This week, we’re setting sail for a little known island, home to an abandoned Civil War prison, and links to the Lincoln assassination conspiracy.
Far flung desert islands often capture the imagination as idyllic places to escape to. But there is an island the Gulf of Mexico that is so remote and inhospitable, it became the perfect place to strand Confederate prisoners during the Civil War, an island from where there could be no escape.
Shrouded in mystery, surrounded by Spanish treasure shipwrecks, and even playing a part in the Lincoln assassination conspiracy, sailors called the infernal place, ‘America’s Devil Island’; we know it today as the Dry Tortugas.
The Dry Tortugas actually comprise of seven tiny islands, of which, Garden Key is the largest. Technically they are part of Monroe County, Florida, but at a distance of over 70 miles away from Key West, they are little known about or visited.
The Dry Tortugas were first discovered by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 and named for the giant sea turtles he found there. He added the ‘Dry’ when he discovered there was no natural spring water to be found.
Incredibly, these remote, tiny islands are part of the National Park Service. They may be least visited Park in the Service, but are still overseen by Rangers with as much care as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, who tend the desolate place on a one week on/one week off basis. Out of reach to most small boats, the Dry Tortugas are usually visited by high speed catamaran and sea planes.
We’re up at sunrise at the Key West Bight marina to board the Yankee Freedom III, an ocean going catamaran, that even at thirty knots, takes nearly two hours to sail to the Dry Tortugas. Centuries ago, the voyage was far more perilous; in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Billy Bones, a drunken old pirate told, “dreadful stories of…..hanging, and walking the plant, and storms at sea….the Dry Tortugas and wild deeds.”
Whilst the threat of piracy on the high seas has long vanished, the first glimpse of the Dry Tortugas, after hours of empty ocean, is a thrilling sight. For the largest island is entirely filled with a colossal fort, the red brickwork rising out of the turquoise sea, in the middle of nowhere.
When work began on Fort Jefferson in 1846, the original plans were to build a key strategic fort, guarding the Gulf of Mexico. For thirty years, labourers toiled in horrendous, tropical conditions, days sail from the nearest provisions and comfort. But the undertaking proved too great, and Fort Jefferson was eventually abandoned.
Docking at an old wooden pier, and walking inside, you can see that what was completed of the fort is formidable. Vast brick archways, courtyards, ammunition storerooms, and gun emplacements lie silent, waiting for an enemy naval attack that never came. But much lies in ruins; half finished rows of bricks, the walls, and outlines of houses for troops that were never used. Whilst much of Fort Jefferson was left unfinished, it is still today the largest brick structure in America.
Whilst never used as a working fort, this remote, forgotten place did have another use; at the beginning of the Civil War, the abandoned island was swiftly occupied by Union soldiers, and the hulking ruins turned into a military prison.
At one point, over 2,000 people lived on these remote islands, described by one prisoner as a place of, “bad diet, bad water and every inconvenience”. Prison life on the island dungeon was so harsh that Lincoln swapped execution sentences for deserters to imprisonment on the Dry Tortugas.
Exploring the fort ruins, we found a peculiar plaque on one brick wall, placed there in ‘memory of Dr. Samuel Mudd – imprisoned Fort Jefferson, Florida, July 24 1865’. He is perhaps the island’s most infamous prisoner.
After John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14th, 1865, he leapt to the stage of Ford’s Theatre, fracturing his left fibula. In the early hours of the next morning, the fleeing Booth arrived at Dr. Samuel Mudd’s house, where his leg was set and splintered by the physician. When questioned by pursuing authorities, Mudd stated he’d never seen Booth before. But the investigation in Lincoln’s assassination unearthed that Mudd had been seen with Booth the year before on several occasions in Mudd’s hometown and in Washington DC.
Dr. Samuel Mudd was found guilty of conspiracy to murder, and sentenced to the Dry Tortugas for life imprisonment.
Mudd would have most likely ended his days banished on the desert island, where it not for an outbreak of Yellow fever in 1867. The plaque tells of how the disgraced doctor, “devoted himself to the care and cure of the sick, and interposed his courage and skill to protect the garrison.” Exactly the part he played in Lincoln’s assassination is still unknown, but Dr. Samuel Mudd was pardoned and released by President Johnson, and Mudd left the Dry Tortugas in 1869.
The last prisoners left Fort Jefferson in 1874, when it was abandoned again, until becoming designated a national monument by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Today, the islands remain a little known foot note in American history, but are abundant with wildlife under the watchful care of the Park Rangers. For the more intrepid explorer, it’s actually possible to stay over night, in camping condition, the National Park Service describe as ‘primitive’.
But it is rare opportunity to spend the night amidst the hulking ruins of an abandoned prison, on a desert island, seventy miles away from civilization, and follow in the shackled footsteps of someone who may, or may not have played a part in the murder of Abraham Lincoln.