Ft. Jefferson located on the Dry Tortugas islands 70 miles west of Key West Florida. Construction began in 1846 but was ultimately abandoned 28 years later in 1874. The fort was never completed due to difficulties with numerous construction problems, bouts of yellow fever and the invention of the rifled cannon. The Dry Tortugas was discovered by conquistador Ponce de Leon 1513 and was given the name Las Tortugas for the abundance of turtles found on the islands. Due to the absence of fresh drinking water it got the name of Dry Tortugas. In 1935 Franklin D. Roosevelt set aside the Dry Tortugas Islands as a National monument and it was made into a national park in 1992
Just because the fort construction was never completed does not mean that it was not used. During the Civil War it was used as a prison for Yankee deserters. Union forces were able to use this fort because they were able to control Florida’s large coastline rather quickly with their superior naval fleet. While Florida did secede from the Union it had a large population of Union sympathizers. Check out my earlier blog post Today in Florida to learn a little more about Florida’s role in the Civil War.
Ft. Jefferson’s most famous prisoner wasn’t even a soldier. He was Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Samuel Mudd was accused and found guilty of conspiracy to murder President Lincoln. He met with John Wilkes Booth in his home and Washington before the assassination of Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre. He was considered part of the conspiracy after setting Booth’s broken leg and giving him crutches to aid him in his movement. He did not report Booth until the next day after Booth left his home in southern Maryland. Mudd at first was considered just a witness until he lied about meeting Booth before the assassination. He was sentenced to life in prison at Ft. Jefferson. On September 25, 1865 he attempted escape when he learned that control of the fort was being transferred to a colored. He was quickly captured and put to hard labor building the fort in leg irons. In 1867 an outbreak of yellow fever occured and Mudd used his skills as a doctor to help end the epidemic. It was this work during the yellow fever outbreak that earned him his pardon by President Andrew Johnson in 1869. He was in prison for four years. After his release he returned home and restarted his practice.
Ft. Jefferson was made into an official National Park in 1992. People can visit the park and even camp on the grounds. For more information please visit the Dry Tortugas National Park (U.S. National Park Service).