Sherman and the cache of contraband in the Capitol

Documents signed by Thomas Jefferson, among other notables, were used to pack lighthouse lenses being shipped to Washington, D.C., after the Civil War.
Documents signed by Thomas Jefferson, among other notables, were used to pack lighthouse lenses being shipped to Washington, D.C., after the Civil War. Courtesy of Kevin Duffus

The 13th of April, 1865, began as a gloomy, rainy spring day in Raleigh as more than 80,000 soldiers of Gen. Sherman’s army surged up the southern approaches to the capital. The muddy streets were deserted. Businesses were closed and houses shuttered, the city seemingly abandoned. Many residents wondered whether the heavy rain would dampen the inclination of Sherman’s men to burn down their city, while others – like former Gov. Charles Manly – worried that their recently buried chests of valuables would be found by pilfering troops.

Hidden in plain sight in the Capitol was a greater treasure awaiting Sherman’s army, a treasure Union forces had been seeking since the earliest months of the war.

As the Union army advanced up Fayetteville Street, orders were issued to establish a signal post on the roof of the Capitol and to restore the U.S. flag over the dome. Two young officers, Lt. George Round and Capt. John Thomas, cautiously entered the unlocked doors of the abandoned building. “We found the Senate chamber and Representatives’ hall, but no Senators or Representatives. Even the Governor and janitor had stepped out,” Round later recalled. “I could not be certain but the Capitol was a ‘Grecian horse,’ which at any moment might swarm armed men from its halls and corridors to sweep us from the face of the earth.”

Instead, what they passed on the second floor gallery of the rotunda was as out of place as it was historic – described later by a correspondent of the Philadelphia Inquirer as “a vast pile” of North Carolina’s lighthouse lenses. There, on the floor between the House and Senate chambers were boxes, crates, panels of crown-glass prisms wrapped in blankets, lamps, oil canisters, tools, clocks and numerous bronze castings, all formerly the property of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. Surrounding this impressive cache of coastal contraband on the floors of the two adjacent chambers lay a sea of discarded papers, documents and maps.

Had the Union officers closely examined the papers littering the floor, they might have recognized on the old letters and documents the signatures of Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox and other notables. (Also among the scattered papers was North Carolina’s copy of the Bill of Rights, which would be stolen and taken to Ohio.) Round and Thomas might not have immediately comprehended what they had discovered, but they were among the first to convey the news that would travel up the chain of command, all the way to the president’s administration in Washington: North Carolina’s long-sought lighthouse lenses had been found!

Four years earlier and a month before the state seceded from the Union, Gov. John Ellis ordered North Carolina’s lighthouses to be extinguished so that the state would not aid the warships of the Union Navy. On April 27, 1861, Ellis informed Confederate President Jefferson Davis that “all lights have been extinguished on the coast.”

When it became apparent that simply extinguishing the lights would be insufficient as coastal defenses were weak, the entire lighting apparatus of each lighthouse was removed. Some Fresnel lenses eventually were shipped to Raleigh, like Cape Lookout’s large first-order lens and Bodie Island Lighthouse’s smaller third-order optic. All of the numerous Cape Fear River lights, including the lens from the Bald Head Lighthouse, were stored in the Customs House at Wilmington.

Of the more than two dozen French Fresnel lenses in North Carolina, one was the most historic and the most coveted throughout the war – the 6,000-pound first-order lens from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the crown jewel of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. That lens had been one of the featured exhibits at the Exhibition of Industry of All Nations at New York City’s Crystal Palace in 1853 and had been first assembled by an engineer named G.G. Meade – the same Meade who, as a Union general 10 years later, defeated Robert E. Lee’s army at Gettysburg.

The Cape Hatteras lens was first hidden for nine months at Washington, N.C., before it was relocated to Tarboro by steamboat. Federal authorities threatened to burn down Washington if the lens were not returned. From Tarboro the lens vanished into the mists of history, its whereabouts called the “greatest unsolved mystery of American lighthouse history,” until I solved the mystery and located the lens in 2002.

At the Capitol in 1865, Montgomery Meigs, U.S. Quartermaster General, arrived from Washington, D.C., to supervise the safe return of the lenses found in Raleigh. Meigs was startled by what he encountered. “I learn that some broken prisms or portion of lenses have been seen in possession of boys in the streets, but the greater part of the lens apparatus will, I think, reach Washington in good order,” Meigs wrote to the U.S. Lighthouse Board.

What Meigs saw next was even more appalling: “I notice that the workmen in packing the glass used the papers which in the first occupation of this city, or in the evacuation by the Rebels, had been strewn about the floors of the Capitol. Among those remaining on the floor I saw revolutionary documents bearing the signatures of Thos. Jefferson and Charles Thompson, and [Henry] Knox. It will be well to have these papers examined by some intelligent person, that all that are of any interest may be preserved. I saw one of 1756 – many of ’76 to ’69.” The treasured archives of North Carolina had been used as wrapping paper for lighthouse lenses and were shipped to Washington, D.C.

For 40 years, North Carolina’s pre-Civil War archives remained lost until someone discovered the papers in a U.S. State Department office, but no one could recall when, why or how the papers got there. North Carolina Sen. F.M. Simmons wanted his state’s papers returned, but it was no trivial matter. Rebellious states were prohibited from possessing Confederate archives. Ultimately, the return required a joint resolution (S.R. 26) of the 59th Congress.

A debate was waged on the Senate floor over two days. Some senators of Northern states resisted the transfer.

Wisconsin’s Sen. Coit Spooner asked: “I should like to ask the Senator [F.M. Simmons] how did these papers get into the State Department?”

Simmons: “I am not able to speak positively about that.”

“Are these papers a part of the Confederate archives?”

“These are State papers,” answered Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts.

“Are they ancient papers?” asked Spooner.

Simmons responded: “Some of the papers are letters from Delegates to the Continental Congress.”

“That may fairly be considered ancient,” said the sufficiently satisfied senator from Wisconsin.

In March 1906, nearly 1,500 documents that had been used to pack the recovered lenses of North Carolina’s lighthouses were returned to the state’s archives. Until my research shed light on this little known Civil War story, state archivists were unsure why Acts of Congress signed by Thomas Jefferson were in such poor condition.

Today, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse lens can be seen at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum at Hatteras. The first-order Cape Lookout Fresnel lens, which was returned to its lighthouse in 1867, is now at the top of the Southeast Block Island Lighthouse in Rhode Island, but it is hoped that one day the U.S. Coast Guard will see the light and rightfully return the historic lens to its Carteret County home.

Kevin P. Duffus is the author of “The Lost Light– A Civil War Mystery.” He was recently named North Carolina Historian of the Year by the NC Society of Historians.