Egmont Key during the Civil War

Egmont Key may not have been host to any major battles during the Civil War, but this small island was not exempt from feeling its effects . Egmont Key was host to a variety of incidents that stemmed from the war which included the sabotage of its lighthouse and a sudden outbreak of disease.

One of the major Union objectives as the Civil War progressed was to blockade the Southern coasts to keep Confederate ships from providing vital supplies to their army. Initially, Egmont Key did not receive much attention from the Union. While there were efforts to establish a stronger presence at the island, Union troops were often sent away from Egmont Key in favor of other areas along Florida’s coastline. Over time, however, the Union established a stronger foothold on the island. The keeper of the Egmont Key lighthouse during the war was a man named George Rickard. Rickard claimed he supported the Union blockade but was secretly a Confederate sympathizer. As the Union’s presence continued to grow along Florida's coasts, Rickard knew it was only a matter of time before the lighthouse would fall into Union hands. If the Union took control, the lighthouse would be instrumental in detecting Confederate ships that were attempting to slip through the blockade. Rickard waited for the right opportunity and then made his move. In August of 1861, Rickard smuggled the lighthouse’s lens along with a multitude of other lighthouse equipment and fled to Tampa. Beginning in 1862, the Union began to use Egmont Key as a haven for people who supported the North. With the construction of a battery, the Union could not only better enforce the blockade against the Confederacy but also protect these refugees from potential raids. These citizens provided the Union with information about Confederate troop movements in the area and informed them of local water routes. In addition to this group, Egmont Key was also home to nearly 200 escaped slaves. Many of the refugees survived there by planting potatoes. There was not much combat to speak of between Union and Confederate forces on Egmont Key during the war, but the Union did have to face off against another deadly foe: disease. In July of 1864, a bout of yellow fever struck the island. The refugees were spared, but it ravaged their Union protectors. The disease spread to Egmont Key on ships that had arrived from Key West. The fever soon found its way to the troops stationed on the island, and it ultimately ended up claiming the lives of fifteen soldiers and sailors. The remaining Union troops soon constructed a small cemetery near the lighthouse to lay them to rest. In addition to the fifteen struck down by yellow fever, there were five other graves made for men who had died on the island from other circumstances. In 1909, the remains were removed from the island and interred in Saint Augustine. Despite not having any major battles or raids on the island, Egmont Key was not exempt from experiencing the effects of the conflict. Egmont Key may not have started out as a point of focus, but its importance was recognized as the war dragged on. The tiny island served many different purposes throughout the war, and it represents how the Civil War impacted coastal life for many Floridians. Egmont Key might be slowly fading away, but the impact it had in Florida during the Civil War cannot be erased.

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