The Long Blue Line: Lighthouse Service during the Civil War

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian

Rare photograph from the 1800s of the Key West Lighthouse, which remained in Union hands during the Civil War. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Rare photograph from the 1800s of the Key West Lighthouse, which remained in Union hands during the Civil War. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

As they would in nearly every 19th century American war, the U.S. Coast Guard’s legacy services played an important role in the Civil War. In addition to the Revenue Cutter Service, another predecessor agency of the Coast Guard, the U.S. Lighthouse Service, took part in the conflict. Prior to the war, the Lighthouse Service, also known as the U.S. Light-House Board, operated lighthouses all along the East and Gulf Coasts. Other Lighthouse Service assets included buoys, aids to navigation, buoy depots, lightships and lighthouse tenders.

U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Van Santvoort was transferred to the Union Navy in 1861 and served as the gunboat USS Coeur de Lion during the Civil War. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Van Santvoort was transferred to the Union Navy in 1861 and served as the gunboat USS Coeur de Lion during the Civil War. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Like other government agencies, many southern lighthouse personnel transferred their allegiance from federal service to the Confederate States Lighthouse Bureau. This included numerous lightkeepers as well as one-time U.S. Navy officer Raphael Semmes, who had previously served as secretary of the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

Raphael Semmes, one-time secretary of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, who became head of the Confederate States Lighthouse Bureau before earning fame as the captain of commerce raiders CSS Sumter and CSS Alabama. Photographic History of the Civil War, New York, 1911.

Raphael Semmes, one-time secretary of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, who became head of the Confederate States Lighthouse Bureau before earning fame as the captain of commerce raiders CSS Sumter and CSS Alabama. Photographic History of the Civil War, New York, 1911.

Semmes received appointment as the first superintendent of the Confederate Lighthouse Bureau. As Union forces occupied large sections of the southern coastline, the Confederate government required fewer Lighthouse Service staff. Keepers and support staff lost their jobs while former naval officers, such as Semmes, went on to serve in the Confederate navy. Later in the war, Semmes would earn fame as captain of the Confederate cruisers CSS Sumter and CSS Alabama. Semmes’s successors heading the Confederate Lighthouse Bureau would do little more than manage unlit lighthouses and idle assets.

In the early stages of the conflict, only certain lighthouses in Virginia and those located in the Florida Keys and Dry Tortugas remained in Union hands. For strategic purposes, Union and Confederate forces struggled to control the rest of the 160 lighthouses and aids to navigation in southern territory. Union military forces needed lighthouses and aids to navigation to facilitate naval operations and delivery of troops and supplies to the front-line units near the coast. The Confederate government wished to hinder Union use of these aids to navigation to increase the danger of enemy naval operations and night-time navigation. Both sides used the lighthouse towers to observe movements of enemy naval and land forces.

The tallest lighthouse on the East Coast, Cape Hatteras held great strategic value both to Union military forces and the Confederates. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

The tallest lighthouse on the East Coast, Cape Hatteras held great strategic value both to Union military forces and the Confederates. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Both sides of the conflict sought other U.S. Lighthouse Service assets and were highly sought after. The Confederacy removed valuable lamp oil supplies from southern light stations to support the war effort. Eleven lightships stationed in the south before the war were either sunk by the Confederates to block waterways or used for other maritime needs. In addition, many contemporary lighthouse tenders were relatively modern steamers and put to use for military purposes. In the north, eight lighthouse tenders were transferred to the Union navy; and, in the south, eight lighthouse tenders were commandeered by the Confederate government.

Official seal of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Official seal of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

During the war, the U.S. Lighthouse Service assisted the Union war effort in many ways. These activities included re-lighting light stations extinguished by Confederate forces and positioning special buoys, lights, and lightships to aid Union military operations. In 1862, the Treasury Department sent Special Agent Maximilian Bonzano to New Orleans to restore re-captured lighthouses to operational status, starting with those located in Louisiana. In spite of hostilities that continued to threaten lights in Union-occupied territory, Bonzano made steady progress and expanded his efforts to include lighthouses located along the entire Gulf Coast.

After the conclusion of hostilities, the Lighthouse Service worked diligently to return the southern lighthouses and aids to navigation to operational status. However, it took 10 years to complete the job. In 1875, the service finally completed the task of refurbishing hundreds of southern lighthouses and aids to navigation to their pre-war condition. Throughout the war and its aftermath, U.S. Lighthouse Service men and women fulfilled their mission as members of the long blue line.

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