Used as a base and refugee camp for Union sympathizers, starving Floridians, and escaped slaves, Egmont Key’s location provided easy access to the waters of Tampa Bay and a convenient lookout position. Whether their motives were to bring in supplies for the army or turn a profit with luxury goods, Confederate blockade runners found that the Egmont Key lighthouse disrupted the darkness they needed to slip in and out of the area unseen by Union blockade squadrons. To this end, capturing the lighthouse’s lens was a necessity.
Luckily for the Confederates, the lighthouse keeper, George Richards, had Southern sympathies. Shortly after Union forces began an occupation of the island, Richards smuggled the lighthouse’s lens as well as 96 other machinery pieces to Tampa’s Florida Railroad Depot, where it remained for the rest of the war. Despite this, Union forces remained on the island, utilizing the lighthouse as a lookout station and creating a haven for locals looking for refuge.
Along with caring for the refugees and soldiers, Union forces on Egmont Key faced the threat of yellow fever in 1864. The disease came from Key West aboard ships sent to Egmont Key by the East Gulf Blockading Squadron. On the clipper ship Roebuck alone, 25 were ill. Of that number, 15 wouldn’t survive. They were buried, along with those who died from war-related wounds, in a small cemetery just south of the lighthouse. Many of these remains were disinterred in the early 1900s and moved to the National Cemetery in Saint Augustine. A replica of the cemetery is on the island today.
Krystin Miner, curator for the Florida Maritime Museum, is a Manatee County native and treasures the unique history of the area.