Civil War: A little known story of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse

The light has shined off Cape Canaveral after 163 years, dimmed only when hidden from Union ships patrolling the seas for blockade-runners.

VIENNA, Va., August 30, 2011 ­— “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.” Benjamin Franklin

The Cape Canaveral Lighthouse at Cocoa Beach, Florida has been on my personal destination list for quite a few years. Unfortunately the historic structure has been closed to the public, until recently.

Reports that the lighthouse is now open as an adjunct attraction of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station brought gave me hope for a visit, but the fine print got in the way: Reservations must be made two weeks in advance, and are available only for one Wednesday each month. Visiting the lighthouse takes planning.

Alas, my view this year of the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse was again from afar. But it’s worth keeping on my travel bucket-list.

The cape’s recorded history dates back to the 1513 account of the explorer Ponce de Leon. The fist European to visit the area, Leon went to the cape on his quest for gold, treasure, and the fountain of youth. Early explorers called it “Canaberal” or “Canaveral,” which means “cape of the cane” or “cape of the canebrakes,” thanks to the sugar cane growing there.

There was no lighthouse off the coast of Cape Canaveral until 1848, when a 60-foot structure was built, but it was quickly judged to be too short for normal operations and its whale oil-fueled lights too dim to be of use to ship captains.

The fact that a small nearby island is aptly named Shipwreck Island bears out the fact that the original illumination was probably insufficient. A small house, now gone, was known as “Shipwreck Survivors House,” providing refuge for those whose crafts ended up on the rocks.

But with the Civil War looming on the Florida horizon, any additional construction had to be deferred, and the lighthouse tried to do its best with what it had. Still, the old tower had a commanding presence and played a small part in the Civil War when Florida was occasionally under siege.

Blockading the Florida Coast

Starting in 1862, Cape Canaveral was the dividing line between the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and the East Gulf Blockading Squadron (headquartered out of Key West). With the blockade in place, the Confederacy had little way of obtaining the supplies it desperately needed.

When the Civil War began, the Union had only 42 ships, three of them steam driven; however, this would increase to over 600 by the end of the War. It behooved the Northern forces to blockade Southern imports and exports, which forced the Confederate forces to try and “run the blockade,” as it was termed. But the smaller Southern forces were nowhere the equals of the Yankee forces, and the Southern troops had to find a way around this inadequacy.

Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory came up with a solution. Rather than fight the larger navy of Northern vessels themselves, he used his forces to stop the Union vessels of commerce, usually privately owned ships carrying goods. While this was technically an act of piracy, the adaptive semantics of all wartime governments was utilized: if the government hired “pirates,” it was called “privateering,” thus skirting the piracy laws.

This was not without precedent. As far back as the American Revolution, over 1,000 “privateers” actively fought British shipping, and in the War of 1812, the U. S. brig Yankee alone either destroyed or seized some $5,000,000 in British property. So the Civil War forces had plenty of historic precedent behind them.

The Anaconda Plan in Action

History buffs familiar with this area will recall the Union’s “Anaconda Plan,” named for the South American snake which crushes its prey. This describes the Yankee strategy to win the Civil War.

General Scott’s Great Snake Map

Devised by Union General Winfield Scott, the plan involved cutting off some parts of the Confederacy from the rest. The curvy, meandering line in diagrams and drawings was reminiscent of a long, curving snake’s body, thus its name.

Only two little things were required: recapturing the Mississippi River and its shipping lanes, effectively cutting the Eastern Confederacy off from its Western counterparts, and blockading the ports from bringing in materiel to the struggling Confederacy from its European sympathizers. A blockade was easy to visualize but difficult to maintain because of a shortage of ships and the crews to man them.

And then came November 17, 1861 when a Union gunboat, the USS Connecticut, under the command of Commander Maxwell Woodhull, was able to seize a heavily loaded British schooner, the Adeline, trying to sneak quietly through a blockade just off the coast of Florida. The Adeline was loaded with military stores and supplies for the Confederacy. Woodhull completed the capture of the ship just off a small promontory near the Cape Canaveral lighthouse.

The Union forces released the British crew of the Adeline conditionally, after the men promised not to engage in further blockade-running, even though such promises were a violation of international law. Neutrals could not be arrested and forced to make such promises as a condition of their release.

The Confederate Lighthouse Keeper

After William Carpenter and John Scobie served brief stints as lighthouse keepers, the first permanent keeper, Captain (an honorific given to all lighthouse keepers) Mills Olcott Burnham, arrived at Cape Canaveral in 1853 with his wife, Mary McCuen; he kept watch over the lighthouse until his death in 1886. (Later several of his sons-in-law and even a daughter, Anna Augusta, took over the duties until the lighthouse was taken over by the U. S. Coast Guard in 1954.)

Burnham, a loyal Florida Confederate sympathizer, whose son, Mills, Jr. and son-in-law, Henry Wilson, both served with Confederate Florida Infantry Regiments, was under strict orders to take care of the structure as war appeared more imminent. He received his instructions from Secretary of the Confederate Navy, Stephen Mallory, to insure the safety of the mechanisms by dismantling the lights, reflectors, and gear mechanism and concealing them. 

He took apart the 15 large lamps with their 23” reflectors, packed them in wooden crates, and buried them in his orange grove near the banks of the Banana River. The brick lighthouse structure remained where it stood, but the Union troops were unable to use it.

The Crates Are Disinterred

When war danger had passed, Burnham dug up the crates and turned them over to the U.S. government. Burnham was anxious to restore the entire old monolith to what it was, but the government thought an entirely new structure should replace it.

From Tom Hoffmann, the great-great-great grandson of Burnham, I learned that an oft-told story of Burnham having a piano and hosting a “Lighthouse Ball” is probably apocryphal. It made for an interesting tale, especially in an area which was fairly well isolated from any community, requiring travel by both buggy and boat to reach it.

However, as Hoffmann said, “ I like the thought of it, though; music has always been my passion [so] maybe it’s inherited!”

Hoffmann is justifiably proud of his ancestor, reflecting that “He was quite revered as a community leader during his time and is identified as one of the original Florida ‘pioneers,’ having settled there in the 1840s and experienced the various Seminole Indian uprisings.”

The new lighthouse was completed in 1868, constructed of wood instead of the original brick. The wood was later reinforced with a combination of steel plating, brick and concrete to help the structure better weather the elements.

Photo: NASA

The structure now rose to 145 feet with 179 steps to the top. The original old-style lenses were replaced with a First Order Fresnel Lens, visible from 18-22 miles away.

Space Launches Pose A Danger

With the arrival of the space program in the 1950s to the Cape Canaveral area, the tower had a new “adversary.” The tremendous thrust and power of the space launches shook the lighthouse with the potential to inflict damage on the Fresnel lenses, and there were fears of structural damage as well. Those living in the vicinity were moved to other areas, except for the current keeper, but with the coming of automation, he was able to leave.

The lighthouse was formally turned over from the Coast Guard to the Canaveral Air Force Station and today remains under their care. It now contains one DCB-224 rotating searchlight, with a focal plane of 155 feet.

Like many of its brother sentinels, it has saved many a ship from crashing on the reefs and rocks. It is the only lighthouse in the country that is owned by the U. S. Air Force, and thanks to automation, the light still shines, and the story continues.

As evangelist D.L. Moody once said, “Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining, they just shine!” Just like the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse has for 163 years.

My thanks to artist Roger Bansemer of Florida for allowing me to use his beautiful print of “the lighthouse through the flowers” — it is a really unique print and I appreciate his graciousness.

Follow the blog on Face Book and LinkedIn at Martha Boltz; my email is Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.





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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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