BY RODNEY KITE-POWELL
Published: November 13, 2011
With the recent celebration of Veterans Day, it is appropriate to look back at the military history of our area. Although there were undoubtedly conflicts among the American Indians who lived in this region for thousands of years, and there are documented incidents of clashes between early European explorers and Florida’s indigenous people, those stories are for another day.
In the years leading up to the transfer of Florida from Spain to the United States, the U.S. military entered Florida and fought the first Seminole War (1817–1819). The war had little impact on the Tampa Bay area, but it was the beginning of direct American military involvement in Florida. In addition, Gen. Andrew Jackson, during this time, realized the need for a military garrison at Tampa Bay.
In 1821, Spain formally ceded Florida to the United States. three years later, in January 1824, Col. George Mercer Brooke and Col. James Gadsden founded a military outpost at the mouth of the Hillsborough River. Fort Brooke, as it would soon come to be called, would endure for almost 60 years.
The early years of Fort Brooke saw an uneasy peace between the Seminoles and the soldiers and settlers in and around the fort. That peace was shattered in December 1835, when a column of soldiers, marching from Fort Brooke to Fort King (near today’s Ocala) were attacked near Bushnell. That attack, along with other actions by the Seminoles and the U.S. Army, sparked the second Seminole War (1835–1842).
The second Seminole War is often referred to as the longest and costliest of the Indian Wars that the United States government fought. Fort Brooke served as the home of the southern command for the U.S. Army. Gen. Zachery Taylor, future president of the United States, was among the many notable officers to command troops stationed at Fort Brooke during that time.
The United States Civil War (1861–1865) saw Fort Brooke change hands from the federal government to the Confederate government and its army. The fort and the small village of Tampa located just to the north were attacked on several occasions by the Northern blockading squadron. Fort Brooke was captured in may 1864 by Northern troops, including members of the 99th Colored Infantry. The fort was of no strategic value and was abandoned within a few days of its capture.
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, Fort Brooke hosted a small garrison of soldiers. The fort was decommissioned in 1882 by the federal government. Although this ended the fort’s impact on Tampa, it was not the end of a military presence in the area.
In 1898, the Spanish-American War brought Tampa into the national spotlight. more than 30,000 U.S. soldiers, from the regular army and volunteers, including the famous all-black regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers and Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, passed through Tampa on their way to Cuba and Puerto Rico. Army camps covered the area, from Port Tampa to West Tampa, Ybor City to Tampa Heights. The stories surrounding those soldiers and their activities have endured far longer than the actual impact of the war on Tampa.
World War I (1914–1919) also had a tremendous effect on Hillsborough County and the Tampa Bay area. Undoubtedly the most tragic event of the war, as far as the people of Tampa were concerned, was the sinking of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Tampa. The ship, named in honor of the many young men from the city who served as crew members, was struck by a German torpedo and sank in the Bristol Channel in 1917. The war did bring some prosperity, with shipbuilding contracts keeping Tampa’s shipyards busy.
World War II (1941–1945) was a watershed time for Hillsborough County. Long-lasting effects, including the establishment of MacDill Field and the expansion of Drew Field (today’s Tampa International Airport) combined with short-term gains. as with World War I, shipbuilding contracts brought an economic boom to Tampa. That, combined with the Army Air Force training facilities at MacDill, Drew and Henderson fields (near the University of South Florida), brought more than 100,000 people to Hillsborough County.
Post-war Tampa felt the sting of an economic letdown, but only briefly. MacDill continued to play an important role, especially with the increased intensity of the Cold War. The air base formally became MacDill Air Force Base after the reorganization of the military in 1947. Personnel at MacDill took an active role during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Air training, from bombers to the sleek F-16, kept the skies around Tampa buzzing with activity.
Today, MacDill is home to the 6th Air Mobility Wing, which focuses on mid-air aircraft refueling, airlift and contingency response. In addition, MacDill is host to several military commands, including U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command and houses military personal from U.S. allies around the world. The Persian Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom were, in essence, fought from MacDill Air Force Base.
Although enemies, technology and tactics have changed over the years, Tampa and Hillsborough County have remained a constant as a proud home base for the U.S. military.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. he welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached by phone (813) 228-0097 and by email .