Friday, June 29, 2012

Florida Lighthouses in the Civil War

Jupiter Inlet Light (designed and built by Lt. George Gordon Meade):

Florida ranks seventh among the states in the number of lighthouses/light stations it has along its coast (33 total: “lighthouse” refers to the tower itself with the light, “light station” is the tower plus any accessory structures such as the keepers’ residences, workshops, etc.). Many of us know George Gordon Meade as the Union’s “hero of Gettysburg”, as he commanded the Union armies at that epic engagement. Prior to the war a younger Lt. Meade served in the U.S. Army Engineers where he designed, supervised, and/or was otherwise involved in the construction or modification of seven Florida lighthouses (Carysfort Reef, Sand Key, Seahorse Key, Cape Florida, Sombrero Key, Jupiter Inlet, and the first light on Rebecca Shoal). Meade was one of the creators of the screw pile method of anchoring the Florida Keys lights (including Carysfort Reef, Sombrero Key, and Sand Key) in which the foundations for the metal tower were embedded deeply within the limestone of the coral reefs to enable the structure to withstand the force of hurricanes.

Many of today’s Florida lighthouses were in existence at the start of the Civil War (20 plus one light ship). Before the war, all lighthouses were federal property, administered by a local Superintendent under the Treasury Department. After the southern states’ secession and the formation of the CSA, the Confederate Congress created a Confederate Lighthouse Bureau, to be commanded by a senior officer in the Confederate Navy (Captain or Commander). Partly because he happened to be in Montgomery, Alabama at the time (the capital of the CSA at the start of the war), Raphael Semmes was appointed to command the Confederate Lighthouse Bureau; prior to this he served as the naval secretary to the U.S. Light House Board until resigning his naval commission to join the Confederacy. Semmes’ tenure in this post was about 1 week, ending on April 18 (after the firing on Ft. Sumter), when he departed to begin fitting out the commerce raider CSS Sumter. Seven lighthouses (mainly the ones in the Florida Keys and off Key West) remained in Union hands throughout the war and continued in operation.

Thomas Martin succeeded Semmes as Clerk of the Lighthouse Bureau. By the latter half of 1861, he was overseeing the systematic effort to extinguish all Florida lighthouses under Confederate control and sequester critical components (mainly the lenses and the fuel that fired the light), with the optimistic hope they could be retrieved and reinstalled following the war to guide Confederate commerce. Florida lighthouses witnessed a number of naval actions during the war. The lights at Seahorse Key, Mayport Mills, and Egmont Key (off the mouth of Tampa Bay) were captured by Union Navy forces in early 1862. The tower at Pensacola was struck by Union shells a few times during the massive artillery duel in November 1861. The St. Marks lighthouse was engaged by Union gunboats in June 1862 (in retaliation for an attack on a Union shore party a few weeks earlier), and served as a landing site for army forces in 1865 in what eventually was the Battle of Natural Bridge. Seahorse Key and Egmont Key both served as important secondary bases for the East Gulf Blockading Squadron.

There are several nice resources on Florida lighthouses during the Civil War (both in print and on-line), so feel free to contact me if you want to see those. Illustrations are from the Florida Dept. of State on-line photo archives.

USS Mohawk off St. Marks lighthouse (note Confederate flags flying from the tower and the works to the left):

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