On August 7, 1789, Congress approved an Act for the Establishment and support of Lighthouse, Beacons, Buoys, and Public Piers. Remembering that date, the American Lighthouse Foundation calls today National Lighthouse Day.
So in recognition of Lighthouse Day, I give you the Morris Island Lighthouse:
Now that’s not the light which stood at the time of the Civil War, of course. But it does stand where Morris Island used to be. The original light, roughly at the location where the modern one stands, was built during the colonial era. It was one of the original coastal lights turned over to the US Government when the 1789 act was passed. As such, that location has a very close link to Lighthouse Day. A sketch of that light 42-foot tall lighthouse exists:
During the first decades of the 19th Century, the importance of Charleston as a harbor necessitated a larger lighthouse. This one was specifically placed to aid ships navigating to the bar into the Main Ship Channel. So in 1838, a new 102-foot lighthouse, with first order lens, went up just north of the original. In December 1860, that light fell under the control of South Carolina… then later the Confederate States. As with many lights along the southern coasts, it went dark during those early days of the war.
Federal observers reported the lantern and lens were destroyed in 1861. By 1862, the Confederates had destroyed the lighthouse to prevent its use as an observation post. When the Federals attacked Morris Island in July 1863, the lighthouse was part of the battlefield. And its remains are seen in wartime photographs taken on the island.
During the war, the Federals maintained temporary lights along the coast to aid navigation and positioning of their blockaders. After the war, the government went about restoring those lost lights, beacons, and navigational aids throughout the south. But not until 1876 was a new lighthouse lit on Morris Island.
Over time, Morris Island moved… while the lighthouse stayed where it was. The lightkeeper’s house and that lovely fence is gone. But the lighthouse still stands out on the flats. Decommissioned in the 1960s, the Morris Island Lighthouse was purchased and is being preserved by Save the Light, Inc.
Of course, the Morris Island light was not the only such navigation aid at Charleston during the Civil War period. Speaking to the lights themselves, there were range lights on Sullivan’s Island, Fort Sumter, Castle Pinckney, and at the city itself. Some of those were used from time to time by the Confederates to assist blockade runners in and out of port. But for the most part, these lights were just witnesses to the long siege. The light at Fort Sumter, however, was the exception. It was a “target” during the siege and did not survive. By war’s end, the Federals had to setup a temporary structure – particularly to assist pilots working around the many wrecks and obstructions at the harbor’s entrance.
Later a more permanent structure sat on the rubble. Some caption this as “1865” showing a wooden sided lighthouse on Fort Sumter at that location:
That lighthouse does not appear in the detailed Federal survey of the fort done when recaptured. It was part of the Federal repairs made in 1865 or later, and was not something standing at during the Confederate’s stay.
Into the 20th century, the last lighthouse built at Charleston… and the last lighthouse built on land in the United States … was the Charleston Light on Sullivan’s Island:
Big and modern looking… steel and aluminum…with an elevator… and originally at 28 million candlepower! (Derated later as that was far too bright!) It stands today as an automated lighthouse, still aiding ships bound for Charleston’s harbor.
“Morris island light” by Original uploader was Rageousgtx at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User: Spyder_Monkey using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Charleston1767” by United States Coast Guard. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Charleston 1914” by United States Coast Guard. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.