Perpetual Beacons? Lighthouses & The Civil War

Old Point Lighthouse was built in 1855 along the California Coast.

During a political campaign speech in 1860, John C. Breckinridge — the current vice presidential and one of the Democratic Party’s candidates for the executive office — addressed rumors that circulated about him and his views on slavery and states rights. He took the stance that duly elected leaders’ will had to be accepted and avowed his support of the U.S. Constitution, saying:

“Yes, the truth will prevail. You may smother it for a time beneath the passions and prejudices of men, but those passions and prejudices will subside; and the truth will reappear as the rock reappears above the receding tide. I believe this country will yet walk by the light of these principles. Bright and fixed, as the rock-built lighthouse in the stormy sea, they will abide, a perpetual beacon, to attract the political mariner to the harbor of the Constitution.”[i]

The imagery that he invoked pointed to the tempestuous politics and his firm hope that the Constitution would serve as a guiding light. How familiar would his audience have been with the visual of a lighthouse? While the land-locked Kentuckians that he addressed in 1860 might not have seen a coastal lighthouse in person, 19th Century Americans were familiar with the nautical beacons and their importance to maritime ventures. Just eight years earlier, the Federal government had taken active measure to improve the signal points, but the coming Civil War — prompted in part when Breckinridge lost the presidential election to Abraham Lincoln and the secession crisis began — challenged the “perpetual beacons” that lined the coastlines.

The first lighthouse in the United States stands in Boston Harbor, first erected in 1716 and later rebuilt after the Revolutionary War.[ii] The pattern established with the Boston Light unfortunately played out with many lighthouses decades later with the Civil War: constructed, intentionally destroyed in war, rebuilt.

As the United States formed as a nation and trade increased again, maritime beacons came under the direction of the Federal government by act of Congress in August 1789. Oversight of the lighthouses fell to the newly formed Treasury Department and by 1820 they were the responsibility of the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury.[iii] Stephen Pleasonton served as Fifth Auditor from 1820 until 1852, providing a period of stability and growth. (Stephen Pleasonton’s sons, Alfred and Augustus, both became generals during the Civil War.)

Under Pleasonton’s control lighthouse establishment grew from 55 lighthouse in 1820 to 331 lighthouses and 42 lighthouse ships by 1852.[iv] Pleasonton committed himself, his clerks, and his lightkeepers to frugality. Everything was accounted for and explained. While Pleasonton ran a tight and department, but his frugality became his downfall; he refused to explore innovations that would keep the American shore lights on the cutting edge of technology which could have saved lives at sea. To Pleasonton, the investment in the new Fresnel lenses developed in France and known for their concentrated light beams or exploring new fuels for the all-important lamps was a waste of time and money.[v] In 1851, Congress launched an investigation.

A First Order Fresnel Lens (the largest type) displayed at the Newport News Mariners’ Museum. (photo by author)

Dissention and complaints had been arriving for years about the condition of the American lighthouse system, particularly from the Army Corps of Engineers. Congress’s 1851 investigation led to a 760-page report and the recommendation to follow new best practices and technologies already adopted by Great Britain and France.[vi] Stephen Pleasonton was out, and Congress approved the adoption of the Fresnel Lens for American lighthouses. Made from crystal, these cut-glass lenses varied in size and concentrated the light from lamps burning inside the lens to create beams of light that could be seen miles away at sea. To oversee the modernization of the American lighthouses, Congress created the Lighthouse Board in 1852, a nine member establishment that would oversee the operations, effectiveness, and improvements of this maritime safety system.

One of the Lighthouse Board’s first acts was to divide American coastlines — which now included the East Coast, Gulf Coast, Great Lakes, and West Coast — into twelve districts. Captain George G. Meade spent part of the antebellum years building lighthouses in New Jersey and Florida and  surveying the Great Lakes’ shoreline, providing valuable information that could be used by the Lighthouse Board. Each district had an inspector who oversaw new constructions and enforced the standards of lightkeeping on the lighthouse keepers.[vii] With lives depending on the lighted beacons, the role of a lightkeeper was not a romanticized life of ease by the sea; instead, long night watches, daily cleaning, repairs, and other tasks filled his or her time. The Board also started publishing Light Lists which located and gave details about every lighted point or location along the coast, providing valuable information for mariners.[viii] During the Civil War, many of the lighthouses along the Southern coastline “went dark.”

Confederates targeted lighthouses during the war for two main reasons. First, they were Federal establishments. Like forts and arsenals, lighthouses were a symbol of the Federal government and power. Turning a cannon on a lighthouse’s structure or shooting the valuable crystal lens seemed like a fun way to show some rebellion. Secondly, as the Union blockade of the Southern coastline gained power, Confederates destroyed or at least removed keepers from the lighthouses to deactivate the bright navigational guides. Ironically, destroying the lighthouses also meant that the Confederacy’s blockade runners no longer had warnings of shoals, reefs, inlets, or rocks. Sometimes the on-shore supporters of blockade runner would show small lights on the beach as a signal, but these were not as effective as the powerful warning beams from a lighthouse.

Taken after the Battle of Mobile Bay, this image shows the damages to Mobile Point Light (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Ironically, the Confederacy established its own Lighthouse Bureau, divided its shoreline into districts and promptly realized destroyed structures and the need for a darkened coast to annoy the Yankee blockaders left a limited role for their bureaucratic office. Raphael Semmes — who later gained fame as the commander of the commerce raider CSS Alabama — proposed the bureau during the early days of secession and the Confederate Congress made him the head of the department on March 6, 1861. By April 18, however, Semmes hurried off to outfit his first commerce raider, leaving the Confederate States Lighthouse Bureau existing but drowning. Events at the lighthouses and the actions of local customs officers to remove keepers, destroy structures, or sometimes safely stow away the valuable equipment left the clerks scrambling to keep up. By 1862, the Bureau had little to do.

Union forces did their share of lighthouse destruction as well. Sometimes intentionally with a raid on the location. Other times, the lighthouses were just in the way of a bombardment. At some locations, the abandoned lighthouses became temporary shelters or places of morally questionable recreation for bored Union soldiers.[ix]

After the Confederacy’s defeat, the Federal Lighthouse Board took charge of the navigational aids again. The task of rebuilding and appointing keepers along the Southern coastline mirrored the Reconstruction Era. It also opened a valuable opportunity for Union veterans or their widows.

Lightkeeping was hard work that required dedication, but it also ensured a place to live, the guarantee of food for the keeper, and steady pay. Union veterans, including some who had been partially disabled by the war, applied for the positions of keeper or assistant keeper. Sometimes, they received the post and the payment to provide for the family and their wives assisted with the work they could not physically perform due to war injuries. In other cases, women appealed to the Lighthouse Board asking to stay or to be appointed lightkeeper due to their husband’s service and sacrifice during the Civil War. Other lightkeepers were mothers who had lost sons during the war, and this was a way that the Federal government could support them through providing work and payment. Remarkably for the era, female lightkeepers received the same amount of pay as male lightkeepers. The Board did not discriminate and sometimes district inspectors preferred to hire female lightkeepers since their attention to detail (and house keeping!) tended to be better. Changes in the early 20th Century reduced the number of female lighthouse keepers as the job became “professionalized” and electricity changed the nature of the work.[x] But for some Civil War veterans, widows, or grieving mothers, the opportunity of lightkeeping was a financial lifeline along with the opportunity to give their lives a new heroic purpose.

Like the “perpetual beacon” that John Breckinridge envisioned in his political address, the real lighthouses along the American coastlines added the maritime commerce of the antebellum period. During the Civil War years, thousands of dollars of Federal property at the lighthouse locations were destroyed by intention, accident, or circumstance of war. However, as the country rebuilt and changed after the war, the lighthouses rekindled their flames, shining on under the watchful eyes and skillful hands of the keepers — sometimes men or women recovering from the loss of war. Though nearly all American lighthouses are electrified and automated in the modern era, the legacy of lighthouses and lightkeeping has left a trail of courage, organizational lessons, and personal stories that still intrigue and enlighten today.


[i] William C. Davis, Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol, (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 2010) Page 239.

[ii] Francis Ross Holland, Jr., America’s Lighthouses: An Illustrated History, (New York: Dover Publications, 1988) Pages 8-10.

[iii] Ibid, 27

[iv] Ibid., 32

[v] Ibid., 28

[vi] Ibid., 34

[vii] Ibid., 36

[viii] Ibid., 36

[ix] “Confederate States Lighthouse Bureau” published by the United States Lighthouse Society. Accessed 1/13/2022.

[x] Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford, Women who Kept the Lights, (Alexandria: Cypress Communications, 2001).

3 Responses to Perpetual Beacons? Lighthouses & The Civil War

  1. Very interesting. I wonder if the reason Confederates equated lighthouses with government power/control had to do with the controversy decades prior regarding the funding of internal improvements. Lighthouses might have constituted as internal improvements, which Southern Democrats believed should not have been subsidize by the federal government, for the reason that it might have set a precedent for government intervention in commerce and trades across states/countries. Just learning about this in school, so my brain automatically went there, haha.

    1. Interesting. That sounds like something that would interesting to explore at the district level of the lighthouse administration and see if there are some records. It would make sense…

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