North Carolina Lighthouses 1861-1865 from Lighthouse News Vol. XVII 2011
A listing of their fate
The Confederate capture of Ft. Sumter was akin to a cataclysmic earthquake that split the country into two distinct areas: The North and the South. The tsunami of deaths that followed was not expected by either side, neither of which believed the war would have a lengthy duration. When the constitutional convention of Southern leaders convened in February 1861 to form the Confederacy, most Southern leaders thought there would be a peaceful succession akin to gentlemen agreeing to disagree. But the Rebel victory in South Carolina became a lightning rod for states-rights philosophy that ripped a nation apart and set father against son and brother against brother and led to the bloodiest events ever on this nation’s soil. Lighthouses and their Fresnel lenses were some of the first victims of the American Civil War, also known as the War Between the States.
With the outbreak of hostilities in April 1861, the Confederate States of America created a lighthouse Bureau within its Treasury Department headquartered in Richmond, Virginia. It made every effort during the early months of the war to darken all major lights along the Confederate coast from Virginia to Texas on the assumption it would hinder the Union Navy in its blockade of Southern ports. It was assumed Confederate ship captains and navigators knew the coastline well and would have no problem navigating waters they knew while Union ships were sailing in unfamiliar locations.
Additionally, the Southern government feared that the beautiful and expensive Fresnel lenses located in lights like Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, and other coastal locations might be taken by Union troops or raiding parties. As a result, Confederate authorities ordered the removal of the lenses to safe hiding places inland where they would be kept for the duration of hostilities. Of course, the idea was that the lenses would be replaced as soon as the South had won the war. Sherman’s troops eventually found most of the North Carolina Fresnel hidden in the State Capitol in Raleigh. At Hatteras, the first-order Fresnel lens with its hundreds of crown glass prisms, was taken apart by the keeper and packed into 44 wood boxes and then shipped inland for safe keeping. They were carefully handled and packed with cotton to prevent breakage.
Hatteras Island Invasion!
Union troops came ashore first at Hatteras Inlet. Ships unloaded armed troops, turning the Outer Banks into a war zone. The second (1859) Bodie Island Lighthouse was destroyed by Confederate forces after the Fresnel lens had been removed; rebels made sure the tower could not be used by Union forces to spy on Confederate defense activities on Roanoke Island. A Confederate colonel ordered his regiment south on Hatteras Island and reported, “If nothing else we will destroy the lighthouse at Hatteras.” Fortunately, Union troops arrived, surrounded the lighthouse, and protected it. Other lights were not so lucky including the Bogue Banks range lights at Fort Macon. Included in war-time destruction were confiscated lightships at Fort Fisher and throughout the sounds that were taken from their locations and sunk to create obstacles to attacking Union vessels.
As Union troops occupied more and more of the Outer Banks and other coastal areas during 1861-63, the United States Lighthouse Service sent inspectors on lighthouse tenders to replace lenses as soon as it was safe. It was a contest between Confederates who persevered to darken the coast and the Union forces who tried to keep the lights burning as navigational aids. The turning point came the last week in June 1863 when Engineer Jeremy Smith lit a new first-order Fresnel lens in the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and the beam swept over the Graveyard of the Atlantic. A week later, Vicksburg fell, the Mississippi became a Union supply waterway, and Gettysburg was a Confederate defeat. But the war on the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds continued with sailors from the Confederate Ram Albemarle burning the Croatan screwpile lighthouse near Roanoke Island.
Two Inlets: A Blockade Runner’s Choice
In the Wilmington area beginning in 1862, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron struggled to close the port of Wilmington. Wilmington was perfectly positioned for blockade running. North Carolina kept Robert E. Lee’s back, so to speak, and also was the main artery for the flow of supplies so vital to Lee’s armies. The port’s protection was always a priority to the general. Wilmington is situated over 25 miles up the Cape Fear River, which rendered it safe from Union assault as long as Forts Holmes, Caswell, Campbell, and Fisher at the entrances to the river were held by Confederates. Two navigable, marked channels, Old and New Inlet, were separated by the ten-mile long Bald Head (Smith’s) Island in the mouth of the river. North of the island lay New Inlet and Old Inlet to the south. The distance between the two inlets was only six miles, but lying between and protruding into the Atlantic for 25 menacing miles lay Frying Pan Shoals. Dozens of blockaders had to cover a 50-mile arc while keeping out of range of Confederate shore batteries.
Blockade runners preferred New Inlet, so it received heaviest protection by Rebels. Confederate Major General W.H.C. Whiting used his West Point engineering skills to use sand and logs to design Fort Fisher, built on Federal Point and stretching it out along the beach, calling it “Confederate Point.” At the pinnacle of Fort Fisher was the “Mound Battery,” which appeared on each blockade runner’s map, proving its formidable significance. On the Mound Battery were two cannon and a device to exhibit a light for blockade runners. The cannon kept blockaders at a respectable distance and the light was ignited to provide a guide for incoming blockade runners, messages sent in flashes of code. A light was set on a given signal and became a front range light for the Mound Battery, the rear range light. This essentially was the light of the Confederacy. Shipments of cotton and other staples were slipped out of the Cape Fear River, taken to England and exchanged for clothing, armaments, and used as monetary sources to provide provisions to Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. During the last months of the war, more than half of all supplies to Lee came through the port of Wilmington. The Mound Battery light was significant enough that after the fall of Ft. Fisher to the Union, Admiral Porter, commander of the Union navy, ordered the light to be continued for several months until a new Federal Point Lighthouse was completed in 1866.
While walking peacefully along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and listening to nature’s rhythms in endless waves embracing the shore, imagine the soldiers who walked those same paths of sand. The sound of rifle fire, cannon shot, screams of instructions, screams of injury for a brief but intense moment of time echoed across the sands of Ocracoke, Hatteras, Bodie, and Roanoke Islands. Surreptitious plans by the Confederates were afoot to destroy the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout Lighthouses. Payments were exchanged for assurance that federal lenses would be removed and hidden from the enemy. War walked these beaches and fear stalked these dunes. Step back for a moment to learn the history and appreciate those who fought for a passion judged neither right nor wrong. Learn of the struggle it took to rejoin bitter enemies, heal the physical and emotional wounds. Put yourself in a soldier’s boots during a time when only determination and a will to live pulled you out of the fray alive. For the North, for the South, for the Union.
Each lighthouse had its own story during the war and here is the list light by light and a few of the major battles along the coast of North Carolina.
Fates of North Carolina’s Lighthouses and Lightships 1861-65 and a Few Major Coastal Battles
Price’s Creek Front Range Light
Price’s Creek suffered gaping holes in its short brick walls. At the start of the war, it was comprised of two lights. A sixth-order Fresnel lens was exhibited from the second level of the keeper’s quarters and served as a rear range light; a second sixth-order Fresnel lens was lighted in the brick tower as a front range light. Pilots lined up the two lights to find the navigable channel. But these lights were also used to flash code to blockade runners as to which of the two river entrances to use for the best chance to slip through the Union blockade. Added information about this lighthouse is found in a letter to Rear Admiral W.B. Shubrick, Chairman of the Light-House Board, Washington, D.C., from Edward Cordell, Acting Lighthouse Inspector, Fifth District on the Lighthouse Schooner Lenox, Wilmington, NC, March 23, 1865. Cordell’s letter to the Admiral reported the first contact that the Lighthouse Service had with its lights on the Cape Fear River after the war. The keeper, Hanson K. Ruark, apparently saved the building from destruction by staying with it during the hostilities. Unfortunately, one sentence in this letter prevented Ruark’s being rehired. He had kept the lights burning for eight months after the war started and, thus, technically was working for and aiding the Confederate government. Ruark was not rehired because Price’s Creek Range Lights had served as a signal station for blockade runners, and his association with the light during hostilities tainted his service record. Anyone who worked for the Confederate government could not work again for the United States, unless it were a unique situation, thus ending a number of lighthouse careers.
Croatan Lighthouse (est. 1860- 1st of 2 lights)
Although darkened by Confederates at the outbreak of the Civil War, the Croatan Lighthouse, which marked the north end of the passage through Croatan Sound, was re-lighted after Union forces occupied nearby Roanoke Island. In October 1864, a raiding party from the Confederate Ram Albemarle captured the assistant keeper and his wife and blew-up this screw-pile light. Keeper Tillet was taken to the Confederate prison in Salisbury but his wife was released. It was rebuilt in 1866.
Wade’s Point (est. 1855- burned and rebuilt)
This Albemarle Sound screw-pile lighthouse was located at the mouth of the Pasquotank River, which led to Elizabeth City. The Fresnel lens was removed and the lighthouse was badly burned; thus, taking the light out of service early in the War. It was restored and continued in 1866.
Roanoke River Light-Vessel 1835
Taken for use by Confederate military authorities at the start of the War, the light-vessel was never returned. The Roanoke River Lighthouse was built in 1866, which stood in Albemarle Sound at the entrance of the Roanoke River.
This was straw color.
Cape Henry Lighthouse (est. 1792- 1st of 2 lights)
At the outbreak of hostilities in 1861, the second-order Fresnel lens was removed by Confederate authorities and taken to the former U.S. Customs House in Norfolk, thus darkening the tower. In 1863, after Union forces occupied the area, a new lens was installed and re-lighted under the protection of a military guard from Fortress Monroe. All light vessels from Cape Henry southward were removed, sunk, or destroyed by Confederate forces to hinder navigation by Union ships.
Bodie Island Lighthouse (est. 1859- 2nd of 3 lights)
Completed just two years before the War, the third-order Fresnel lens was removed by the Confederate Light House Bureau at the beginning of hostilities. Confederates blew up the tower in the fall of 1861 when they abandoned nearby Fort Oregon. The Union had already captured Forts Hatteras and Clark to the south and the retreating Confederates feared that Union forces could use the tower as a lookout point for their anticipated attack on Roanoke Island.
Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse (est. 1857- 2nd of 3 lights)
This light marked the south entrance to Croatan Sound and the channel between Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds. It was darkened in 1861 and, in November of that year, it was reported to the Confederate Light House Bureau in Richmond that the lens and other equipment had been taken to Elizabeth City for safekeeping. After the Union captured Roanoke Island, the U.S. Light-House Board re-established the light with a replacement lens in 1863. During the following year, a raiding party of ten sailors and an officer from the Confederate Ram Albemarle, based in Plymouth, the same group that had destroyed the Croatan Light, was dispatched to destroy the light. However, Union guards reached the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse in time and the Confederates returned to Plymouth. A month later, the Albemarle was destroyed, ending the threat to the N.C. sound lighthouses.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, 1803 (raised to 150 feet in 1854)
At the beginning of hostilities the light was darkened and the magnificent first-order Fresnel lens was dismantled and taken inland to Tarboro. There, the hundreds of glass prisms were repacked into 44 boxes lined with cotton and taken by railroad to Townsville, N.C., where they were hidden by a Confederate officer acting under orders from the Confederate Light House Bureau. When Union forces occupied Hatteras Island, a first-order replacement Fresnel lens was installed in June 1863 by the U.S. Light-House Board and re-lighted. A guard of Union soldiers was maintained until danger of Confederate raids ended. The original lens was later recovered, returned to Paris, France, for restoration and installed in the new 1870 tower.
Hatteras Beacon Light (est. 1855)
Established on Cape Point, this twenty-five-foot-tall beacon marked the turning point from the Atlantic Ocean into Pamlico Sound for local vessels. Confederates darkened it in 1861, but it was re-established after the war and discontinued by 1906. It was situated about 1 1/2 miles south of the Cape Hatteras Light Station, had a red-wooden frame, and exhibited a fixed white light by a sixth-order Fresnel lens.
Ocracoke Lighthouse (est. 1823)
The Ocracoke Lighthouse was one of the first towers to be darkened when the Civil War started. Confederate Light House Bureau authorities ordered the removal of the costly, new fourth-order Fresnel lens before Union forces attacked and occupied Forts Hatteras and Clark on Hatteras Island. After Union occupation of the island, the U.S. Light-House Board refitted and re-lighted Ocracoke in 1863.
Cape Lookout Lighthouses (est. 1812 and 1859- both towers standing during war)
The new 165-foot-tall Cape Lookout Lighthouse had been lighted only two years before the outbreak of hostilities. Josiah Bell, in charge of lighthouses in the Beaufort District of the Confederate Light House Bureau, reported in November 1861 that the new lighthouse was dark and that the first-order Fresnel lens had been removed for safekeeping. The following year, Beaufort and Cape Lookout were occupied by Union troops after the fall of Ft. Macon. A third-order Fresnel lens was installed and the new Cape Lookout Lighthouse was relighted to aid Union ships. In 1864, a small group of soldiers from the 67th N.C. Regiment led by L.C. Harland, aided by Confederate spies including Bell, was guided through Union lines near Kinston and across Core Sound to Core Banks Island where they attempted to destroy both towers. Union commanders had expected the lighthouses to be attacked by Raphael Semmes' sea raider Alabama and had alerted nearby warships to protect the lighthouses; however, there were no Union troops in place on the island to guard the towers. Semmes never showed up, and Confederates succeeded in blowing up the old tower. Fortunately, the 1859 tower suffered damage only to the first two flights of wooden steps. The raiders escaped back to Confederate lines. The new tower had only a brick wash during the war and would not receive its black-and-white-checkered daymark until 1873.
Bogue Banks Range Lights (est. 1854-55)
When approaching Beaufort Inlet, a mariner lined up the taller rear range light over the shorter front range light. The rear range light was an octagonal, 50-foot-high brick tower with a fourth-order Fresnel lens, located 200 yards northwest of Fort Macon. The front range light, also known as the Bogue Banks Beacon, was a 30-foot-high timber tower with a fourth order lens. Confederate forces took over Fort Macon at the beginning of the War and moved the lenses to safety. In March 1862, both towers were toppled in preparation for defense of the fort; however, Federal forces took control. The range lights were never rebuilt.
Federal Point Lighthouse (est. 1817; rebuilt 1837, 2nd of 3 lights)
On 7 June 1861, the Confederate Light House Bureau ordered the removal of Fresnel lenses and other fixtures at the Federal Point, Oak Island, and Cape Fear Lights. The equipment was taken to the Customs House in Wilmington where it was recovered after the Civil War by Union forces. During the War, at least for a time, the keeper's quarters at the 1837 Federal Point Lighthouse (renovated 1843-47) became the headquarters for the fort's commander. Fort Fisher was located on Federal Point as an earthwork fortification built of sand and logs. It became the guardian of the Cape Fear River and kept the port of Wilmington open for blockade runners until January 1865. Keeping this port open was militarily significant since it was the lifeline for supplies to General Lee's armies.
Oak Island Range Lights (est. 1849- 1st of 2 sets)
These 27- and 37-foot-high range lights were originally two brick towers. They helped mariners to cross the Oak Island bar, which marked the main entrance to the Cape Fear River (before New Inlet opened). Confederates darkened and removed the two Fresnel lenses by 1861. According to U.S. Light-House Board Light Lists, these range lights were re-instated in 1866 and built as wooden structures. The rear range was placed on skids and movable to align with the front range light as the channel moved.
Bald Head Lighthouse (est. 1817- 2nd of 2 towers)
Like the situation at other major coastal lighthouses during the war, the third-order Fresnel lens at the Bald Head Lighthouse was removed early during hostilities and the light was darkened by Confederates. This lighthouse marked the original entrance to the Cape Fear River. However, New Inlet to the north, on which Ft. Fisher was located, became the preferred route for blockade runners. In 1866, a new lighthouse was established at Federal Point and Bald Head Lighthouse was officially decommissioned, though it was relighted in 1880 after New Inlet closed.
In the section of Cape Fear lights:
In April 1861, the Confederate Light House Bureau ordered all "lenses & fixtures and appurtenances" of the lighthouses in the Wilmington District to be taken to a place of safety. Confederate military authorities objected, wanting to keep the lights burning for blockade runners. Gradually, however, the lights fell dark as they exhausted their supplies of oil. Only the ruins of Price's Creek can be seen today.
Cape Fear River Lights
Price's Creek, Orton Point, Campbell Island Range Lights, and Upper Jettee Range Lights (est. circa 1850)
Royal Shoal Light Vessel 1825
This light vessel was appropriated by the Confederacy. A screw-pile lighthouse was built to replace it in 1867, named the Southwest Point Royal Shoal Lighthouse. Located nine miles northwest of Ocracoke Light, it stood in seven feet of water in Pamlico Sound to mark a dangerous shoal for passing mariners. Screw-pile lighthouses were generally wooden rectangular structures of about 1,000 square feet, supported by iron pilings "screwed" into the muddy bottoms of the sounds. They were surmounted by an iron lantern with a fourth- or fifth-order Fresnel lens and had a mechanically-struck fog bell.
This was lead color.
Harbor Island Light Vessel 1836
This light vessel served as a guide from the Pamlico Sound into Core Sound towards Cape Lookout to the south. Taken by the Confederacy during the War, it was replaced in 1867 with the screw-pile Harbor Island Lighthouse.
Long Shoal Light Vessel 1825
This light vessel marked a dangerous sand bar that ran east-west across the northern end of Pamlico Sound. Refitted in 1854, it met its demise early in the war but was rebuilt as the screw-pile Long Shoal Lighthouse in 1867.
This one was straw color.
Pamlico Point (est. 1828- 1st of 2 lights)
Confederates darkened the fifth-order Fresnel lens of this sound light at the start of hostilities. The 1863 U.S. Light-House Board's Light List reported the light was operating; however, by 1865, it was reported "extinguished." This light was rebuilt in 1867 and operated for many years.
NW Point Royal Shoal (est. 1857)
This screw-pile lighthouse was located in seven feet of water in Pamlico Sound. It was darkened when its fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed at the beginning of hostilities. After Federal forces took control of the area, the light was restored in 1863. The screw-pile lighthouse, located in seven feet of water, was darkened when its fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed in 1861. After Federal forces took control of the area, the light was restored in 1863.
Neuse River Light (est. 1862)
Surprisingly, this screw-pile lighthouse was built during the War. It was needed by Union forces to replace a lightship that had been taken by Confederates at the start of hostilities. A wooden structure, it was located in five feet of water and its pilings were painted red. The importance of this light was to mark the entrance of the Neuse River leading to New Bern, an important port occupied by the Union during the war.
Battle of Hatteras Inlet
The first major Civil War action in North Carolina was at Hatteras Inlet. On 28 August 1861, Union soldiers came ashore as Navy ships bombarded Confederates at Forts Hatteras and Clark. The troops attacked the Confederate batteries from the rear, forcing the surrender of both forts. From this first engagement until the end of the war, Union forces continued to expand their control of the coastline.
Battle of Roanoke Island-
Union troops launched an amphibious attack 7 February 1862, landing 7,500 soldiers on the southwestern side of Roanoke Island. Supported by gunboats the next morning, Union forces reached the positions held by Confederates. Outgunned and outnumbered, Confederates surrendered the island after sharp fighting. Union forces had secured an important outpost on the Atlantic coast, tightening the Union blockade on the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds.
Destruction of Croatan Lighthouse
In September of 1864, a raiding party from the Confederate Ram
Albemarle blew up the Croatan Lighthouse, which marked the channel
connecting the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds.
Battle of Plymouth
Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. R.F. Hoke, along with the firepower of the CSS ram Albemarle, attacked the Federal stronghold at Plymouth on 17 April 1864. The ram sank a Union ship and damaged another on the Roanoke River and forced the Union Navy to retreat to the Albemarle Sound. Meanwhile, Gen. Hoke and his forces occupied Plymouth and claimed one of the few significant Confederate victories in North Carolina.
Destruction of the Ram Albemarle
The ironclad Confederate ram, Albemarle, the most powerful Confederate ship to operate in the waters of eastern North Carolina, was blown up at her moorings at Plymouth 27 October 1864 in a daring attack by Lt. William B. Cushing of the US Navy. Using an open launch about 30 feet in length, he attached a spar torpedo on the bow. In the dark of night he stood at the bow, calmly lowered the spar with the torpedo attached, and exploded it under the Albemarle. Thus, a major portion of eastern NC again fell to enemy domination.
Battle of Ft. Fisher
In December 1864, Wilmington was the last seaport open to the Confederacy. Ft. Fisher, Wilmington’s source of protection, had kept the Union Navy at bay for the entire war. Blockade-runners entering the Cape Fear River with cover fire from the fort were successful in supplying General Lee’s army with desperately needed weapons and ammunition. On Christmas Eve, Union forces under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler started to attack the fort, but retreated after Confederate reinforcements arrived.
In January 1865 a second amphibious attack by nearly 60 Navy vessels was launched against the Ft. Fisher. Over 100 shells per minute fell on the fort all during the night, literally paralyzing the garrison. In the morning, thousands of Union troops joined by marines and sailors from the Union fleet launched a successful attack that overwhelmed the defenders. The fall of Ft. Fisher closed the South's last open seaport on the Atlantic coast to the Confederacy.
Battle of Ft. Macon
At the beginning of the American Civil War, Confederates occupied the ungarrisoned fort. Nearly a year later, in late March 1862, Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside's army advanced on Fort Macon, a brick fort completed in 1832 to prevent a sea attack on Beaufort. Although defenders forced Union ships to retreat, Union forces attacking from landward side found a depleted garrison defending the old bastion. Extremely accurate Union artillery fire, lack of mortars, and insufficient ammunition forced the Confederates to surrender.
The Battle of New Bern
On 13 March 1862, a Union fleet steamed up the Neuse River and landed Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s troops on the south bank to challenge New Bern’s Confederates. After four hours of fighting, Rebels were driven from their positions protecting the town. Despite Confederate attempts to recapture New Bern, Union forces held the town until the end of the war.
© 2016 OBLHS