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Light the Way
Mobile, Alabama 1864
"Come in, Lieutenant," said Admiral Franklin Buchanan. The lieutenant stepped meekly into the admiral's elaborate office wondering the reason for which he had been summoned. He was only a lieutenant, and not a very good one; had it not been for certain family connections, he definitely would not have risen past corporal.
"You summoned me, sir?" he squeaked.
"Yes, you're the man. Gibbons, isn't it?"
"You may not know this, but your father and I were very good friends at the academy. I didn't know he had a son stationed here until I received his letter yesterday. So I naturally wanted to meet you. I can see the resemblance, you each fill out a uniform very well."
"Thank you, sir."
"You're stationed at Fort Morgan, correct?"
"Yes, sir, under General Page," answered Gibbons.
"Ah yes, a good general he is. Now I must confess that I had another reason in summoning you here than just social chit chat. Please, won't you sit down?"
Intrigued with this other reason, Gibbons uttered, "Thank you," and took the seat.
"I have, well, I suppose you could call it a mission. Now then, I have taken the liberty of removing you from General Page's authority and putting you under mine. I told him it's top secret."
Young Gibbons took the news well since he didn't like the cramped conditions at Fort Morgan; and the company was all but friendly towards him.
"I'm going to be frank with you, Gibbons, this war isn't going well for us. Did you know Mobile is one of the last major ports we have? I mean to protect it and make sure the supplies get out of here and the men are transported to where they need to go. What do I have to do this with? Three side-wheel gun boats and an iron clad ram," he answered, "The men are brave, but the provisions are few. It's my job to defend this port, with the help of Page's forts of course, from the Union. But my small flotilla won't be sufficient. I have received word that Farragut is coming with half the Union navy soon. So we need every advantage we can possibly get. One such advantage is the torpedoes we have out there. I have them situated so incoming ships would be trapped in the fire of Fort Morgan. They are marked by buoys and Confederate traffic can circumvent them. But we will need more than that. And that's why I've called you here."
"I am at your disposal, sir," said Gibbons.
"Good to hear, now if you're half the man your father is, then you are smart, sly, and forceful. And that's just the sort of man I need."
But Gibbons was nothing like his father; he despised war and believed himself to be a coward at heart. He's been pressured all his life to be like his father but he never made it. Perhaps this special assignment would be his chance to prove himself.
Buchanan continued, "Perhaps you've seen the lighthouse stationed on a sand island out in the bay? It's right near the mouth."
"Yes, sir I have seen it before. It's light comforts the men."
"That's good, our men need all the comfort possible. I'm afraid morale isn't the best right now."
Gibbons nodded in agreement.
"Now this lighthouse is in an ideal location, it overlooks the entire bay. Why someone could see a whole battle from up there and know exactly what's going on. Where the enemy is coming from, if they are retreating, where they are attacking. This information would be imperative to our success in battle. Especially if they attack at night, how would Page know where to fire his cannons? If Fort Morgan had that vantage point with the light, then they would never miss. And the more they hit, the easier it is for my ships to win."
"What is stopping us from using the lighthouse?"
"Unfortunately, that sand island is private property. Bought with honest money and documented well. It is owned by Eli Crawford, the keeper. He's been living on that spit of land and managing that lighthouse for a decade."
"Won't he allow us to use his lighthouse?" asked Gibbons.
"I have reason to believe, though he won't admit it, that he doesn't believe in the Confederacy. He sides with the Union. You see, he used to be a fisherman up in Maine. He followed his bride to be down here to Mobile. He still has a certain affection for the place he grew up though; and being isolated out on that island, no one has a chance to reprimand him for his choice."
"So we force the land from him."
"That, my dear lieutenant, is a last resort. It wouldn't look good at all and it would count against us if the Union is victorious."
"Then we buy it," suggested Gibbons.
"Do you think the Confederacy is willing to set aside much needed money for a vantage point in a naval battle? Besides, he wouldn't sell. No, this must be handled with sensitive hands. Go to him, Gibbons, and tell him our desperate situation. Then ask nicely if we may use his lighthouse should a battle arise. If and only if he says no, threaten him with force. If he persists, then leave and report to me. I will see to it that we get that lighthouse."
"Understood, sir, but even if we could use it, how would we get the information to Fort Morgan?"
"Carrier pigeons, lieutenant, my very own. Whenever released, they fly directly to Fort Morgan. I shall see to it that a small sloop is arranged to transport you to the island."
"Thank you, sir," said Gibbons rising and saluting.
"And, Gibbons, remember to be cautious in what you say yet forceful like your father. It is very important we get that lighthouse."
"Yes, sir," replied Gibbons leaving.
The lighthouse stood tall indeed, peaking at one hundred feet. It was made with white brick and had red and blue stripes circling it all around in a twist. A winding staircase brought Eli to the top every night when he lit the bright lamp fueled by kerosene. There was a circular Fresnel lens around the lamp to magnify the light. Sections of the lens were painted black and it rotated by a motor. This allowed the light to be broken into parts as it flashed. And beside the lighthouse on that small sand isle was the house Eli built himself ten years ago.
He used to be married, but his wife died suddenly of pneumonia. He had a son, Peter, who decided to go and fight for the Confederacy. He didn't share the views of his father. Peter felt an obligation and duty to Alabama and the Confederacy. Eli couldn't stop his son, he could only respect his decision and wish him well. A few years after he left, one of Peter's friends brought his corpse back home. It was at New Orleans he died in April of 1862. Peter had apparently asked his friend for this favor. And his friend took it upon himself to fulfill this request, "It isn't fitting, sir," the friend remarked to Eli, "for any man to be left on a battlefield to rot." And so Eli buried Peter next to his wife on that sand island. Every time Eli sounded the fog horn, it reminded him of Peter because he loved to blast the horn as a little boy. The sound, he remarked once, was soothing. And that left Eli with Wendy, his eight year old daughter.
The date was August the third, the late afternoon. Wendy was playing with her dolls in the main room where Eli was reading the Bible.
"Daddy?" she asked.
"Tell me about mommy."
Eli smiled at his daughter and removed his reading glasses, "Well she had blonde hair like you and she was very beautiful like you. She sewed pretty dresses and quilts. And you have her brown eyes."
Little Wendy seemed satisfied, "Tell me about Peter," she now requested.
"You remember your brother, Wendy."
"I was only five when he left. I don't remember him too well."
"Well, he was strong and brave and dutiful. He found something he was willing to die for and he did. I can only respect him."
"But what was he like?"
"Well, he enjoyed reading. I read him the Bible like I do with you every night. And he played the guitar."
"Why did he fight for the Confederacy? Didn't you discourage him?"
"Oh, he had his mind made up. He went to fight for something he believed in and if I stopped him, he might be alive, but I would be a hypocrite. I always tell you to fight for what you believe in and not to bend, don't I?"
"Yes, daddy. Can I go light the lighthouse? The sun will be down in a half hour."
Mr. Crawford smiled and gave his permission. He knew his daughter could light the beacon safely; she had become an expert at it and she enjoyed spending time up there. Wendy might even take it over when Eli bought the farm. She ran off to light the lamp in the lighthouse.
Not long after Wendy scampered off and Eli continued reading from Revelation, did he hear a knock at his door. It was more of a soft tap actually, but audible. Not accustomed to visitors, Eli walked over and opened the door. There stood an undersized lieutenant with a thin mustache and a feigned facial expression. At the petite dock Eli built was a sloop rocking in the waves next to his own fishing vessel.
"Good afternoon, sir, might I have a word with you?" he asked amicably.
"Please come in," answered Eli, his arm extended.
"Thank you," the lieutenant stepped in, "I'm Gibbons, Charles Gibbons, I'm stationed at Fort Morgan and was asked to come here and request a favor of you."
"Have a seat, lieutenant, can I get you a drink?" asked Eli.
"Oh no, thank you." Gibbons sat down.
"So the Confederate army needs a favor from me? Perhaps my son wasn't enough. Would you like for me to go and die for a treasonous cause as well?"
"I'm sorry to hear about your son, sir, but we need something else."
"Out with it then," said Eli.
"Right, well, sir, as you may know things aren't going well for the Confederacy. And it is vital that this, being our principle port in the Gulf of Mexico, is held. We have reason to believe Farragut is coming soon so we must prepare for battle."
"I'd say you are well prepared. About fifteen hundred men in Forts Morgan, Gaines, and Powell together. Some ships, I believe and those dishonorable torpedoes out there."
"Still, sir, we need every advantage possible and that is why we require use of your lighthouse as a vantage for the battle. So the Admiral can see what's going on and send information to Fort Morgan via carrier pigeon. It would be like a hilltop advantage in a land skirmish. May we, sir, employ your lighthouse should a battle arise?"
"I want this war to be over with as soon as possible, lieutenant. I would be working against myself if I help the losers. My answer, and you can go tell your admiral, is no."
"Please, sir, we are prepared to use force to procure this lighthouse."
"That would be fitting of the Confederacy, to appropriate by force. I have nothing more to say to you."
Gibbons stood and said in as menacing a voice he could manage, "You've been warned, sir."
"Before you leave, lieutenant, I insist you take a Bible. I have extras and give them out as often as possible."
Gibbons looked back at Eli, surprised, "and what use would I have for that?"
"You are a soldier, perhaps you lack courage sometimes or just need some comfort. Maybe your men need solace in their times of doubt when death is all around them. Take it, lieutenant Gibbons, read it for you and your men, and live it."
Gibbons eyed the Good Book strangely, "you wouldn't call this helping the losers?"
"I call it helping the sinners, whatever side they're on, they are still men."
Gibbons walked to him slowly and took the Bible.
"I think my son had trouble finding strength ever since he was a boy. So I started reading him this as a child. He proved to me he had strength when he left for war; and he proved it again when he died. Too many people are afraid to die. But if you have nothing you're willing to die for, then you have nothing worth living for either. I gave him a Bible before he left, and when he was brought back, I found the Bible in his pocket. The page marker was in Deuteronomy chapter 36. And one of those verses was underlined, 'Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.' My son must have been impacted by that one. Well he found the courage to die anyways."
After a few moments of silence Gibbons said, "Well thank you for the Bible. I'll be leaving now."
When Gibbons stepped outside, he looked at the lighthouse. It was darker now and the light could be seen clearly emitting from the lantern room.
"Yes?" asked Eli stepping outside also.
"That wasn't lit when I came in and you were with me the whole time."
An amusing idea struck Eli, "Oh don't you know? I thought it was common knowledge. That lighthouse is haunted."
"Haunted?! You mean with ghosts?"
"That's right, sometimes I have to light it but others times, it lights itself for me. I reckon the ghosts are friendly enough though, they haven't spooked me once. But on days it lights itself, I just stay clear of it. It puts itself out too."
Gibbons dashed to his small sloop and set off as quickly as his arms could row.
"Don't be a stranger now, ya hear?" hollered Eli smiling.
Eli walked back inside with a wide grin on his face, "I'd like to see him take my lighthouse now."
Wendy soon walked in from the lighthouse. "Did you see it, daddy? Didn't I do a good job."
"Just splendid, Wendy!" Eli picked up his little girl and she giggled, "Better than you'll ever know."
The following morning Gibbons reported to Admiral Buchanan. He didn't get much sleep the night before because ghosts captivated his thoughts and dreams. He was drained of energy.
"Enter, lieutenant Gibbons," ordered the admiral.
Stepping timidly into the office Gibbons said, "Good morning, sir. I have a report for you."
"Excellent, have a seat and let's hear it."
"Well, sir, you were right about Crawford. He sides with the Union. And after I asked him nicely, he abruptly said no. But I wasn't deterred, sir, I kept on him and threatened him with force. But he was as stubborn as a mule. So I left him warned."
"Well, I suppose I knew it would come to this. But good work anyhow, Gibbons. I'll get some armed men over there today to ensure the lighthouse is ours."
"Sir, he did something most peculiar, he offered me a Bible and told me to read it. He said its words would comfort me and the men in the hour of battle."
"Did you accept it?"
"Then I suggest you read it aloud at Fort Morgan. Its words can't hurt; I would think that the favor of God is decisive in every battle. If there's nothing else, Gibbons, you may report back to Fort Morgan."
"Well, sir, there is just one other peculiarity. When I arrived, the lighthouse wasn't lit. But when I came out of the house, it was. Crawford never left my sight. He claims there are ghosts who light it at their will."
The admiral looked puzzled. "There must be a logical cause for the light. I shall look into it personally when I arrive there myself. My presence I feel will persuade him."
"Yes, sir, I'd like to thank you for this opportunity and hope to see you soon, sir." And with a mutual salute, Gibbons left.
Around noon that day of August the fourth, Admiral Buchanan had one of his officers bring him to Crawford's petite sand island on a small sloop. But waiting and ready near in the bay with thirty armed men, was the CSS Selma. Seeing this arrival from a window, Eli told Wendy to go play in her room. He got his rifle and went outside to meet the admiral. Seeing the gun, Buchanan said, "Now there's no need for that, Crawford."
"Isn't there? Do you or do you not mean to take my lighthouse and use it without permission?" asked Eli.
"We only need it for one or two nights, surely we can have it for that amount of time," said Buchanan.
"I'm afraid not, admiral, now get off my land."
For a moment, the admiral's attention was distracted to the door of their house where little Wendy appeared curiously.
"Back inside, Wendy!" commanded Eli. She disappeared into the house.
"Oh, so that must be the ghost which my lieutenant was speaking of," said Buchanan smiling.
"I'm going to ask you one more time to get off my land before I start shooting."
"It would behoove you to know, before you took such rash actions, that I have the CSS Selma waiting right over there. They have orders to fire upon your house if you fire upon me. "
"Sounds like a bluff, admiral," said Eli now aiming his rifle at Buchanan.
And then just as Eli was about to shoot, the fog horn blasted incessantly from the lighthouse. Eli looked to the lighthouse he built and watch with amazement as it sounded its horn. He looked at his house, as did the admiral, and saw it wasn't Wendy up in the tower, for she was still watching from a window. Eli thought immediately of Peter and his love of the fog horn. Its mellisonant tone spread like the wind throughout the bay. His eyes turned now to Peter's tombstone. The wind whistled through the grass on the grave. When the admiral saw the grave he was in fact spooked.
"Go see what's sounding the horn, captain," he ordered the officer who rowed him there.
The captain gradually made his way to the lighthouse and climbed up the stairs. He came back not as slowly; he was running.
"No one, sir, there's no one up there. And yet it blasts!"
"Perhaps the view from Fort Gaines will suffice. Come along, captain." The two hurriedly made the way back to their sloop.
"Don't be a stranger!" yelled Eli again as they rowed off.
"D*mn him!" shouted Admiral Buchanan, "how did he know I was bluffing?"
After the admiral left and the Selma was out of sight, the horn ceased its din and all was serene. Eli thanked God for what he thought must have been divine intervention.
"Everything's gonna be alright," he told Wendy as he hugged her.
Gibbons went to his quarters that afternoon and took a brief nap. When he awoke, he realized that he had little to do and soon remembered the Bible. He read through it, skimming the large book of wisdom for sections on strength. And like Eli said, he found a good number of them. He smiled as he remember fondly the day before and his unique encounter with the lighthouse keeper. The words did comfort him.
He walked out to where the men were. The sun was beginning to set already and the lighthouse was lit. He looked out on the beautiful bay from the canons. The water reflected what little sun was left.
"Say, Gibbons, back from your special mission with the admiral, huh?" said a familiar voice from behind Gibbons. He turned around to see the speaker and about five other men.
"That's right, Hensley, he said I did a good job."
"Oh, did he want to see how fast you could run from a Yankee? I bet you did real good." The men laughed.
"Speak to your superior officer with respect, sergeant," demanded Gibbons.
"I guess its hard to think of you as superior, Gibbons."
"I hear Farragut's coming tonight," said another, "I'm surprised you haven't barricaded yourself in your quarters." They shared another good laugh.
Gibbons considered becoming angry, but he knew that would help the situation. He instead pulled out his Bible and said, "the admiral also wanted me to read you boys a little something. I picked out these verses myself. If Farragut is coming tonight, and if he's bringing all the men we've heard about, then we will need this comfort."
"Ah c'mon, lieutenant, there's no room for God in war. We are Godless men; there's death all around us."
"I disagree, we are God fearing not Godless. And there is plenty of room for God here. Just look around. Who else fights with us against our enemies?"
"Let him read, Hensley," said one of them.
"Yeah, let's hear those verses."
Gibbons started with Deuteronomy 20:4, "For the Lord your God goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory." Next was Isaiah 41:10, "Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." He continued with verses similar to these and soon, more men came and listened. Some of them nodded as he read and others simply closed their eyes and listened. And by the time he finished, half the garrison was listening; he had to raise his voice. The men thanked Gibbons and continued about their work feeling an awoken sense of duty in themselves and in God. Gibbons felt cowardice no more, but confidence.
"Now we are ready for battle."
At dawn the next morning the attack began. Farragut had brought fourteen wooden warships, four ironclads, and a total of five-thousand five-hundred men. Only one of his ships suffered a torpedo hit, The Tecumseh. But he braved the chances and pushed through the remaining torpedoes out of range of Fort Morgan's canons. He easily conquered what navy Buchanan could throw at him. The siege began and men were landed near the forts. It took twenty days before Fort Morgan fell, without a navy, they were doomed. Although most of the garrison was taken prisoner, a valiant few of them died fighting at the outer walls. Among them was a certain lieutenant with a thin mustache; he had found the strength. He was known among his men as a hero rather than coward now. And he owed it all to a lighthouse keeper who lit the way, for that is their calling.