Two days after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, James Filor, a southern slaveholder and resident of Key West, Florida, mailed a remarkable letter to the president Filor wrote to convince Lincoln to include Key West with the loyal areas of the South exempted from the proclamation. After assuring the president of Key West's loyalty, Filor pressed his claim for an exemption by arguing that agents of the United States government had induced Key West citizens to purchase additional slaves in the antebellum years. He wrote that "slave property [on Key West] ... has been at various times increased at the assurance of Army officers of constant employment on the Public Works." The "Public Works" in question were forts Taylor and Jefferson, and the "Army officers" were members of the United States Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the construction of the two forts. Fort Taylor was located just a few hundred yards off the shore of Key West; Fort Jefferson was built approximately seventy miles west of the island on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas. They were part of the Third System of coastal defense, an integrated and comprehensive national defense policy centered around the masonry fortifications that the engineers built along the nation's coast between 1815 and 1867. Like other Third System fortifications constructed in the South during the antebellum period, forts Taylor and Jefferson were built using hired slaves for unskilled labor. At Key West, the Corps of Engineers was heavily involved in the practice of slave leasing, and the engineers' involvement helped to solidify slavery on the island. Their need for workers created economic opportunities for area slave owners and provided an incentive for enlarging Key West's population of bondsmen. Unintentionally, the federal government strengthened slavery on Key West and did so without introducing the social tensions associated with slave hiring. The government need for labor paralleled the interests of those slaveholders with bondsmen for hire. As a result, the engineers often actively represented the needs of Key West's slave owners.
Society, Florida Historical
"Engineering Slavery: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Slavery at Key West,"
Florida Historical Quarterly: Vol. 86:
4, Article 6.
Available at: https://stars.library.ucf.edu/fhq/vol86/iss4/6