The Charleston Lighthouse
Dr. Milt Sernett
As the slave-holding states spiraled downward into secession, one of the first tactical moves their military and political leaders did was to turn out the lights. For nearly two centuries Charleston, South Carolina, had a lighthouse on Morris Island to guide ships coming into Charleston Harbor. The federal lighthouse standing in 1860 had been built in 1838, was 102 feet tall, and boasted a revolving light coupled with a valuable Fresnel lens.
Secession-minded South Carolinians met on December 18, 1860 in Charleston and voted unanimously to create the Republic of South Carolina. Shortly thereafter, the “rebels”—to use the language of Unionist politicians in Washington, D.C., decided to extinguish the light on Morris Island as well as render inoperative beacons up and down the coast. The Charleston Mercury said:
The report reached us yesterday morning that the Charleston lighthouse, situated on Morris Island, and which for many years has guided the mariner to our harbor, was blown up on Wednesday night, by order of the military authorities. Nothing save a heap of ruins now marks the sport where it stood.
The secessionists now made plans to seize federal-controlled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. On April 12, 1861, Confederate artillery opened fire from batteries on Morris Island and elsewhere. Major Anderson’s small federal force burrowed in Fort Sumter surrendered within 34 hours. The Civil War had begun.
Now for the rest of the story.
Long after “The War Between the States,” as slavery’
Supporters termed the Civil War or “The War of the Rebellion,” an abolition term for our nation’s bloodiest conflict, had ended, human bones washed up on the beaches of Morris Island. Relic hunters gathered up some of these reminders of the high cost of the Civil War in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo that struck Charleston with category 4 force on September 21, 1989. Some of the bones released by the eroded sand dunes bore the marks of Civil War bone saws.
It is said that one Union soldier died for every yard of Morris Island that Federal troops retook in 1863. It is quite possible that some of the bones that have been released from the sands of Morris Island belonged to the valiant members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. This African-American regiment, whose story is told in the “Glory” film, and commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw, paid a high price for “freedom’s cause” on the beeches of Morris Island in that deadly and ultimately futile assault on Fort Wagner. Lewis Douglass, son of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass who was one of the first inductees into the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum, recalled: “Men fell all around me. A shell would explode and clear a space of twenty feet, our men would close up again, but it was no use we had to retreat.” One wonders if the outcome of the federal attempt to take Fort Wagner would have been different had the lighthouse tower on Morris Island been standing and thus of some tactical advantage to Colonel Shaw and his troops.
The Civil War is over now, but not the campaign to honor all those who fought for “freedom’s cause.” Each of us can become a “point of light”—a lighthouse for freedom—by supporting the mission of the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum.