When the Southern Lights Went Dark, 1860

1860 Before the war

Chapter 1 USLHT Guthrie sails

When Captain J.W. Perry, Master of the Lighthouse Supply Vessel Guthrie, furled his sails and anchored at Amelia Island on the Atlantic coast of Florida late in November 1860, Keeper J. Woodland didn’t need food rations because he was close enough to Fernandina, Florida, to buy supplies there.

Woodland informed Perry that Abraham Lincoln had won the hotly contested presidential election. The local residents he encountered there were not happy. The south had voted overwhelmingly for Southern Democrat John C. Breckinridge. Although Lincoln had never emdorsed the abolishion of slavery, stating only that it should not spread to the territories, few Southerners believed him. Southern radicals were calling for the South to secede from the Union, basing their argument on states’ rights—if the states had voluntarily joined the Union, they also could leave it whenever they chose.

When Captain Perry sailed into Key West, Keeper Barbara Mabrity at Key West Light Station told him that South Carolina had indeed seceded on December 20. She hoped that the Federal troops at Fort Taylor would protect the Florida Keys from secessionists. When Perry reached Sand Island Lighthouse off the coast at Mobile, Alabama, Keeper Robert Gage informed him that Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama had seceded on January 9, 10, and 11. Perry stopped briefly at Fort Pike on the west side of Pensacola Bay, then supplied the stations at Mobile Point, Mobile Bay, and Choctaw Point,. Officers there told him they intended to hold the fort for the Union, regardless of what the state authorities in Montgomery did.

Captain Perry kept his crew on board the supply ship, fearing what might happen if the men found their way to the bars in Biloxi.

The light keepers at Chandeleur Island, Ship Island, Cat Island, and Round Island Light Stations off the coast of Mississippi all welcomed the Guthrie. Their bushels of potatoes and onions were long gone, and they were much in need of six months’ new rations: 100 pounds of beef, 50 pounds of pork, ½ barrel of flour, 12 1/2 pounds of rice, 5 gallons of beans, 2 bushels of potatoes, 1/2 bushel of onions, 25 pounds of sugar, 12 pounds of coffee, and 4 gallons of vinegar.

The stations lighting the Mississippi Delta were all many miles away from Mississippi’s capitol, Baton Rouge, so that Captain Perry had no difficulty supplying South Pass, Southwest Pass, Pass a L’Outre, and Head of Passes Light Stations. Indeed he supplied all the lighthouses on the coast of Louisiana and continued his mission uninterrupted until he reached Galveston, Texas, in April.

Texas had seceded on February 1, 1861. Local port authorities in Galveston seized the Guthrie and told Captain Perry and his crew that they could not leave that port.

December 1860: The Light-house Board received the first indications of trouble

Meanwhile, back in Washington, the U.S. Light-House Board received its first appeal for help. On December 18, 1860, the 6th District Inspector, Commander Thomas T. Hunter, headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina, wrote Light-House Board Naval Secretary Raphael Semmes that he had reason to believe that the South Carolina legislature was about to secede from the union. In a conversation with Mr. Colcock, the Collector of Customs in Charleston, Hunter had learned that “he [Colcock] will tender his resignation as soon as South Carolina secedes, and that if the Ordinance of Secession commands him to do so, he will turn over all the public property in his possession to the State authorities.” Commander Hunter asked the Light-House Board for instructions as to what he should do with lighthouse property and who would disburse the approximately $7,000 per quarter that financed the Lighthouse Establishment in the 6th District.

The Light-House Board discussed Hunter’s dilemma at its weekly meeting. He had promised in his oath of office to protect all the Federal property under his supervision to the best of his ability. More important, the Collector of Customs, a U.S. Treasury Department employee, paid the salaries and bills of the lighthouse establishment. If Mr. Colcock favored secession, Commander Hunter would be unable to do his job.

The Lighthouse Establishment was under the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department. After consulting Secretary of the Treasury Philip Thomas, the Light-House Board decided that Commander Hunter himself should be charged with making federal government disbursements. He was notified by telegram to move his headquarters from Charleston, South Carolina, to Wilmington, North Carolina. His tender Helen was on shore being repaired. “As soon as that vessel and the Jasper are in condition, you will remove them as well as USLHT Cobb to Wilmington, which place you will hereafter regard as your headquarters.” If Federal keepers are dismissed, or any other act is performed by the State of South Carolina inconsistent with Federal control, Commander Hunter should withdraw his care and supervision and withhold supplies and pay of the keepers.

Charleston, South Carolina, December 20, 1860: South Carolina seceded from the Union

The authorities of South Carolina, however, prevented his three light tenders at Charleston from leaving the port. In addition, the light vessel stationed at Rattlesnake Shoals was seized by state officials and towed into the Port of Charleston.

It was clear that other states would soon follow South Carolina’s lead. How was the Light-House Board to continue its operations in the south if dozens of lighthouses and lightships were seized by state authorities?

The U.S. Treasury Secretary knew very well that trade in cotton from the South’s many ports and rivers was the foundation of America’s economy, contributing substantially to the federal budget. The modernization of the lighthouse system to facilitate commerce was nearly complete when South Carolina seceded. Fresnel lenses had been installed in all but a few minor range lights. Lightships were being replaced where possible by screwpile lighthouses or by more powerful lights ashore. Only a half dozen southern lighthouses, approved by Congress, remained to be erected.

December 1860: The new Croatan Lighthouse was illuminated

As the New Year approached, news from the south was disturbing, but the members of the Light-House Board were confident that their supply vessel was provisioning all of the lighthouses on the Gulf coast. They never imagined that the Guthrie could be taken captive near the end of her voyage.