On a recent trip to Key West, FL, a Lebanon connection revealed itself, showing yet again the historic nature of the community we call home.
What connects Key West to one of Lebanon’s great historic persons, the Civil War general John P. S. Gobin? It all comes back to Fort Zach.
Located at the southernmost point of the continental United States stands the military encampment, Fort Zachary Taylor. Today the monumental structure sits inside the eponymous Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park, with the area around the fort having been reclaimed from the Atlantic. But at one time, this granite and limestone structure stood on its own, connected to Key West by a single 1200′ causeway.
Constructed as part of the young nation’s “Third System” series of coastal defenses, a defensive strategy sparked by the War of 1812 but not realized for at least some 30 years, the stronghold capable of holding 800 men was a far cry from the pleasuredome that is today’s Key West. With no naturally-occurring fresh water available and an inefficient rain-collecting system that fed into leaky, brackish cisterns, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner would have rung far too true to the souls encamped there: “Water, water everywhere, / Nor any drop to drink.” Primitive desalination technology would eventually be deployed to combat this shortage, with modern readers left to imagine the hellish conditions it would take to distill water with steam in a region where the average temperature was 90 degrees or above.
To say the place would have been inhospitable is a grave understatement. Yellow fever, supply shortages, and even hurricanes ravaged workmen stationed there through the construction process, which ran from 1845 to 1860.
Finding a connection here to Lebanon County would be nearly unimaginable. The physical geography bears no resemblance, the culture of southern Florida then foreign (if not also to some degree now).
And yet – there it is. The thunderbolt of history that reminds us our stories—America’s stories—are interconnected.
The country was less than a year into the Civil War when the men of the 47th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment were ordered down to Key West, assigned to garrison duty at Fort Taylor and its counterpart at the Dry Tortugas, Fort Jefferson.
Captain John Peter Shindel Gobin had organized Company C of the 47th in his hometown of Sunbury (Northumberland County) and traveled with the infantry down to Key West. Gobin was the ancestor of Revolutionary War and War of 1812 veterans, a printer, educator, and lawyer prior to organizing the Sunbury company. He joined the 47th on their first foray to Florida, and Gobin’s time in Key West would be very significant for him personally, as it was at Fort Taylor in 1864 that Gobin met his future wife, Anna Howe, while she was working as a nurse at the military facility.
A 1910 article in the Daily News describes how the commanding general at the Key West camp invited Gobin to attend a family dinner with Captain Albion P. Howe of Massachusetts, the Customs House officer stationed there, who also brought along his daughter and created the situation for the future couple’s fortuitous first social meeting.
The 47th would later be remanded northward to South Carolina and participate in the Shenandoah Campaign, which came to a stunning end at Cedar Creek with Union forces, led by Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan, pushing back a surprise attack led by Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early.
Gobin’s performance earned him a promotion to lieutenant colonel in the fall of 1864 and then to colonel right after the new year in 1865. It was in this year that Gobin and Howe ended up marrying, in Brooklyn, prior to Gobin taking a position as judge advocate general of the Department of the South.
Gobin continued to serve following the end of the war until 1866, acting as a provost judge in South Carolina. He was mustered out of service in January of that year, at which point he placed himself in Lebanon, for reasons that are lost to history. Gobin resumed his legal career and found himself subsequently as county solicitor, head of the Lebanon County Bar Association, a fifteen-year State Senator, and finally, lieutenant governor of the state. He also had a role in the early formation of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
In addition to his military and legal careers, Gobin served as well as solicitor and a director for two important Lebanon companies, the First National Bank of Lebanon and the Cornwall & Lebanon Railway Company. Gobin also served as a public defender for members of the Blue Eyed Six.
Gobin’s full career is worthy of study, and our time here is limited; Gobin has been the focus of entire talks and lectures, such as this past September’s presentation at the Lebanon County Historical Society.
Gobin died in Lebanon in May, 1910.
His wife would die a few years after him, succumbing to heart disease in 1913, nearly some fifty years after she had first met her to-be-husband in Key West.
John P. S. Gobin and Anna Howe Gobin are buried at Mount Lebanon Cemetery. They had no children, and so their story stops there – but lives on in history.