March 4, 2008

Fighting Over Lighthouses in Florida

In this new book on a most obscure topic, namely Florida’s Lighthouses in the Civil War, author Neil E. Hurley discusses the added significance of a lighthouse in a time of conflict. Hurley is the historian for the Florida Lighthouse Association, a statewide non-profit with 30 members, and has written a number of books on the history of lighthouses.

In this online article, the author states:

At the start of the country’s Civil War, there were 20 lighthouses and one lightship along Florida’s 1,197 miles coastline. The Sunshine State was sparsely populated in 1860, its citizens concentrated in communities along the coast and rivers. Although the peninsula had a railroad, neither roads nor railways crossed the state or ran the length of the east and west coasts. Trade and communication was done via water. Even with lighthouses, shipping was fraught with hazards. Hurricanes, shifting sandbars and coral reefs posed dangers. Lightships, bell boats, buoys, range lights and houses were built, moved, made higher and varied in design to accommodate the challenges of the environment. Many of the lighthouses also acted as customs houses and their keepers as collectors. During military conflict, control of the lighthouses was critical to obtain a victory on land. As the war went on, naval battles and blockades reduced trade. Lamp oil and functioning lenses were also in short supply. Early in the conflict, Union forces achieved control of the seven lighthouses in South Florida. This allowed Lincoln’s army to use Key West and the Dry Tortugas as a base. The 14 other lighthouses were battle sites. Some
were extinguished because they were damaged in the efforts to capture and control. Confederate forces intentionally and cautiously disabled other lights in order to create hazards to Union supply and troop ships traveling the coast. Hurley tells his story in 22 chapters, one for each Florida light and one for the Tortugas Harbor Light. In his preface, he explains the administration of lighthouses before and after the Confederate states seceded. In each chapter, Hurley provides the history of the light, its relevance in the region and the part it played during the Civil War.

As an avid student of the war in Florida, this is one book that I'll look to acquire.

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