~ brief history — 1862 ~

1838  <  History  >  1876


The Civil War begins in 1861 and the lighthouse is destroyed in 1862 to prevent its use by Union troops as a lookout tower.

When news of the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States reached Charleston on Nov. 7, 1860, it seemed all but certain that the southern states would secede from the Union. South Carolina became the first to secede in December 1860.

On Dec. 18, 1860, the Lighthouse Inspector for Charleston reported to Washington that he considered it likely that the lighthouse property would be seized by South Carolina troops. On Dec. 20, Commander R. Semmes, Secretary of the Lighthouse Board, wrote the secretary of the treasury that he would not recommend the U.S. Government, against the will of the state government, light the coast of South Carolina. On Dec. 30, the lighthouse inspector filed his report with the Lighthouse Board noting, "The Governor of the State of South Carolina has requested me to leave the state. I am informed that forcible possession has been taken of the lighthouse, buoys and beacons of the harbor and that similar measures will be adapted in regard to all lights in the State." The Rattlesnake Shoal lightship was towed into Charleston harbor and the remaining lighthouse tenders were seized.

On Jan. 7, 1861, news reached Charleston that the Star of the West had departed New York with armed troops bound for Charleston. The expensive first order Fresnel lens was removed from the lighthouse and buried on Morris Island. The Charleston Light was converted to a lookout tower for the cadets from the Citadel, South Carolina's military college. Cadets were also positioned on Morris Island, out of range of Federal troops in Fort Sumter, manning a battery of four 24-pounder field howitzers to guard the main ship channel.

On the morning of Jan. 9, Captain McGown brought the Star of the West into the channel of Charleston harbor. The cadets waited until the Federal ship was abreast their position and opened fire with the howitzers. The first shot went across the bow. Subsequent shots hit near the rudder and bow. Captain McGown turned his ship around and left Charleston without ever reinforcing the Federal troops at Fort Sumter.

On April 11 and 12, Union Major Anderson, commander of Fort Sumter, refused General Beauregard's demand for surrender. On the morning of April 12, Confederate forces at Fort Johnson fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. By that evening, more than 2,500 shot and shell had been fired at Fort Sumter by the Confederates. The bombardment began again the morning of April 13. Finally, after 34 hours of bombardment, Major Anderson surrendered Fort Sumter at 2:30 p.m. on April 13, 1861.

By late April 1861, the lighthouses from Virginia to Texas had been extinguished. In all, some 164 lights in the South had been blacked out for the war. The only lighthouses and beacons allowed to still light were along the Florida reefs where even the local boat captains could not trust their instincts. The Confederacy destroyed the Morris Island Lighthouse in 1862 to prevent its use by the Union army as a lookout tower.

Brigadier General Quincy A. Gillmore, who would later exert a great influence over the Morris Island Lighthouse, assumed command of the Department of the South for the Union in July 1863. Morris Island was at the center of the longest siege of the Civil War, lasting 19 months. It is believed that the Confederate army destroyed the lighthouse to prevent its use by the Union army.

Confederate Batteries Gregg and Wagner were located on Cumings Point, north of the lighthouse. The Federal batteries and troops were located on Folly Island and the southern end of Morris Island. In the end, fewer than 1,000 Confederate troops at Battery Wagner held off a Federal force of 11,000 men and a heavily armed fleet for 58 days.

The famous, but ill-fated, black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th, led the attack on Battery Wagner. Sergeant William Carney of the 54th seized the Union flag when the bearer was shot and fell. Despite his serious wounds, Sgt. Carney returned from the attack still bearing the flag. He later became the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

1838  <  History  >  1876