On Detached Duty: Attempting to Repair the Cape Florida Lighthouse, Key Biscayne, Florida (April 1862)

Cape Florida Lighthouse, Key Biscayne, Florida, circa 1996 (courtesy of the Florida Memory Project, public domain).

Erected roughly a year after the U.S. Government purchased the Florida barrier island where the present-day community of Key Biscayne is located, the Cape Florida Lighthouse was built in 1822 by an act of the U.S. Congress, which wanted to ensure that “shipping in the hazardous straits of Florida” would be protected, according to the Florida Association of Museums:

The first lighting occurred on December 17, 1825. In July 1836, an Indian attack in the early months of the Second Seminole War resulted in heavy damage to the tower. Rebuilt in 1846, the tower was heightened to 95 feet in 1855…. With the advent of the Civil War, Confederate sympathizers overwhelmed the lighthouse keeper in August 1861, damaged the central prism, and removed the reflector, rendering the lamp too dim for visibility by ships.

Just under a year later, a detachment of soldiers from the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry was ordered to leave its garrison at Fort Taylor in Key West and head for the island where the Cape Florida Lighthouse was located. According to the Florida Association of Museums:

In April 1862, a group of carpenters accompanied by troops of the 47th Pennsylvania Infantry were sent to repair the lighthouse by Union authorities. [But] they found the damage to be too extensive to repair, and the lighthouse remained darkened for the duration of the war. Lighthouse service was restored on April 15, 1866. Service was discontinued in 1878.

Although those 47th Pennsylvanians were ultimately unsuccessful, the lighthouse is still considered to be an important piece of the regiment’s history because it served as a key point of reference for the officers and enlisted members of the 47th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry as they traveled back and forth between South Carolina and Florida for various military expeditions during 1862 and 1863—and from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., as the regiment returned from duty in the Union’s Red River Campaign across Louisiana to the Eastern Theater of war for participation in Major-General Philip H. Sheridan’s 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign in Virginia. An 1863 diary entry penned by Private Henry J. Hornbeck, provides an example of one such reference:

Thursday February 26th, at sea…. Running very near coast all day. Today being Wm. Ginkinger’s birthday, I took dinner with him at the table. Had a splendid dinner consisting of roast duck & the &c. Lighthouse in sight at 3 p.m. Passed Cape Florida Lighthouse at 4 p.m. At 9 p.m. passed Carysfort Lighthouse. Retired at 9:30. Sea rough.

 

Sources:

  1. “Cape Florida Lighthouse,” in Florida Civil War Heritage Trail,” p. 70. Tallahassee, Florida: Florida Association of Museums, retrieved online 7 August 2022.
  2. History of Island of Key Biscayne,” in “About Key Biscayne.” Key Biscayne, Florida: Village of Key Biscayne, retrieved online 7 August 2022.
  3. Schmidt, Lewis G. A Civil War History of the 47th Regiment of Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteers. Allentown, Pennsylvania: Self-published, 1986.
  4. Staubach, Lieutenant Colonel James C. “Miami During the Civil War: 1861-65,” in Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida, Vol. LIII, pp. 31-62. Miami, Florida: Historical Museum of Southern Florida, 1993.

 

 

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