Digest>Archives> March 2000


By Cheryl Roberts


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Dr. David Thomas Tayloe, I MD, the man who hid ...

One evening a few months ago Sandra Clunies, a Board-certified Genealogist specializing in lighthouse research, was researching documents at the National Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland. In a section of Confederate Treasury Records she found letters belonging to the Confederate States if America Light House Bureau and a mystery. . .

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The grave-stone of Dr. David Thomas Tayloe MD at ...
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The Outer Banks has long been a place of mysteries. During the late sixteenth century, Roanoke Island's Lost Colony vanished into the mist of the past. Three centuries later another intriguing disappearance occurred on the Outer Banks when Confederates took the prized 1854 first-order Fresnel lens. It, too, has vanished, but only after an amazing journey from the Hatteras Lighthouse to a hiding place north of Raleigh.

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A twist of fate may have saved the Tayloe home in ...

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Dr. David Thomas Tayloe IV, the great grandson of ...
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These great lenses came in several "orders," with the first order the largest to be installed in the continental United States. The more important the lighthouse, the larger a lens it received. Most prized of all was the gigantic first-order Fresnel lens, manufactured in France, with more that 1,000 glass prisms. Fitted together as in a magnificent chandelier, it encompassed a lighted lamp, gathered every candela from the flame, and cast a beam out over the dark Atlantic waters as far as twenty miles. Cape Hatteras was one of the first lighthouses in America to receive one of these state of the art devices. This rare lens cost approximately $6,500 when it was installed in l854, and was the best lighthouse lens in the world-it was the most magnificent thing on the Outer Banks. The lens was the pride of the Hatteras keepers and the United States Lighthouse Service.

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Story Author Cheryl Roberts

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Photographer and writer Bruce Roberts

At the beginning of the Civil War, the Confederate government in Richmond set up their own "Light House Bureau" and considered the Hatteras Light their property. It soon became apparent that the lights along the Southern coast were of greater help to the Union Navy in their efforts to blockade Southern ports than they were of help to any Confederate ships. Therefore, the Confederate Light House Bureau ordered the Fresnel lenses to be removed from major coastal lights and taken inland for safe storage until the war ended. Without its magnificent Fresnel lens, the Hatteras Lighthouse would not be able to send forth its beam of light. The fitful, flickering oil lamps of the day would be of little help to Union ships trying to negotiate the dreaded Diamond Shoals, a dozen miles out to sea.

Confederates removed the Fresnel lens from the Hatteras tower and took it by boat across the Pamlico Sound and up the Pamlico River to the warehouse of John Myers & Son at Washington, North Carolina. Confederates withdrew from Washington, N.C. in March 1862 after Federal troops had captured New Bern. In anticipation of Union occupation, the lens was taken from Washington, N.C. to Tarboro and turned over to Captain G. H. Brown, Assistant Quarter Master, Confederate States of America, for safe storage. After occupying Washington, N.C. and not finding the lens, Union officers sent word to Brown that if the lens were not returned, "force would be used to possess themselves of it at all risks." If the lens was not returned, Union messages demanded, the town of Washington, N.C. risked destruction.

Capt. Brown was not about to give the lens back to the Yankees. Instead, he wrote the Confederate Light House Bureau in Richmond and suggested an agent come immediately to take the apparatus further inland to safety, or at least, get it out of his hands. The following is Brown's letter to the Confederate Light House Bureau:

Tawboro, [sic] NC

March 23, l862


Richmond, VA


I have to inform you that I have received the entire apparatus of the Hatteras Light at this point and placed it in as secure a place as possible. The apparatus was removed some time since from Hatteras and stored in the warehouse of Mssrs. John Myers & Son at Washington, NC who have brought it to this place and put it in my charge. I would suggest that an agent be sent in immediately to attend to the packing and forwarding of the above as the Federals are in force at Washington [N.C.] and threaten the private property of the parties who took part in sending it away. If it is not returned {two words not readable], that force would be used to possess themselves of it at all risks, and even threaten the destruction of the town of Washington, [N.C.] if the apparatus was not forthcoming. The Light and fixtures refered [sic] to are, as you must be aware very valuable having cost several thousand dollars. I therefore deem it important to apprize [sic] you of the circumstances in detail. Your immediate attention as herin [sic] requested will doubtless [unreadable word] to the interests of the Confederate States

I have the honor to be Very

Respectfully Your Obt Servant

G.H. Brown Captain & A.Q.M., C.S.A.

P.S. The probable cost of getting the fixtures to this point will be Ninety dollars. The agent that is sent here to superintend the transportation of the above should be provided with funds to defray the expenses.

Captain Brown's letter received prompt attention and Mr. J. B. Davidge was sent to Tarboro to take charge of the lens, but apparently Davidge arrived in town in no condition to handle the situation. The next letter from Captain Brown tells how he dealt with the problem.



April l862

Sir: Your communication of the 27th ulto. by Mr. J.B. Davidge has been received, but I regret to have to say that Mr. D. has been unfit to attend to any kind of business since his arrival & has given little or no assistance or direction relative to the packing of the Light House apparatus. I find that his habits are those of intemperance & though a delicate matter I feel it my duty as an officer to furnish the department with the facts of the case. I have had the apparatus all packed as carefully as possible in Cotton, and it is now awaiting transportation. I saw Mr. Davidge yesterday and remonstyrated [Sic] with him on his course, urging the necessity of having the apparatus removed to a point of safety as speedily as possible, and he promised to attend to it at once, but today he has made no effort whatever for its removal. I paid the expenses incurred in the packing of the apparatus amounting to about $106 which has been refunded by Mr. D.

I can get a very responsible gentleman here to attend to the conveying of it to a place of safety in this state free of any charge for his services, if you can furnish means of transportation. It will require a larger Box Car, as there are about 45 boxes and some pieces of castings.

The place I would suggest sending the articles is in Granville County in this State on the Rail Road where they can be stored at small expense in a good warehouse. I would suggest therefore that a large Box Car be sent to this place at as early a date as possible. The enemy below this point are still threatening property if the apparatus is not delivered up. Your immediate attention will facilitate the matter.

I am Very Respectfully Your Obt Servant

Geo. H. Brown Captain & A.Q.M., C.S.A.

The "very responsible gentleman," D.T. Tayloe, was David Thomas Tayloe, M.D., a prominent Washington, North Carolina doctor who would later become the Regimental Surgeon of the 61st North Carolina. Some months earlier, as the war moved closer to Washington, N.C., Dr. Tayloe had taken his family to Hibernia Plantation near Townsville, an obscure place he hoped, sixty miles north of Raleigh, a place of no military importance with little contact with the war.

Capt. Brown had talked with Dr. Tayloe in Tarboro about a safe hiding place for the Hatteras lens. It occurred to Tayloe that what was safe for his family would also be safe for the lens. Keeping the lens from Federal possession demanded quick action and he volunteered to assume responsibility for its continued journey to safety. It was not to be an easy trip as his letter indicates. Tayloe gave Capt. Brown a receipt for all the parts of the lens before he left Tarboro.

To: Thos. E. Martin, Esq. Acting Chief of L.H. Bureau

Richmond, VA.

Received Tarboro, NC, April 13, l862 from Capt. G.H. Brown, Asst. Q.M., C.S. Army: Forty Four Boxes & two Cases containing the Lens belonging to the Hatteras Light House, also Sixty Four pieces of Castings, Fourteen Pieces of Fixtures and two sheets of Copper appertaining to the same, all of which I promise to deliver at a point of safety in Granville County, N.C. in as good order as received (all risks of transportation excepted).

D.T. Tayloe

44 boxes

2 Cases

64 Ps. Castings

14 Ps. Fixtures

2 Shts Copper

To: Thomas E. Martin,

Acting Chief of the Light House Bureau,

Confederate States of America, Richmond, VA.

Townsville, Granville Co. N.C.

April 20/62

Mr. Thos. E. Martin

Dear Sir: I reached Townsville with the Light House Apparatus on Friday evening. I had many difficulties and detentions in the road. The car you gave me was in very bad order and gave out about 8 miles beyond Rocky Mount. After much delay and trouble I succeeded in procuring another car and transferring the cargo. At Welden (notwithstanding my transportation order and pass from Capt. Brown and your endorsement on the order of the Sec. Of War) I was compelled to pay freight on the few articles of my own in the car and be compelled to leave the car there. This was owing to a malicious note to the agent from the agent at Tarboro.

I trust you will order Capt. Brown to reimburse me for what expense I may have incurred, as I am sure I do not over rate my services, when I say that I doubly earned all I paid out or any advantage I may have gained by the use of the car. I have had the apparatus removed to a good store house in the county and safely stored. I shall return the bills for hauling-removing from one car to the other etc to Capt Brown. The expense was slight-Hoping that you reached home in safety after a more pleasant jaunt on the Road than I had,

I am Yours Very Truly

D.T. Tayloe

The railroad tracks that had carried the lens into Townsville were taken up before the end of the war. Southern sources for supplies were dwindling and the iron was needed to repair the railroad tracks to Richmond. Tayloe had been successful in slipping the lens out of Tarboro to the obscurity of Townsville unseen. While Union forces roamed over much of eastern North Carolina, Tayloe's family and the Hatteras lens remained out of harm's way near Townsville. While the war continued, Tayloe's mother died and a son and daughter were born at Hibernia Plantation. Dr. Tayloe received a commission from Governor Vance and was appointed to the 61st North Carolina as the regimental surgeon. He served at the battle of Kinston and was "distinguished for a zealous performance of duty and rendered most valuable and efficient service in the hospital and on the field," according to "The Confederate Reveille," a collection of bibliographies of Beaufort County soldiers. After the war, Dr. Tayloe opened an office in New Bern. A few years later he returned to Washington, N.C. assuming the role of town physician. His son, grandson, great grandson, all named Dr. David T. Tayloe, followed in his footsteps as medical doctors. The Tayloe doctors built a hospital in Washington, N.C., delivered thousands of babies, and became a famous name in Eastern North Carolina medicine. Though these men shared their lives generously for the benefit of others, Dr. David T. Tayloe I never shared the whereabouts of the Hatteras lens with his family. His great grandson, the retired Dr. David T. Thomas Tayloe IV, is a noted pediatrician in Washington, N.C. who has a photograph of his great grandfather. It dominates his study while Tayloe's marriage license is framed and hangs in the dining room. "But we never heard a word about the Hatteras lens," says Dr. Tayloe IV.

John Cotton Tayloe, M.D., of New Bern, also a great grandson of Dr. Tayloe, is the family historian. John researched the family history and traveled to the location of the old Hibernia Plantation, but found no reference to the Hatteras lens. No clue, no hint of where his great grandfather stored the lens survives. Hibernia is now part of John H. Kerr State Recreational Area and much of the old plantation land has been under water since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam on the Roanoke River. The house itself was taken down before the lake was flooded, no lens was found.

Nothing in the United States Lighthouse Service records indicates the lens was ever recovered. Historians in Vance County in which Townsville is now located (it was part of Granville County during the l860's before Vance County was created) say they have never heard of the Hatteras lens having been in their area. The railroad is gone, the station is gone, the old warehouses are gone-but the lens has never been found.

Strange as it seems, the surgeon of the 61st North Carolina regiment, Hoke's Division, Army of Northern Virginia, deprived the Union Navy of a light around Cape Hatteras at a critical time in the war. It was months until the U.S. Lighthouse Service could find a comparable, second-order replacement lens, and have it shipped and installed at the Hatteras Light Station.

Where is the lens? Some suggest that it could be hidden in one of the abandoned gold mines in the area, others say it could have been stored in one of the caves along the Roanoke River near Hibernia, now flooded and under Kerr Lake. It appears that David Thomas Tayloe I, Surgeon of the 61st North Carolina Regiment, took the secret with him when he died in l884. He rests in the St. Peter's Episcopal Churchyard in Washington, North Carolina. His grave is near the Main Street gate and marked with a white cross bearing the silent inscription, "Simply to Thy Cross I Cling."

To learn more about Cape Hatteras Lighthouse we would recommend the book, Cape Hatteras America's Lighthouse by Thomas Yocum, Bruce Roberts and Cheryl Shelton Roberts. It is available as Item #91553 for $16.95 plus shipping from Lighthouse Depot, P.O. Box 427, Wells, Maine 04090 or by calling 1-800-758-1444 or on line at www.lighthousedepot.com.

Our favorite book by Cheryl and Bruce Roberts is, Lighthouse Families. The hard cover book is available for $29.95 plus shipping as Item #31682 from Lighthouse Depot, P.O. Box 427, Wells, Maine 04090, Ph # 1-800-758-1444 on line at www.lighthousedepot.com

This story appeared in the March 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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