Why the US Military Built a Moat around an Island Fort and Declared a Snow Day in Panama
Two Historic Examples Show the Military’s Inflexibility and Creativity
By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Military
The U.S. military can be incredibly inflexible or extremely creative. It all depends on the circumstances.
As an example of the former, consider the case of Fort Jefferson. Visitors to this remote fort in the Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles southwest of Key West, Florida, have only two ways to reach the tiny island in the Gulf of Mexico: boat or seaplane.
Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846 to protect U.S. vessels in the Florida Straits. But 30 years later, the five-story, all-brick fortress was still not finished, mainly due to the difficulty of transporting approximately 16 million bricks to the island.
As a result of that Herculean effort, Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere.
Fort Jefferson Served as a Prison during the Civil War
During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a prison for Army deserters and civilians accused of robbery. The fort could be likened to the infamous French penal colony of Devil’s Island. Endless miles of ocean surrounded both fortresses. Escape was impossible.
This solitary sentinel is famous as the prison that held Dr. Samuel Mudd. Mudd was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison for providing medical aid to Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, when Booth was on the run.
While a prisoner in Fort Jefferson, Mudd was instrumental in stemming an outbreak of deadly yellow fever. His medical assistance saved many lives. As a result, President Andrew Johnson pardoned Mudd in 1867.
Military Regulations Required a Moat at Fort Jefferson
Visitors today are immediately struck by the remoteness of Fort Jefferson. Some of them, including myself, are also taken aback by the structure that surrounds the seemingly impregnable fort – a moat.
“Why is there a moat here?” I asked one of the National Park Service Rangers. He smiled, probably because he’s been asked that question many times. “Well, the fort was built by the Army according to military specs of the day. Specs for forts like this one required moats, so that’s what the Army built.”
DOD Gets Creative in Panama to Ensure Teacher Payment
On the other side of the coin, the Pentagon can show great ingenuity when it wants or needs to.
A few years after my tour in the Panama Canal Zone ended, I ran into an old schoolteacher friend who lived there when I did. He taught middle schoolers at a Canal Zone school for U.S. dependents, which was run by the Defense Department. The DOD runs dependents’ schools all over the world.
My friend was still living in the Zone on December 31, 1999, when the United States officially transferred the Canal Zone to the Republic of Panama after 85 years of U.S. control. The Panamanians were jubilant and the day was something of a national holiday. Panamanian businesses and schools were closed to celebrate the long-awaited occasion.
“For us, however, it was a normal school day,” my friend said. “But the Zone officials also wanted to close our schools, because many of them were located close to the Zone boundary. They were afraid of possible rioting and looting.”
“That sounded like a wise precaution,” I said. “Yes, of course,” he answered. “The trouble was, there was no such day off on our official school calendar. If they closed the schools, we would not get paid.”
Teachers are universally underpaid, so the thought of losing a day’s pay did not sit well with him or with his colleagues. “Our union said ‘no way’ to that. We informed the brass back in Washington that we weren’t about to take an unpaid holiday,” he said.
“So what did you do?” I naturally asked.
“The Pentagon went back to the rules and regs that apply to all DOD schools. They found a regulation that allowed local dependents’ schools to shut down if there is a snowstorm. So they declared a snow day for December 31. The kids were safe and we got paid.”
For the record, it never gets below 80 degrees in Panama in December.