Carla and I have recently returned from an absolutely wonderful trip to Key West and The Dry Tortugas National Park. We drove the 2000-mile two-way trip with our son, Stephen, daughter-in-law Rachel and five-month-old grandson Thomas. We had a great deal of uncertainty about how well Thomas would travel, but he was incredible. I officiated a wedding at Key West United Methodist Church for Rachel’s brother Glenn and his beloved Kailey.
We did many of the usual Key West tourist activities, but also decided to make a day trip to the Dry Tortugas National Park, which is about a 2.5 hour ferry ride from Key West. This national park is the site of the old Fort Jefferson. This fort was begun in 1846 and was designed as a means of safeguarding U.S. shipping and defending the Gulf of Mexico from potential enemies. Construction continued for 30 years but it was never completed. It was used as an active outpost and, during the Civil War, a prison for Union deserters.
The most famous prisoner ever housed at Fort Jefferson was Dr. Samuel Mudd. Remember him?
He was the physician who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth unaware that Booth had just shot Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre. Mudd was quickly tried and, with three others, sentenced to life imprisonment at Fort Jefferson. “We are still in irons,” Mudd wrote in December of 1865, “compelled to wash down six bastions of the Fort daily.”
I have always felt that the treatment of Mudd was a miscarriage of justice brought about by the hysteria surrounding Lincoln’s assassination. I was relieved to hear the rest of the story:
During a yellow fever epidemic in 1867, 270 people, prisoners and residents of the Fort had been afflicted. Dr. Joseph Smith, the fort surgeon and his young son died. Dr. Mudd volunteered to take over medical duties. His skills saved untold stricken soldiers. His captors were so impressed by his unselfish care that they petitioned President Andrew Johnson on his behalf, for his freedom. In 1869, President Johnson pardoned Dr. Mudd. Mudd returned to his wife and farm in Maryland, where he lived until his death in 1883.
Dr. Samuel Mudd was a good, compassionate man. I believed he suffered a great injustice, but was later vindicated. He did not let his imprisonment make him a bitter man. I am reminded of these words:
Whoever pursues righteousness and kindness will find life, righteousness and honor.