How We Blew Out the Light

A legendary version in which daring men and a pretty woman spy
combined forces to thwart the Yankee designs on Cape Lookout.
By Sally G. Moore 
(As found in Carteret County During The Civil War - Edited by Jean Bruyere Kell)  

        In legends a few generations old, usually there is more truth than fiction.
      Much of The War Between the States history of the Central N.C. Coast was never recorded, because there were few troops involved and few major battles; but there were many volunteers who fought here and elsewhere. And there was a spy network all along the coast about which little has been heard, because their story could not be told. These people operated at great personal risk; danger of death or imprisonment, confiscation of property and incendiarism.
      It was under such circumstances in 1864 that Confederate soldiers—assisted by local secret agents—undertook to destroy the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, to prevent its being used and taken over by the Federals.
Keepers of the Light
      If Outer Bank people—relatively isolated from the Yankees—viewed the matter differently from the mainlanders, it must be remembered that they were keepers of the light, had helped to build it, were on intimate terms with its lifesaving role, and regarded it with a special pride and affection. As their side of the story has been sometimes expressed:
      "Fort Macon and Beaufort, the county seat, had been captured for two years, and whenever our older folks went into Beaufort them Yankees would brag and strut all around. Bankers never did brag much; thee always figured that a crowing hen was fit for nothing but the pot. And the Yankees would come to the banks at times, but we didn’t have anything thee wanted, so most of the time we were left alone.
      "Gaer Chadwick was Lighthouse Keeper, John Rile (Royal), First Assistant Lighthouse Keeper and Abner Guthrie, Second Assistant, and each would take turns minding The Light. The banks people had witnessed the sorrows of shipwrecks, so thee knew what a comfort it was to have The Light burning. It gave you a warm feeling, especially if you were out in a boat, late getting in. There had been a lot of rumor about The Light being destroyed and we sure did hate for anything to happen to it.
      "Gaer Chadwick was a mainlander and a lot of his kinfolks owned slaves, so he had to be very careful what he said. Most of all his folks were right in the middle of the War and even his cousin Mary Frances Chadwick was a Confederate spy, so he knew more about what was going on than we did."

Secret Service
      To quote Mary Frances Chadwick, she was at this time "a lady of twenty-two summers, in the purity of mature womanhood, fired with a patriotic zeal, love of liberty and belief in the inalienable right of self government." She was one of Carteret County's Confederate Secret Service Agents, volunteering her services at the beginning of the War.
      On February 1, 1864, Confederate forces launched a major assault on Federal forces at New Bern, thus beginning an effort to open up the coastal area to shipping, in order to obtain urgently needed supplies for the Confederacy. At the same time, a Confederate detachment of troops was sent from Wilmington up the coast to threaten, and if possible, to capture Federal positions in Carteret County. This move was made to draw attention away from New Bern. On Feb. 2nd the Wilmington troops captured enemy outposts at Gales Creek and along Bogue Sound, then turning inland, they marched on to Newport where the Federals had a permanent camp. At Newport, they routed the enemy and captured great quantities of stores.
      The assault on New Bern failed and the Wilmington troops received orders to withdraw and return. Just before departing from Wilmington, to torment the Federals further, they destroyed the railroad bridge over Newport River. Federal forces at Fort Macon, Carolina City and in Morehead City were very apprehensive, and Beaufort was in an uproar. All through February and March nerves were on edge, not knowing just what to expect, and conditions were very bad for spy work.

Semmes was Expected  
      The Federals, fearing that the Confederates would try to destroy Cape Lookout Lighthouse, had two large boats on guard in the Hook of the Cape. Their greatest fear was that Captain Semmes (Raphael Semmes, commander of the famous raider C.S.S. Alabama) would sail in, and they had been expecting him since the first of February when the assault on New Bern started. This tied up two boats which were needed elsewhere, so it was finally decided to take over the lighthouse and station Federal troops there.
      Having learned of the Federals' plans to take over the lighthouse, Mary Frances traveled by horseback to New Bern, her contact point. She sent word to Col. J.N. Whitford, 67th North Carolina Infantry and waited for orders back from him. Receiving her instructions and important letters, which were placed in special pockets sewed to the inside of her skirts, she started her return to the coast.

A Narrow Escape
      From New Bern, the route followed was to Havelock, then down through Harlowe to either Beaufort or to North River, where reliable Confederates could be contacted. Right outside Harlowe she had to cross the Yankee line. The Federals knew that messages were getting through somehow, and everyone was a suspect; so Mary Frances was stopped, and the guard started marching he to headquarters for questioning and possible searching.
      She said afterwards that the young soldier who usually guarded the line when she would go through was sweet on her, but this time he was not on duty. If they had searched her they would have found these important letters and instructions. But the young Yankee had seen them stop her and he came forward and stated that she had come to see him. Being a lady of wit and charm, and with the support of this northern sweetheart, Mary Frances convinced the guard of her innocence. She visited with the young soldier for a while, acting merry and gay, then as soon as possible traveled on.
      She always believed he knew what she was doing, but would not report her.
      Mary Frances was to contact Josiah Bell, he also being an agent in the Secret Service of the Confederacy, but she feared she was being followed and suspected the Federals would watch her for a while to make certain she was just a young girl flirting with a Yankee soldier. She went into Beaufort and visited relative for a few days instead of going to Josiah Bell's home on the north side of North River, this being the contact point for agents in eastern Carteret County.

The Confederate Plot
      Arriving in Beaufort, Mary Frances sent word to Mr. Bell to get in touch with her as soon as possible, but to use all caution. This he did. She had detailed orders for him. Col. Whitford was sending out a secret detachment to destroy the two lighthouses at Cape Lookout (the new—present—structure had been lighted just five years prior to this time). When they arrived in the vicinity of South River, it was Mr. Bell's duty, with help of Mary Frances, to arrange contact points and safe passage overland to The Straits, this being a good jumping-off point from the mainland to Cape Lookout.
      They were to have reliable Confederate guides with boats ready and waiting to transport these troops to the Cape; also the escape route back out of the danger zone had been planned and executed. Extreme caution was to be used, as there were those along the route who would report to the Federals any unusual activity. The guides had to be well acquainted with the waters and the boats must be small and shallow-draft, due to the many shoals between the mainland and Cape Lookout. To go aground would have been disastrous.

Demolition Party Arrives 
      Mary Frances slipped back through enemy lines to New Bern, and sent word to Col. Whitford when all arrangements had been completed, waiting there for his reply, which was to set the date for this detachment of troops to arrive in the vicinity of South River. Arriving back in Carteret County with her mission complete, she gratefully remained at her family home, the old plantation known as Crow Hill on the east side of North River, and was there to greet this detachment of soldiers when they arrived with Mr. Bell on Saturday night, April 2, 1864. She was then sent into Beaufort Sunday morning, to observe and report back Federal activities. At Crow Hill, these soldiers received much needed rest and nourishment, and Sunday night they were transported to Cape Lookout, where the destruction of the lighthouse was to be attempted.
      The writer's grandfather used to tell this story of how the deed was done:
      "It was so isolated out on the Cape, and those two Federal boats getting on everybody's nerves, that John Rile moved his family to their old home on Shackelford Banks and he and son Joseph stayed at the Cape with Abner Guthrie and his family. The night the Confederates came to blow up the lighthouse, Gaer Chadwick was on the mainland, John Rile was minding The Light, and Abner Guthrie was at the house. Thee came in real quiet like and told everyone not to make any noise, then made all go out on the beach while they worked. Finally, there was two big explosions that shook the ground and the fire from the oil burning lit up everything. The dynamiters disappeared fast and everyone rushed in to see what had happened.
      "The old lighthouse was almost destroyed, but in the new building the dynamite blast went up the hollow iron shaft in the middle of the tower, destroying the light and part of the steps; cracked the brick tower from top to bottom, but the tower was left standing.

The Escape 
      "It was a sorrowful sight. The soldiers left before them Yankees could get ashore from their boats and they all went to Shackelford Banks to Mrs. Caledonia Riles, and had breakfast. Everybody started coming in to see what had happened, and it was a very exciting day."
      Grandpa never could say whether any of the men were recognized that set the dynamite charge, but always called them Confederate Volunteers.
      The Confederate expedition slipped safely back to the mainland, to Crow Hill where they rested all day. That night they went by boat to the head of North River, then overland to the head of South River where their boats were concealed, and arrived back at their camp April 10, 1864. This affair was planned and executed without the Federals knowing anything whatsoever, or being able to capture any of the parties engaged in it.

Successful Expedition
      In the State Archive are two letters reporting the event. L.C. Harland, in charge of this expedition, wrote Col. Whitford April 9, 1864 from Smith's Creek, N.C. the following:
      "We have destroyed both light-houses at Cape Lookout (on Sunday night), so that they never can be repaired again. We heard from Beaufort before leaving. They had 200 men in search of us. Two large steamers were on the hook of the cape to guard against Captain Semmes, as they have been expecting him to do the same work for the last two months. I have several trophies for you and will proceed to camp tomorrow. The boys acted well, but cannot travel much, as their feet are badly bruised. We landed on this side of the river last night at 10 o'clock."
      Miss Mary Frances Chadwick, who later became Mrs. Elijah Hancock, was a great, great granddaughter of Carteret County's noted Samuel Chadwick, founder of the whaling industry in the county in 1725, and great granddaughter of Col. Thomas Chadwick, who served distinction during the Revolutionary War; and who was a delegate at the second session of the Continental Congress held in Philadelphia, May 10, 1775.
      Mr. Josiah Bell was a great grandson of Beaufort's celebrated Col. Joseph Bell, who served with great honor during the Revolutionary War, and grandson of Malachi Bell who was also a delegate at the second session of the Continental Congress held in Philadelphia, May 10, 1775.
      Mr. John Royal, Mrs. Caledonia Royal and Mr. Abner P. Guthrie were descendants of our mysterious Outer Banks forefathers, who landed on our coast so back in time, that all records have become lost.

      Fort Macon was captured by the Federals April 25, 1862. The destruction of the old lighthouse and the attempted destruction of the present Cape Lookout Lighthouse took place on Sunday night, April 4, 1864. Cape Lookout Lighthouse was restored and put back into service by the Federal Government in 1867.

The above article was found in Carteret County During The Civil War
Edited by Jean Bruyere Kell