Built in 1856, the Cockspur Island Lighthouse stands in the South channel of the Savannah River as a silent, yet resilient, witness to our nation's turbulent history. The lighthouse sits on an islet merely made up of oyster shells with sporadic clumps of Marsh grass. It is the 2nd lighthouse built in its location. The first succumbed to the rage of a hurricane in 1854. The shape of the Cockspur Island Lighthouse is somewhat unusual in that it is shaped like the prow of a ship in order to better withstand wind and wave action. It is constructed of brick, specifically Savannah Grays. Savannah Gray Bricks were painstakingly handmade out of Savannah River mud at the Hermitage plantation in Savannah by enslaved people- men, women, and children. Projects like the construction of this lighthouse supported the institution of slavery in America.
The very institution that enabled the construction of the lighthouse caused our own country to split and go to war with itself in 1861 as the American Civil War began. The lighthouse would become a beacon of hope, as it shown outside the United States fortification.
In 1861, Confederate troops took occupation of Fort Pulaski and extinguished the Cockspur Island light in order to make it difficult for Union forces to blockade the Savannah River. Despite these efforts, the Union successfully blockaded the Savannah River, cutting the city off from much needed supplies.
Towards the end of 1861, Union troops moved in to occupy Tybee Island, just over a mile from the Confederate- held fort with the lighthouse standing boldly in the middle of opposing forces - northern Americans on one side and southern Americans on the other.
In April of 1862, battle between these foes erupted. Over the course of 30 hours, thousands of artillery projectiles exploded across the very islet where the Cockspur Island Lighthouse stood as witness to the turbulence of what America had become. She emerged once again unscathed, as that beacon of hope as the Union regained control of Fort Pulaski, advancing our nation to the end of slavery.
Once the Union had control of the fort, Cockspur Island became a haven for enslaved people. On April 13, 1862, General David Hunter issued General Orders No. 7 freeing those enslaved at the fort and on Cockspur Island. He soon expanded this order, issuing General Order No. 11, emancipating slaves in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. Any enslaved people in this area that made their way to Cockspur Island were deemed to be free men, women, and children. A local enslaved person, March Haynes, navigated the intricate waterways of Savannah at night with not even a Lantern to aid the course, for fear of becoming detected. He navigated his way around the silence of the lighthouse to safely land himself and a boat filled with smuggled enslaved people to their newfound freedom on cockspur island.
Acting out of his chain of command, General Hunter’s proclamation was quickly rescinded. However, it greatly influenced and foreshadowed President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
The lighthouse was relit in April of 1866 and painted white to function as a daymark. Its light was officially snuffed on June 1st 1909. By presidential proclamation, the lighthouse was transferred from the Coast Guard to the National Park Service in 1958 and remains in the hands of the National Park Service today.
This little beacon has also witnessed firsthand the fury of Mother Nature. Although it has withstood many hurricanes, tropical storms, extreme tides, sea level rise, and all the harsh elements coastal life has to offer, the lighthouse has undergone constant preservation efforts to keep her here. Fighting the elements is a continuous battle for the National Park Service. Efforts have been made to build the islet up where she sits. The lighthouse is subjected to two tides each day which submerses the base in the saltwater. The saltwater elements have taken their toll on the brittle Savannah Gray Bricks and the soft Lyme- based mortar. Also, the iron works around the beacon were replaced in 2007. The old iron cap is currently on display in the park and preserved by the parks talented team of preservationists.
Just like our nation, the cockspur island lighthouse has been through the toils of history and the batter of Mother Nature, and requires intentional efforts to keep her standing so she may continue to serve as a silent witness and beacon of hope to further significant events. I wonder what her story will be in another 160 years.