8 Things You Should Know About Civil War Veterans & Lighthouses

As I worked on research for Lighthouse Loyalty, I was surprised to find Civil War veterans taking jobs at lighthouse keepers. In many ways, lightkeeping could have been a perfect job for a Union veteran, even if he had been injured during the war. It’s another unique tie between maritime history and the Civil War.

Here are eight things to consider about lighthouses and veteran lighthouse keepers after 1865 and how I was able to incorporate some of the details into the historical novel: 

  1. Government Jobs Were Desirable

In the 19th Century, local, state, or federal government jobs offered steady income and opportunity. Many were granted in a patronage system as a result of political favor, leading to job turnover as political control changed in a district.

The U.S. Government owned the American lighthouses and oversaw their administration; thus a lighthouse keeper was a government employee. However, unlike some of the other jobs, lighthouse keeping tended to be based on merit rather than political party, making it a more stable position.

A Civil War veteran wearing a Grand Army of the Republic badge. c.1869-1871

2. Union Veterans Looking For Work

The American Civil War (1861-1865) had created a job (soldiering) for many men. As the Union armies mustered out, not all those men had jobs to return to and started looking for work, land, or new opportunities. Others simply didn’t want to return to their communities for a variety of reasons. Others didn’t have “roots” in one place and looked for a steady job and a place to settle down. For others, they needed a more stable job as the decades past and they grew older.

As a way to say “thank you for your service” and “vote the way we’d like,” government jobs were offered or reserved for Union veterans. For some, it was just the opportunity they wanted.

3. Attention To Duty & Detail Was Required

However, just being a Union veteran didn’t guarantee a job as a lighthouse keeper. The uniform might have helped, but the man would have to meet the requirements for keeper or assistant keeper outlined by the U.S. Lighthouse Board.

If he received the job, the post wasn’t guaranteed by military service, political party, or patronage. He had to serve faithfully as a keeper according to the Board’s rules and the Inspector’s approval. A strong sense of duty and attention to details – similar to some of the roles in the military – was required, and for some Union veterans it was a relatively easy transition from soldier to lightkeeper.

4. Lighthouse Keeping Offer Decent Pay

In the latter half of the 19th Century, an American lighthouse keeper made about $800-$1,000 dollars per year, received some food supplies, and had a roof over his head. Compare that to $13 per month for a Union private during the war; officers made a little more.

Now, of course, lighthouse keeping wasn’t lounging around. The days filled with cleaning, polishing, repairs, improvements, record keeping, and resting for the long night watches ahead. Keepers were on alert every day, every week – without an vacation, sick days, or days off. Still, considering the era, lightkeeping offered a pretty good opportunity financially for a veteran, if he could perform the tasks faithfully.

5. Wounded Lighthouse Keepers

One surprising thing I found as I read about veteran lighthouse keepers? Quite a few of them serving in these posts had been wounded. Some had lost limbs. That wouldn’t prevent a veteran from taking a post as lightkeeper, but thinking through the logistics of climbing to the top of the tower with a prosthetic leg or accomplishing all the cleaning and polishing with a prosthetic arm, it would be challenging.

And yet, many jobs would have been challenging for these wounded warriors. Remember, it was an era before the medical technology of the 21st Century. Prosthetic limbs had improved remarkably because of the Civil War wounded, but were still basic by modern standards.

So it raised a question and made me take a closer look at the historical records…

Unidentified lady from the Civil War era

6. Who Did The Work?

I noticed that wives or daughters were particularly noted alongside these severely wounded veteran keepers. Sometimes, these women were officially assistant keepers. Other times, it’s the man’s name listed as keeper, but unofficial records suggest the lady assisted with much of the work.

There wasn’t anything wrong with this system. Women were hired by the Lighthouse Board as lighthouse keepers or assistants. To some extent, in this era, as long as the light was well kept by respectable people, the government didn’t worry too much about the details.

This observation isn’t to take credit away from the veterans themselves. Living at a lighthouse wasn’t easy. Veteran keepers weren’t the only ones whose families took a very active and often unofficial role in accomplishing duties. They would have done as much as they could and it was… (see #7)

7. A Way To Provide For A Family

Think about it. The pay. A home. A steady job. The family all together, working together. For a Union veteran – wounded, well, maimed, or unscarred – lighthouse keeping offered a way for him to provide for his family.

Even if the family did much of work because of his injuries, he had a way to take care of his loved ones, work as he could, and avoid financial dependence on other family members or friends. It offered a job where his family could come easily alongside and assist as needed. And – after his death – if his wife or daughter knew lightkeeping, there was a possibility she could continue in the position and have a way to support herself beyond his pension.

The 19th Century was an era when it was highly important in society that the man was the breadwinner. Particularly for wounded Union veterans, lighthouse keeping was a way for them to fulfill this role, taking care of their families, even with limited physical capabilities.

Sheffield Island Lighthouse (By Polaron – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8255132)

8. Good Opportunity

Wounded or unwounded, Union veterans sought positions as lighthouse keepers. The pay, housing, opportunity, lack of travel, daily occupation, semi-peaceful settings, and means of providing for a family made lightkeeping a desirable job in the 19th Century.

In Lighthouse Loyalty, I chose to incorporate some of these details into the minor fictional characters. As the Arnold Family arrives at their new lighthouse, they meet the former keeper and his wife; he had been wounded in the war and was leaving lighthouse service because he unhealed wound prevented him from carrying out his duties. This couple’s assistant keeper had also been a Union veteran, but the story added a darker tone though his character; he had been dismissed for intoxication and disorderly behavior which was attributed to his war experiences.

These details weren’t meant to cast a shadow on the lighthouse keeping of Union veterans. On the whole, records suggest they and their families were faithful to their duties and invite further exploration of the social, economic, and veterans’ history surrounding this job in post-Civil War America.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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