Lighthouses and Forts: Odd But Ideal Partners 

from Lighthouse News Vol. XVI 2010

by Bruce Roberts and Cheryl Shelton-Roberts


The strategic locations of lighthouses also attract another kind of structure–– forts. A visit to the lighthouses of our area can be a time to discover military history as well. Conventionally, lighthouses have been located at the mouths of rivers, central locations entering a port, on islands laced with dangerous shoals, and major sites of protection. From lighthouse sites along the Outer Banks of North Carolina to the military installations at Cape Henry, Virginia, to Fort Sumter, South Carolina, and beyond, we find unlikely companions in these fortifications whose histories represent war and peace that once existed in harmony.   


The Federal Point Lighthouse was in the center of Fort Fisher during the Civil War. The tower was ordered to be taken down by Confederate Commander Col. William Lamb because it was drawing fire from blockading Union ships that made it a target. Lamb used the keeper’s house as his headquarters; however, he moved his wife to a safer home outside the fort. Col. Lamb often entertained the captains of blockade-running ships at his headquarters in the old keeper’s house, which he decorated with a British flag since many of the Southern-sympathizing, blockade-running captains were English. Near this keeper's quarters is the foundation of the lighthouse tower which was recently discovered and excavated in the center of “battle acre” at Fort Fisher, the South’s largest fort.


In close proximity on Bald Head Island is Old Baldy Lighthouse that once resided inside the grounds of Fort Holmes. Built by Confederates to protect the old Cape Fear River Inlet from Union ships, the fort was destroyed in January 1865 on orders from Major General W. H. C.  Whiting, thus preventing it from falling into Union hands. Earlier in the war, Whiting had thought it necessary to destroy Old Baldy for the same reason to deprive Union blockaders the luxury of its use for their own purposes, but instead he was able to move Confederate troops onto the island, which gave protection to the lighthouse and kept it out of Union control. Two years before hostilities erupted, Whiting served as a captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at its headquarters in Wilmington. He had supervised the design of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and announced its activation in 1859. Six years later as a Major General he was mortally wounded at Fort Fisher. Two structures that he designed and for which he supervised construction are now destinations for tourists on the North Carolina coast––Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Fort Fisher. Fort Macon lies at the easternmost point of Atlantic Beach on Bogue Banks Island. The Bogue Banks Rear Range Light was located two-hundred yards northwest of the fort. It was a fifty-foot-tall, red-brick lighthouse that housed a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The smaller front range light was a sturdy timber tower which housed a sixth-order Fresnel lens 30 feet above sea level. It was located about 50 yards southeast from the front of the fort (looking towards the ocean). The front range light was positioned one-quarter of a mile away from the rear brick range light at the fort, about the distance of four football fields. Ship navigators lined up the pair of lights with a third light on an outer channel buoy to mark the way into the harbor. 


The front range light was on a moveable wood frame, or "skids," that could be adjusted as the inlet channel shoaled and moved. The pair of range lights guided ships through Beaufort Inlet to busy Beaufort Harbor while the fort defended against intruders using the inlet to attack the port at Beaufort.  Its only keeper, Thomas Delamar, had kept both lights in good working order until the Confederate Light House Service ordered them turned off at the beginning of the war. The Confederate defenders took both lights down in 1862 to provide a clear line of fire for the fort’s gun to repel invading Union ships. This represents the essence of the relationship between lighthouses and forts. Lighthouses guided friendly traffic into the port while the fort defended against unwanted visitors. Lighthouses became a focal point for coastal defense because whoever held control of the lights fared a far better chance of controlling the flow of soldiers and supplies. Unfortunately however, the position of a lighthouse at a fort with prime location in shipping lanes also made the lighthouse as much a target as the fort itself.At Cape Lookout, a fort preceded a lighthouse. Fort Hancock was built in 1778 to offer protection to the “lower banks” from British raids. Led by Captain John Tillman, it was deemed a success for there were no British raids during the next two years. Subsequently, the state legislature in Raleigh decided that the expense was no longer necessary and the fort was abandoned; however, the site afforded an excellent view of Core Sound and all vessels entering there. Cape Lookout would be built on a nearby site to be of service to both coasting as well as coastal maritime traffic.


In 1861 the Confederate Light House Service, which claimed authority over all lighthouses in Southern hands, ordered Cape Lookout's first-order Fresnel lens removed and taken to the Capitol in Raleigh for safekeeping. The plan was to replace the lens after the war ended when Confederates were completely in charge. But Union forces occupied Beaufort and the Cape Lookout area and a new third-order Fresnel lens was installed by Acting Engineer Jeremy P. Smith of the U.S. Lighthouse Service.  Nearby, Beaufort became a coaling station for blockading ships and Cape Lookout was needed to guide ships from ocean to sound. A Union warship was ordered to guard the lighthouse, but Confederates surprised everyone and arrived by land in a daring attempt to destroy both towers. The old 1812 tower, then already out of service but still standing, was partially destroyed, and only a portion of the stairs in the 1859 (current) tower was damaged.  Legend has it that faulty gunpowder prevented the blast from doing extensive damage. The attack was reported up the Confederate chain of command to General Robert E. Lee as if the tall tower had been destroyed. Lee sent a message back that some gold might be appropriate for these brave men. Fortunately, the 1859 tower survived the attack, the stairs were repaired, and a new lens was put in place.


Later, during WW II, the attack on Pearl Harbor brought truckloads of Army troops to occupy both both Fort Macon and Cape Lookout. The Bight of Cape Lookout, west of the lighthouse, was a deep-water haven where tankers and other ships could hide from German U-boats. Large cannon were brought to the island near the lighthouse to fire on subs attempting to enter the Bight. Later, a submarine net was placed across it to ensnare any of these enemy vessels.  At Cape Lookout there was no fort, but, among the sand dunes nearby, concrete foundations can still be found for the big guns placed there in 1942 that was part of a network of coastal defense.


In 1789, Virginia ceded two acres of land at Cape Henry for the first lighthouse built by the newly formed government and its U.S. Lighthouse Service––not with colonial states' monies. Just before World War II, Virginia ceded 1,000 acres to the government to enlarge Fort Story which engulfed the little two-acre lighthouse plot. Fort Story protected the Norfolk Navy base, the James River, and the Chesapeake Bay. After Pearl Harbor, top priority was given to saving the rest of the American fleet of naval ships which were largely at Norfolk. The Norfolk Ledger-Dispatch reported that "nestled among the towering sand dunes within the fort’s area are four, sixteen-inch howitzers with giant gun barrels more than 30 feet long that can hurl a 2,000 pound projectile more than twenty miles.” Additionally, hundreds of other guns were brought in on special railroad cars.  The article noted “that despite its peaceful appearance to the thousands of motorists who drive through it on the shore drive each day, [Fort Story] is one of the most powerful fortifications on the East Coast.”  Most of the guns are gone now, but there is still an armed guard at the gate with heightened awareness of protecting the Cape Henry Lighthouse and naval site that also serves as an amphibious training area, especially since 9/11.  


One of the classic lighthouse-fort combinations is Fortress Monroe and Old Point Comfort Lighthouse at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Surrounded by a moat, the six-sided stone fort is the only one of its kind remaining in the United States that is still an active Army post, although as of *September 2011, most of its duties have been transferred to Fort Eustis. Its history goes back to 1609 when the first fortifications were established at Old Point Comfort by colonists from the Virginia Company at Jamestown. On their initial exploration, they recognized the strategic importance of the site at Old Point Comfort for purposes of coastal defense. They initially built Fort Algernourne at the location of the present Fort Monroe. On the ruins of a subsequent fort built on the site, the one-man garrison displayed a light for passing ships. The current 54-foot-tall stone lighthouse just outside the fort and moat was completed in 1802. During the Civil War, Fort Monroe on Point Comfort was the only Union stronghold in tidewater Virginia never taken by Confederate forces. The keeper might have seen the Virginia sail past to battle with the Monitor. After the Civil War, Jefferson Davis was imprisoned in the fort not far from the lighthouse. But there is something else here. General Benjamin Butler on May 27, 1861, made his famous “contraband” order at Fort Monroe: escaped slaves who reached Union lines would not be returned to bondage. The order resulted in waves of slaves from the James River plantations fleeing to the Union lines around the fort and lighthouse and earned the fort its other name, “Freedom Fortress,” as any slave reaching it would be free.  And, of course, the lighthouse was called “Freedom’s Light.”  It still shines each night across the waters of Hampton Roads in war and in peace.


There are a number of other lighthouse sites across America that served as locations of American defenses. To name just a few on the West Coast:  Admiralty Head and Point Wilson in Washington, Point Bonita and Fort Point near San Francisco, and Point Loma in San Diego. And, there are many more––go explore!


*Today in 2016, Fort Monroe, a National Historic Landmark, has been turned over to the state of Virginia and is run largely by the Virginia State Department of Historic Resources with cooperation with the National Park Service. There are plans for a multipurpose use of the complex, which is slowly developing.


© 2016 OBLHS Cheryl Shelton-Roberts