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In 1860, the small population of a two- by four-mile island called Key West, southern tip of the United States, had grown wealthy upon the wreckage of ships. The noble citizens of Key West often rescued passengers and crews when tall-masted wooden ships were forced by storms onto the shallow, knife-edged coral reefs lining the Gulf Stream waters called the Florida Straits. Maritime law stated that the first boat captain to hail the foundering vessel earned the right to salvage and sell whatever could be taken off the wreck before the sea claimed it.

Less noble citizens had been known to build fires on nearby islands north of the official Key West lighthouse. Such a false light could cause helmsmen to turn toward the shore miles before it was safe to do so, driving their doomed ship onto the reefs and into the hands of the waiting wreckers. Black, moonless nights worked best for luring unwary mariners onto the rocks. For that reason, these dishonest ship wreckers were known as "mooncussers." In the worst cases, mooncussers had been known to kill—or perhaps merely fail to rescue—both passengers and sailors. Dead men tell no tales.

The wrecking business was lucrative—and sometimes even honest—and by the 1850s had made Key West the richest town per capita in Florida. Of course, there were few towns in the state at that time. Citizens of Key West did their shopping in Mobile, Alabama, or Charleston, South Carolina. The nearest Florida ports of any significance were Tampa and St. Augustine. At the mouth of the Miami River was a small trading post at meager Fort Dallas, but the city of Miami would not be born until the century after the War Between the States.

The American Civil War played out in microcosm on the tiny island of Key West. Located just 90 miles north of Havana, Cuba, Key West was a community of staunch southerners—indeed, they considered themselves the southernmost of the southerners. The cay was too small for even one plantation and housed few slaves. Still, as a matter of pure geography, no one was more southern than the "Conchs" of Key West.

That's why it was so ironic, and more than a little vexing, that a small battalion of Northern soldiers managed to march out of their barracks one night and steal across the island and into its only significant military installation: the mostly-completed Fort Zachary Taylor. Thus it was that, when the metaphorical smoke cleared over Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and war began in earnest, the southern citizens of Key West found their city occupied by Yankee soldiers without a shot having been fired.

Key West was to remain in Union hands throughout the war. But since nobody had the prescience to know that fact ahead of time, the North and South waged war in their own unique way on the miniscule island at the bottom of the North American map.

The war on Key West began quietly at twilight on January 13, 1861. The sun's fiery ball sank into the blue-green Gulf of Mexico at the edge of the world. Clouds bled pink and purple. Bird shadows fled to their roosts across the red-orange orb or splashed into the limitless sea, spearing a last-minute meal and carrying it away.

While the city of Key West slept, a small group of Yankee soldiers slogged through the dead of night, avoiding the main part of town, and surreptitiously took up occupancy in an unfinished brick fort on the southern tip of the southernmost island of the United States. It was Fort Zachary Taylor, and the secessionist citizens of Key West had been actively planning to move into it in the immediate future.

Wooden sailing ships crowded the harbor. Tift's Ice House, the Custom House, and various warehouses squatted on the shoreline. Bahama-style homes lined the wide dirt streets, with names like Whitehead and Duval, that ran from water to water, across the small island.

Key West was the most strategic point in the Confederacy, covering access from the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico and the Confederate harbor cities from Texas to Florida. This small band of Union soldiers, fearing attack at any time by the Key Westers who had been thwarted in the taking of Fort Jefferson, would hold Key West for the Union until reinforcements could arrive. They had four months' provisions and 70,000 gallons of fresh water—for which the only source on Key West was rainwater.

When April arrived, and with it the anticipated Union reinforcements, that first puny band of soldiers breathed a sigh of relief. After four tense, exhausting months as minority representatives of the United States of America, surrounded by Confederate citizens, the Yankees' numbers had finally increased. Their position in the fort was secure. They thought the worst was over, the hard work was done. Of course, they were wrong.

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