Historic lighthouse hosts battleground

All of the windows were shattered at the Dunkirk Lighthouse when the cannon was fired toward a likely enemy vessel sighted on Lake Erie.

This was during a time when running through naval blockades and smuggling goods was the norm along southern ports of the United States and anxiously eyeing the horizon of northern waters of the Great Lakes was common in anticipation of a possible assault by the British from Canada.

Even though this was over 150 years ago during the Civil War (1861-1865), “yesterday” scenes of this can be experienced first-hand during the weekend of Aug. 17 and 18 at the “Battle of Lighthouse Point.”

On the grounds of the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum, visitors and spectators will have the opportunity to see and feel what this time in our nation’s history was like as part of the Civil War living history camp.

During the war, there was apprehension that Great Britain might intervene on the side of the Confederacy, which could in turn lead to fighting along the Canadian border. The Union had been blockading southern ports to prevent the smuggling of war materials and the exporting of southern cotton, which was needed by the textile industry in Great Britain. Late in 1861, two Confederate diplomats were bound for Great Britain with the mission of obtaining diplomatic recognition. Sailing on a British ship named the Trent, a United States’ naval ship apprehended them. Known as the “Trent Affair,” this heightened tensions between the United States and Great Britain. It was viewed by the British as a violation of neutral powers and freedom of the seas, resulting in more British troops sent to Canada. Looking back, we know this did not escalate into more, but at the time it was a real concern, even here in western New York.

Yes, the windows of the lighthouse were indeed shattered during this tense time as recounted in 1943 by an eyewitness of the actual event. The local newspaper, the OBSERVER, had interviewed 100 year-old Louis Deering. In the column, not only did Louis relate how he shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln when the train stopped in Dunkirk in 1864, but he also told of his experiences as a “home guard” at the lighthouse. “During the Civil War, he was stationed at Point Gratiot. He recalls spending many hours there, watching along the lake. He and a companion one evening thought they sighted an enemy craft, and fired the gun with which they were equipped. The only result was the shattering of all the windows in the lighthouse.” Of course, this would have been the original house from 1826, not the current one built in the post Civil War year of 1875.

Hosted by the Dunkirk Historic Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum in conjunction with the Dunkirk Historic Museum, the schedule of events for the weekend is being planned by members of the 64th Virginia, a reenacting group primarily from the Western New York area. Group members portray the actual confederate unit from the Civil War. The original unit was formed from men of counties in Virginia along the Kentucky border. It was an infantry unit early in the war, but later designated cavalry and mounted infantry, also known as dragoons. They mostly fought within eastern Tennessee, western Virginia, and North Carolina. During the Battle of Cumberland Gap in 1863, many were taken prisoner and eventually sent to Camp Douglas in Chicago, a POW camp with a harsh climate and poor conditions. At the end of the war, the regiment disbanded with only 50 men left.

Events planned by the 64th for the weekend of Aug. 17 and 18 promise to be interesting, to say the least. The battle scenarios will depict a fictional episode as if a confederate unit has indeed taken the lighthouse grounds as feared during the actual war, with union forces attempting to recapture it. Members of other reenacting groups will fall in with the 64th including artillery, cavalry, fife and drum, medical, and a brothel. Spectators can walk through camp to observe daily life and ask questions. For Saturday, the schedule includes raising of the flag (9 a.m.), drill (11 a.m.), safety inspection (1:30 p.m.), weapons demonstration/battle scenario (2 p.m.), court martial (3 p.m.), and a fife and drum concert by the 20th Maine/Calvert Arms and candle light tour (7 p.m.). Sunday’s schedule includes a Civil War period church service (10:30 a.m.), church social (11:30 a.m.), safety inspection (1:30 p.m.), weapons demonstration/battle scenario (2 p.m.), surrender (3 p.m.), and camp closing (4 p.m.). Refreshments will be available throughout the weekend.

The Civil War years were tough for both the north and the south. The living history camp and the reenactors at the site in August provide an opportunity for those of today to remember and commemorate the sacrifices of the men and women made during the war. It is also an invaluable educational tool for students of American social studies and history, more than any textbook can provide. At the same time, visitors can support the on-going financial needs of the two museums, with tickets for a nominal fee of only $2 per person. Call 366-5050 or visit for more information about the upcoming weekend, daily tours, and monthly ghost tours. Next week’s column will feature the music group that has volunteered to come to Dunkirk for this great event.

Make it a good week as our last full month of summer has arrived.

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