Prologue - A Shadow of Hope

A Cold Harbor

July 24, 1865

A tall white lighthouse towered menacingly over the tropical island’s thin fringe of palm trees.  It was mid-afternoon; we were sailing through the winding channel and slowly approaching the island.  The sunlight glaring through the blue-gray sky wasn’t bright enough to burn off air so thick it seemed to dim the island’s natural colors.  Big-chested frigate birds wheeled and danced through the sky above us; white sandy beaches and deep green trees almost hid a thin brick-red line—the moat’s seawall—and behind it about thirteen acres of brick fortress.  Azure waters seemed to stretch forever as still as a pool in a deep cavern: so pristine and clear we might be able to identify colorful objects buried in sand fathoms below. 

            “Don’t suppose we’ll be seeing any of this after today,” Spangler muttered.  “I wonder how miserable our quarters will be.”

            Just before docking, the water grew shallower and our gunboat drifted over what might have been an ocean garden.  Schools of multi-colored fish darted in and out among huge heads of coral reef in perfect freedom.  Sea ferns swayed with the tide as if welcoming us grimly to Fort Jefferson: America’s largest military prison. 

            My eyes absorbed the particulars of the fortress: a forbidding three-story structure topped with earthworks and ammunition bunkers.  A wide moat skirted one of the fort walls; brick and mortar lined the side and ran around the two bastions in front.  Eels played hide and seek around the boat docks’ pylons.    

            Fort Jefferson had been built in the Dry Tortugas, a cluster of seven Caribbean islands some seventy miles west of Key West, Florida that included my new “home” on Garden Key.  The reason the island was named “Dry” would soon become painfully clear.    

Just then our boat’s signal gun blasted close by, almost knocking me off my feet.  Immediately the fort’s commander acknowledged our arrival with his own cannon.  

            Spangler, O’Laughlen and Arnold stood nearby looking equally desolated.  I could not suppress a cynical smile about what a miserable figure our group of pale landlubbers was cutting—a doctor, a carpenter, a feed store clerk and a commissary worker. 

            The fort’s duty officer was rowed out to our gunboat to accompany us to shore.  Just as we prepared to change vessels, a sudden tropical storm split the heavens open and drenched us all.  Cutting winds whipped and soaked our light clothing as we struggled to disembark.

Jagged lightning forked toward us, pungent with the odor of ozone.  Thunder bellowed overhead.  As my eyes looked toward the grim, foreboding citadel, a sense of impending doom nearly suffocated me.  I was now officially a hostage, restrained by thick walls and a moat built specifically to keep enemies out and prisoners in.


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