While we view lighthouses as interesting pieces of history, they also served a vital role in commerce in the 19th century. These lighthouses helped guide vessels in and out of ports and away from dangerous areas along the coast. Most commerce was transported by ships. Cotton grown in the South was loaded onto ships and moved to Northern ports, or ports in Europe, for the manufacture of cloth. At times, these finished products were then loaded back onto ships and shipped back to the South. Foodstuffs from foreign ports, iron products from foundries up North, coffee from South America—they were all shipped into Southern ports.
Federal forts and armories are often mentioned in histories as being captured and surrendered to the Southern states as they withdrew from the Union. Lighthouses were also surrendered or captured. There were approximately 106 lights in the Southern states. Some of those were traditional tall lighthouses that we normally picture on the coast, while others were range lights, light ships, or beacons in rivers and harbors. For example, Fort Sumter, in Charleston, South Carolina, had a range light, completed in 1857. This was considered the front range light, while the steeple of St. Phillip’s Church was the rear light. Fort Sumter was pretty much a pile of rubble after the war ended, and the light was lost.
|Mobile Point (AL) Lighthouse (National Archives)|
After various Southern states took control of the lights, and the North declared war, many of the lenses were removed from the lights and stored for safe keeping. Some lenses wound up in the interior of a state. Others were secreted away close by. The lens and machinery from the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse were buried in an orange grove nearby. The last thing Southern forces wanted to do was aid the Federals in their attempts to blockade Southern ports.
Many of these towers became observation posts for Confederates, such as the Morris Island Lighthouse in Charleston Harbor, the Sabine Pass Light (Louisiana), the Point Isabel Light (Texas), and the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse (Florida). At the latter, Confederate forces not only observed from the darkened lighthouse, but used torches to signal waiting blockade runners when no Federal vessels were around.
Some of the towers were destroyed during the war. These include the Morris Island Lighthouse (Charleston); Bald Head Lighthouse (North Carolina); Mobile Point Lighthouse at Fort Morgan (Mobile); Sand Island Lighthouse (Mobile); and Hunting Island (Georgia), (but it’s unclear if the War or erosion destroyed the tower). Bruce Roberts writes that some of the towers that were made out of metal were salvaged by Confederate forces and melted for more important war-time needs. This apparently happened to the Bolivar Point Light near Galveston, Texas.
Others were simply damaged. The Tybee Lighthouse (Georgia) had its lens removed and the top of the tower burnt by state forces. Likewise, the Bayou Bon Fouca Lighthouse was burned by Confederates. Confederate soldiers placed kegs of gunpowder inside the St. Marks Lighthouse (Florida), in an attempt to blow it up, but only damaged the tower. Likewise Confederates used the same method with the Matagorda Light (Texas). While unable to actually take the tower down, they did damage it so badly that it was dismantled in 1867.
|Egmont Key Lighthouse (FL)|
Once the Federals reoccupied an area, they put the lighthouses back in working order. This is true with the lights on Amelia Island (Florida); Cape Henry (Virginia); Hatteras (North Carolina); Cape Lookout (North Carolina); Cape St. George Light (Florida)– (Confederates did hit this tower with a few artillery rounds); and the Skip Island Light (Mississippi – the Federals used the lens captured in a warehouse on Lake Ponchartrain).
There were, of course, lighthouses that never fell into Confederate hands, such as those around Key West (Florida).
An interesting comparison study would be the number of ships that grounded out near some port because they had no lights to guide them in. We’ll save that for another post in the future. Another interesting study would be a claim by Mary Clifford. She writes that “Some lights during the Civil War had women keepers paid by the Confederate government.”
 Carr, Cape Canaveral, 19-21.
 Itkin, “Operations of the East Gulf Blockading Squadron in the Blockade of Florida,” 198.
 Roberts, Southern Lighthouses, 90.
 Jones, Gulf Coast Lighthouse, 43, 86.
 Jones, Gulf Coast Lighthouses, 63.
 Clifford, Women Who Kept the Lights, 35.