Storm over Key West: The Civil War and the Call of Freedom
Storm over Key West is a history of the Civil War and race in the Florida Keys, but the path to writing it began in New Hampshire, the author’s home state. In his research Mike Pride discovered that Stark Fellows, an officer from Weare, had been the colonel of a Black regiment that occupied Key West. A short time later Pride came across references to Emily Holder, who spent the war in Key West and, astoundingly, was also from Weare. Fellows and Holder became two of the main characters in Pride’s story.
Holder, the wife of a naturalist, spent the entire war at Fort Jefferson, one of the two bastions in the Keys that guarded the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico. She kept a detailed diary of the war years, including the imprisonment in the fort of Dr. Samuel Mudd and other conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination. At one point, Holder, Colonel Fellows, and General Daniel Woodbury, a native of New London, New Hampshire, who commanded troops in the Keys, shared a dinner at Fort Jefferson.
Union troops held Key West, a pro-slavery, pro-secession city at the southernmost point of the United States, throughout the war. Two yellow fever epidemics devastated U.S. troops and sailors there as well as residents. These scourges are at the heart of this book along with the rise to freedom of the enslaved people in the Keys, clashes between occupiers and residents, and the Union blockade squadron stationed in Key West Harbor.
One of the first regiments to arrive in the Keys in 1861 was the Seventh New Hampshire Volunteers. This thousand-man unit, minus those lost to yellow fever on the way, occupied Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas. A man had just died when the regiment arrived. A sergeant from his company, the erstwhile Enfield farmer Calvin Shedd, looked down at the sharks circling their ship and wrote home: “They would like a Soldier to eat.”
By the time Fellows and his Second U.S. Colored Troops reached Key West, a Union colonel had already outraged the local community by offering freedom to any enslaved person on the island who came to work for the federal army. Under the leadership of a charismatic Black entrepreneur in the city, scores of them took the army up on the offer, which only increased local hostility toward the Black soldiers.
Troops of the Second would fight bravely in several skirmishes and battles along Florida’s West Coast, but perhaps their finest hour occurred during their journey to Key West. They arrived in New York City not long after the city’s viciously racist draft riots. On Thanksgiving Day, they became the first Black regiment to march through the streets of Manhattan. As their proud Colonel Fellows observed, his men were “the lions of Thanksgiving Day.”
Author: Mike Pride
(Hardcover) Autographed copy.