson as "a dark, mean place."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers faced many challenges during the fort's lengthy construction. Shifting sands, storms, and harsh conditions were common obstacles. The remote location hampered the shipment of supplies and skilled workers, especially during the Civil War. Meanwhile, sections of the fort tarted to sink. In an effort to limit the fort's weight and slow subsidence, the second tier was intentionally left incomplete.

Learn more about the stories and daily activities of soldiers and civilians who lived at Fort Jefferson. Transcribed from the original documents, these records re dramatic and detailed:


Reuben H. Keim, Fort Jefferson, Tortugas, Fla;May

James Smith, MD Battery 5 US H Arty, Fort Jefferson
Tortugas Florida, June 17th, 1866

Hugh H. McClune, a political prisoner at Fort
Jefferson from April 1863 until July 1865.

Harrison Burgess Herrick, a Union soldier stationed
at Fort Jefferson during the American Civil War.

Sam Horner, January 1872 –July 1873

Private Leander Tuller, 110th New York Infantry,
February 1864, his unit, Company E, 110th New York Infantry, boarded a vessel
in New Orleans and departed for Fort Jefferson, arriving on the evening of the
27th.The following eighteen months were
filled with the age-old traditions of soldiers' life.

George Oakley, Fort Jefferson, Tortugas, Fla., Jan
18, 1863

Emily Holder, At the Dry Tortugas During the War, A
Lady's Journal

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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