Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2023

Book Review

When the Southern Lights Went Dark

By RJ Heller


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Item #3512 When the Southern Lights Went Dark ...

By Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford

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Supply vessel Guthrie, which carried supplies to ...

Lighthouse history is like most history — it needs to be talked about in order for us to understand our “lot in life” and continue moving forward as an informed people. To do that properly, we need to know and understand what we have experienced. I never thought about lighthouses and the Civil War together until I came across the book, When the Southern Lights Went Dark: The Lighthouse Establishment during the Civil War by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford.

Much has been written about the Civil War. Thousands of books have focused on every conceivable aspect of the war between the North and the South. I have read many books on the subject and have even more waiting to be read in my library. It was not until I read this latest book by this mother/daughter duo that it struck a chord in me.

With the passing of her daughter Candace, a prominent lighthouse historian in her own right, Mary Louise Clifford uses her daughter’s extensive research and weaves a compelling historical record of a Civil War period overlooked by many historians. Mary Louise herself has published 26 books including five others she co-authored with her daughter: Women Who Kept the Light, Nineteenth Century Lights, Maine Lighthouses, Mind the Light Katie, and Lighthouses Short and Tall.

Tensions already were rising before the news arrived that Abraham Lincoln won the hotly contested election and would be the 16th president of the United States. The South was not happy and preparations to show that dissatisfaction began well before Fort Sumter fell.

It is November 1860 and the lighthouse supply vessel Guthrie, captained by J.W. Perry and crew is anchored at Amelia Island on the Atlantic Coast of Florida. Perry is given the news of the presidential election. As the ship begins its journey south, the captain and crew see first-hand the unraveling of the country as they deliver supplies to lighthouse stations from Key West to Alabama and Mississippi. From one port to the next, they are alerted that one state after another has seceded from the Union.

The Cliffords write, “At Biloxi Light in Mississippi keeper Mary Reynolds was anxious about the Federal stores in her possession — the sperm oil in the lamps, the lamps themselves and the valuable Fresnel lens that projected her light, her tools for cleaning and maintaining the lamps and lens, and indeed her household furnishings.”

The Guthrie is seized in Galveston, Texas and told they would not be leaving port. Texas had seceded on February 1, 1861.

Previous to the Guthrie’s plight, in 1860, after South Carolina seceded from the Union, three light tenders at Charleston were prevented from leaving port. It was clear the Light-House Board was faced with a critical situation made even more dire with its near completion of a modernization project to replace the antiquated equipment with the new and expensive Fresnel lenses installed in all but a few lighthouses.

Add to all of this the fact that when war finally does break out, the board is faced with a significant dilemma. Who will manage the lighthouses up and down the coast of the country? Prior to the war lighthouses were managed by military personnel, but with the war’s onslaught the task fell on the board to find skilled civilians to fill these roles.

Fractured allegiances of the military personnel exacerbated this effort. Federal employment posited a dilemma for the men managing the operations of the southern lights. Do they stand with the federal government or will their allegiance be with the states they call home? Thanks to the abundant details unearthed by the Clifford’s, clarity to this complicated story by way of letters, dispatches and newspaper accounts is readily offered.

The war is now fully underway and is told through the historical chronology of its impact on a lighthouse service whose sole objective is to save lives. The newly formed Confederacy races to extinguish as many lights as possible while confiscating as much Federal property as it can to help finance its war of secession.

The book covers in stark detail the years that follow, once hostilities commence. From the battles for specific points of control by way of seaports, to the difficult task of reestablishing aids for navigation up and down the coastline, to the ever-changing battle lines as Union forces expand control subsequently gaining victory and bringing an end to hostilities.

The narrative then steps into the aftermath of the war, following the lighthouse districts as they rebuild amidst a nation trying to do the same. Both a comprehensive register of Federal employees along with valuable information contained in appendices completes this superb historic volume.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2023 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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