Marks & Brands is a new public art project that is expected to be installed this fall in the courtyard of the new Lee County Public Library and along First Street. The site-specific project by California sculptor Peter Mitten will commemorate the rich traditions of the cattle industry that flourished in Southwest Florida during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It is not hyperbole to say that there’d be no Fort Myers today had cattlemen not come in droves to Fort Myers in the years following the end of the Civil War. Oh, there would probably be a town here, but it’s doubtful it would be called Fort Myers. And its equally unlikely that the town would contain the bevy of historic buildings that line First Street and dot the rest of downtown Fort Myers. It is also highly improbable that Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, or Ambrose and Tootie McGregor would have ever found their way to this part of Florida.
But thanks to the Union Army, the cattlemen did come.
By the time forces under the command of General P.G.T. Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, Florida was one of the leading cattle-producing states in the South, and the Confederacy relied heavily on Florida’s cattle ranchers for beef, hides and tallow. But not all of Florida’s cattle went to the Confederate Army. Thousands of head were diverted to blockade runners in exchange for desperately needed clothing, tobacco, salt and other provisions, and for export to Cuba, which paid more than three times the price paid by the Confederacy – and in gold rather than Confederate dollars.
To interrupt the flow of cattle to both Confederate fighting forces and the traders and fishermen who were thwarting the Union’s blockade of the Florida coast, the abandoned redoubt on the Caloosahatchee known as Fort Myers was re-garrisoned by five companies from the 110th New York Infantry and the 2nd Florida Union Calvary in December of 1863. Between January 1, 1864 and the end of the Civil War, they and their reinforcements from Fort Zachary Taylor confiscated more than 4,500 head of cattle from ranches extending from Punta Gorda to as far north as Fort Meade.
“Some of the cattle captured by raiders from the fort … were slaughtered at Fort Myers to supply meat for their garrison,” reports Karl H. Grismer in his book, The Story of Fort Myers. “Most of them, however, were driven overland to Punta Rassa, where they were loaded on transports and taken to Key West.
The trail followed on these cattle drives was the one that Col. Persifer F. Smith had blazed in 1838 during the Second Seminole War. By June of 1865, it became so tramped down and well defined that it would be followed by cattlemen for the next five decades.
To facilitate the shipment of cattle from Punta Rassa, the Union Army built cow pens, a 100 foot long by 50 foot wide barracks and a long wharf that jutted into the deep waters not far from shore. And it was these facilities that attracted Fort Myers’ first cattleman to the area in the months following Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox.
So big picture, the infrastructure that was used to disrupt and destroy the cattle industry in this part of Florida during the Civil War ended up preserving the fort for posterity long after it ceased to be of any value as a military outpost.