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Fort Zachary Taylor Visit

Key West, Monroe Co., FL (April 2009)

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Fort Zachary Taylor Video

Fort Location

Fort Zachary Taylor began its service to the country as one of the Third System coastal fortifications constructed in the wake of the War of 1812. The United States determined that it would be prudent and worthwhile to make their port cities less vulnerable to enemy invasion. This lesson had be learned the hard way when the British sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River to attack the young nation's capital city and burned several important buildings including the White House. Key West was a natural site for one of those defensive masonry structures, sitting astride a vital passageway into the Gulf of Mexico. They calculated correctly that the Straights of Florida could be blocked rather effectively if they could coordinate the efforts of defensive fortifications at Key West and the Dry Tortugas (see my Fort Jefferson Page). Florida gained statehood in 1845 and construction began in earnest that same year. The fort gained its name soon thereafter as a memorial to President Zachary Taylor who passed away in office in 1850.

Fort Wall

Exterior Wall of Ft. Zachary Taylor

Fort Taylor sat 1,200 feet away from the shoreline on an artificial island constructed specifically for this purpose. All of this buffer has been filled in subsequently except for a partial moat that circles the western half of the structure so today it looks like one more part of Key West. A portion can be viewed in the image above. At the time of its construction and during its early occupation, the only access to Fort Zach by land would have been via a wooden ramp that could be withdrawn during hostile activities. Attacks coming by sea would have been equally futile, to be met by three stories of swiveling cannons of punishing direct shots and hellish crossfire. The Army designed Fort Taylor to intimidate would-be foes, to appear so overwhelmingly formidable as to avoid a fight entirely. This tactic worked. Fort Taylor never sustained an attack.


Fortress Interior

Parade Ground Panorama

Ironically the military threat would come from within. Florida succeeded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America in 1861, leaving Fort Zachary Taylor in hostile territory as the Civil War was about to convene. Realizing its vulnerability and having already lost Fort Sumter, the Union quickly fortified its presence at the fort and on the island. They held the fort for the duration of the war while wearily eying the residents of Key West with suspicion. This action bedeviled the Confederacy and cost them dearly. Fort Taylor became the headquarters for the Union Navy's East Gulf Coast Blockading Squadron which seized nearly 300 Confederate vessels attempting to run the blockade. The navy anchored captured ships next to the fort within easy range of a couple of hundred cannons. Running the blockade proved to be a risky business.


Climbing a Tower Stairwell

Circular Stairwell to Upper Level

While Fort Taylor served faithfully during the Civil War, its obsolescence had already been sealed. A new technology -- rifled cannons -- demonstrated that in battle at Fort Pulaski and other places. Masonry forts could not withstand repeated direct fire. The two top levels of the fort were removed in 1889. Later the army built Battery Osceola and Battery Adair for modern warfare. The fortress served its country again during the Spanish-American war of 1898, and once again it acted as an effective deterrence. This role would be maintained through two more wars until 1947 when it was finally decommissioned, having served the United States Army for a hundred years.


Fortress Cannon

Cannon in a Fortress Casement

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park today is much more than the fort itself. In fact the preponderance of visitors head straight towards the nearby beach, perhaps never getting a glimpse of the historic site as they drive to the parking lot and walk over to the water. Once seaside they never pay it another thought. Of the hundreds of park visitors who came through the park's tollgate, perhaps a dozen of them climbed around the fort while I was there. The average park visitor's loss is your gain. You will have plenty of time to poke around quietly and at your own pace.

Restoration efforts are well underway. The barracks buildings on the back side of the parade ground were off-limits during my visit, with abundant signs of construction and rehabilitation. It is gratifying to see such positive attention being paid to an important historical to preserve it for future generations. That's not what one would ordinarily expect to see amid the live-for-today visitors flocking to Key West.

Readers who have an interest in forts might also want to check my Forts, Fortresses and Fortifications page.