George Gordon Meade Built Lighthouses and Surveyed the Great Lakes Before the Civil War

Although he is better known for his service in the Civil War and his defeat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg in 1863, George Gordon Meade made important and lasting contributions to maritime history before the Civil War. As a member of the United States Army Topographical Engineers, he used his engineering skills to build light houses in Florida, Delaware, and New Jersey, and he made important contributions to the trailblazing forty year Great Lakes Survey.

The father of George Gordon Meade, wealthy Philadelphia merchant, Richard Worsam Meade, served as a United States government naval agent in Spain and he took his wife Margaret Butler Meade and his children with him. George Gordon Meade, the eighth of the Meade’s eleven children, was born in Cadiz, Spain, on December 31, 1815. Richard Meade conducted complicated financial transactions while he served the United States government in Spain and he spent many years unsuccessfully trying to collect money that his Spanish customers, including the Spanish government, owed him. Richard Meade died in 1828 when his son George was just thirteen and six months after he died, his widow and their children returned to the United States in dire financial condition.

George Meade Graduated from West Point and Joined the United States Army

Margaret Butler Meade struggled to support her children and keep her son George in school. In 1826, George went to a boarding school called the American Classical and Military Lyceum at Mount Airy, a few miles from Philadelphia. The Lyceum had two principals, M. Constant and A.L. Roumfort and Roumfort had graduated from the military academy at West Point. The Lyceum’s Board of examiners included Nicholas Biddle, Generals George Cadwallader of the U.S. Engineers and Richard Worsam Meade, George’s father.

The founders of the American Classical and Military Lyceum used West Point as a model for their school and the curriculum included instruction in the manual of arms, company drill and sentry duty. The teachers appointed an ‘officer of the day’ to report infractions of disciple and the cadets heard the report read aloud after breakfast.

George Meade took classes in English, French, Latin, Greek, arithmetic, and algebra. He showed a great aptitude for the mathematical part of the curriculum, but his teachers recognized him for his good work in all of his studies and they considered him a scholar of promise. He was popular with his schoolmates and many of the friendships he made at the Lyceum lasted throughout his life. He would encounter some of his Lyceum friends as fellow students at West Point, and some including Henry DuPont and James S. Biddle in the Army or the Navy.

Under an appointment by President Andrew Jackson, George Meade entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1831, eager to receive an education, but not enthusiastic about the Army as a career. In 1835, he graduated nineteenth in his class of fifty-six cadets. He served with the Third U.S. Artillery in Florida, during the Seminole uprising, but spent most of his time there recovering from the yellow fever that he had contracted. After a year he resigned from the Army to work as a survey engineer for the Alabama, Georgia, and Florida Railroad and for the War Department. One of his surveys that he did before 1840 – the year he married Margaretta Sergeant- established the border between the United States and Texas.

On December 31, 1840, George Meade married Margaretta Sergeant, the daughter of Congressman John Sergeant of Philadelphia, and eventually they had seven children. George had a difficult time finding employment so in 1842, he rejoined the army as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. In the years ahead while George Meade fought in the Mexican War and constructed lighthouses in Florida, he maintained his home for Margaretta and their children in Philadelphia. He felt that the best interests of his wife and children were served living in the city where they would have a stable home and enjoy the advantages of education, good habits, and family and friendships

During the Mexican War, George Meade served on the staff of General Zachary Taylor, General William J. Worth and General Robert Patterson and he earned a brevet as first lieutenant for gallant conduct at the Battle of Monterrey. After the war, George Meade became heavily involved in lighthouse and breakwater building and coastal surveying in Delaware, New Jersey, and Florida.

George Gordon Meade Began His Lighthouse Building Career

In 1850, the United States had just begun to explore the possibilities of marine engineering, a field that had evolved in Britain advanced by British and Scottish lighthouse builders like Robert Milne, John Stevenson and John Smeaton. American Major Hartman Bache who was a talented marine architect and engineer and a major in the Bureau of Topographical Engineers, mentored Lt. Meade and encouraged his interest in building and designing lighthouses. Both Lt. Meade and Major Bache fully realized that the United States did not have adequate navigational aids and with boundless optimism, they took up the task of improving them.

Lieutenant Meade began with the lighthouses in the Delaware Bay which featured an unstable bottom that would not support a conventional lighthouse foundation. Captain Meade and Major Bache decided to use an innovative design called a screw pile lighthouse that marine architect Alexander Mitchell had successfully built and tested at Maplin Sands on the Thames River in England twelve years earlier.

The new screw pile lighthouse on Brandywine Shoals that Major Mitchell and Captain Meade designed featured a lantern and keeper’s house sitting on top of a central cylindrical stair on eight pile legs. Each pile was screwed into the seabed and then the piles were braced together with crossbeams. No elegant and stately design, the Brandywine Shoals Lighthouse looked like a 46 foot grasshopper standing knee deep in Delaware Bay, but it was firmly anchored into the bay floor and safely within the government budget.

Lieutenant Meade Traveled to Florida to Build Reef Lighthouses

As well as building lighthouses in Delaware and New Jersey, Lt. Meade also assisted in surveying and charting the Florida Reef, the third largest coral barrier reef system in the world, lying off the Florida Keys. Supervising the lighthouse building at Carysfort Reef proved to be just a nautical step away for Lt. Meade.

The United States government appropriated funds to build at lighthouse at Carysfort Reef, east of Key Largo in the Florida Keys in the late 1840s. Lighthouse inspector and engineer Isaiah P. Lewis had created a screw pile design of prefabricated, interchangeable parts that could be easily shipped and quickly assembled. The third screw pile lighthouse to be built in the United States, a Philadelphia factory manufactured interchangeable parts for the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse in 1848, and a construction crew trained to assemble it at the building site.

Crews building the light house encountered several obstacles. Four and a half feet of water covered the site and instead of being solid, the reef was made up of a hard coral shell over a sandbank. The plans had to be altered to include adding large plates to the piles to distribute the lighthouse weight over a larger reef area, making it a disk pile rather than a screw pile lighthouse. Then Major Linnard, the supervisor of construction died in 1851, so the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers sent Lt. George Meade to finish the lighthouse, his first lighthouse project command.

At this point in his career, Lt. Meade had learned much from his engineer mentors – Hartman Bache, Alexander Mitchell, and Isaiah Lewis. After a temporary funding withdrawal that Lt. Meade convinced Congress to reconsider, he managed to finish the Carysfort Reef Lighthouse and light the tower on March 10, 1852.

A few months later the Army transferred Lt. Meade to Sand Key, one of the most challenging lighthouse building sites he had yet encountered. A hurricane had carried away the lighthouse and most of Sand Key. The Army Topographical Engineers had already begun to build Florida’s second pile design lighthouse and Lt. Meade carefully studied the proposal which featured a pyramid frame surrounding a keepers keeper’s house, a central stair cylinder, Funding held up constructing the lighthouse even though the prefabricated tower was ready to assemble. Lt. Meade had to wait a year before his crew on Sand Key could begin work again.

While he waited for the construction on Sand Key Lighthouse to resume, Lt. Meade turned his attention to lighthouse technology. While he supervised Sand Key Light, Lt. Meade learned more about the new prismatic lenses that the Army was purchasing for American lighthouses and the government asked him to demonstrate a Fresnel lens at the 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition in New York.

Lt. Meade also devoted some of his free time to designing a new, five wick, Meade-Hydraulic Lamp to replace the mechanical lamps patterned after the French Fresnel, Arago and Henry-Lepaute lamps that many American lighthouses used. The Meade-Hydraulic Lamp also abolished the pumps and clockwork machinery needed to operate the lamps.

When Sand Key Lighthouse was nearly finished, Lt. Meade requested that his lamp be installed in the new lighthouse. Lt. Meade told the Lighthouse Board, “It is, in fact, a carcel lamp except that instead of pumping up the oil by clockwork, it is raised to the level of the burner by being discharged from a reservoir in the dome of the lantern…Its simplicity and uniform working afforded great relief to the keepers.”

The Lighthouse Board approved Lt. Meade’s design and it worked so well at Sand Key that lighthouses all over the United States began to use his lamps.

In October 1853, Lt. Meade reported to the secretary of the Light House Board that the Sand Key Lighthouse had been exhibited for the first time on July 20, and that plans and exhibits for a beacon on Rebecca Shoal were made. He said that plans and estimates for a light house in the northwest channel of Key West Harbor were almost ready and that the plans and estimates for lighthouses at Cedar Keys Coffin’s Patches would be prepared as carefully and as quickly as possible.

In 1854, Lt. Meade inspected a site for a proposed lighthouse on treacherous Rebecca Shoal, located in the Gulf of Mexico, 43 miles west of Key West in the rough waters between the Marquesas Keys and the Dry Tortugas. After battling hurricanes and waves, Lt. George Meade eventually succeeded in erecting a lighthouse on Rebecca Shoal. He noted that “no beacon of any kind had been erected, in the United States or in Europe, in a position that was more exposed or offered greater obstacles.”

Lt. Meade also selected Sombrero Key as a lighthouse site and designed a lighthouse anchored on regular piles with eight foot diameter foot plates. Funding delays slowed construction and a hurricane in August 1856 demolished the temporary platform used to build the lighthouse foundation. The lighthouse was finally completed with the tower standing 142 feet above the water and displaying a fixed white light from a first order lens. The light was lit on March 17, 1858, and operated throughout the Civil War, just like George Gordon Meade.

Lt. Meade Built New Jersey Lighthouses

As well as constructing his reef lighthouses in Florida, Lt. Meade oversaw the construction of several lighthouses along the Atlantic Seaboard, including the lighthouses at Absecon, and Barnegat, New Jersey. The Camden & Atlantic Land Company sold the U.S. government a piece of land near Absecon Inlet for $520, and work on the lighthouse began in June 1855. A group of officers from the Army’s Topographical Engineering Corps, including Major Hartman Bache, and Lt. George Meade, worked on the site.

While supervising the construction, General Meade complained, “The place, though within forty miles of Philadelphia, is entirely without resources. There are no wharves or conveniences of any kind for landing materials or for handling them after landing.” He predicted that addition funds would have to be provided. In 1856, the government had to play $17,000 more dollars to complete the project.

The Barnegat Peninsula- Barnegat is Dutch for “inlet of the breakers- “divides the Atlantic Ocean from Barnegat Bay in Ocean County, New Jersey, and the Barnegat Inlet separates it from Long Beach Island to the south. As the area became more settled, Barnegat Inlet became more important to trade and travel and in 1835, a 40-foot-tall lighthouse tower was built to mark the Barnegat Inlet.

Lt. George Meade was appointed to design a new light house to replace the old one that had tumbled into the sea. He designed a 170-foot-tall tower with two circular brick walls. Finished in 1859 at a cost of about $40,000, the Barnegat Lighthouse was built about 100 feet south of the original light because erosion in the Barnet Inlet still remained a problem.

On April 24, 1856, the Army ordered Lt. George Meade to be relieved from duty in the Fourth and Seventh Light House Districts and instructed him to report as “assistant to the officer in charge of the survey of the lakes.”  On May 19, 1856, by Special Order No. 70 of May 20, 1857, from the Adjutant General’s office, George Gordon Meade was promoted captain of Topographical Engineers for fourteen years continuous service. On May 31, 1856, Lt. Meade gave a lighthouse report to his successor Lt. W.F. Reynolds that these lighthouses were either finished or in the process of being reconstructed:

Absecon, New Jersey; Cross Ledge, Delaware Bay; Ship John Shoal, Delaware Bay; Brandywine Shoal, Delaware Bay; Reedy Island, Delaware River; Rebecca Shoal Beacon, Florida; Jupiter Inlet, Florida; Coffin’s Patches, Florida.

The Lakes Survey

The launching of the Erie Canal in 1825, eventually highlighted the need for a Great Lakes Survey, because is connected the Great lakes to New York City, the Northeast, and the trans-Atlantic trade. Lake captains and ship owners began to petition the government to create “harbors of refuge” for ships tossed in the violent storms that often swept the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes commerce and connections with the East and beyond continued to grow, and by1841, settlers were beginning to pour into the sparsely occupied upper Great Lakes region, and commerce grew in the lake ports. The physical characteristics of the lakes were not well known. There were no charts of the lake shores except the reconnaissance charts that Captain Bayfield of the British navy had made, and these were not aids to navigation. Light houses and beacons were scarce, and captains of vessels had to learn the location of shoals or dangerous spots by experiencing them. The storms on the lakes sometimes grew violent and ship captains had no reliable means of determining safe harbors. Every year the lakes produced a toll of life and property.

Beginning in 1841 and ending in 1881, the United States Lakes Survey was launched as a hydrographic study to chart the inland seas and make them conductive to trade and development. Surveying the lakes was a monumental task. The American shoreline of the lakes, with their islands, was 4,700 miles long, and the total amount of the shoreline actually surveyed, including rivers and small streams, amounted to 6,000 miles.

At first the Mexican War slowed down the Lake Survey which at this point tended to be of a crude character, not even deserving the name of geodetic. There were no standardized methods, it lacked the proper instruments and the government only appropriated $15,000 to survey a vast territory. With increased appropriations and improved technology which included measuring latitudes, longitudes, hydrometry, and meteorology, the survey reached geodetic status.

 Captain Meade Commanded the Lake Survey

In April 1856, at age 41, Lieutenant Meade received a transfer from coastal duty and was sent to Detroit to assist in the ongoing survey of the Great Lakes. The Army appointed him to relieve Lt. Colonel James Kearney who had been reassigned because if ill health.

In 1856, Lt. George Meade and his family arrived at the Detroit headquarters of the United States Lake Survey. Captain Meade’s past experiences and his personality had prepared him well for his new role. He possessed the comprehensive mental grasp of the country that is inherent in the born surveyor and the exacting personality needed to produce results.

Captain Meade’s official title was Superintendent -or Superintending- Engineer, Survey of the Northern & Northwestern Lakes. His duties included mapping the lake shores, charting the lake bottoms, mapping projected ship channels, and locating sites for lighthouses, beacons, and buoys. Captain Meade and his surveyors had to determine latitude and longitude, measure river waters discharging into lakes, and survey tributary rivers, narrows, and shoals.

One of Captain Meade’s most notable accomplishments during his tenure as Commander of the Lake Survey was surveying all of Lake Huron and completing the survey of Saginaw Bay. He extended the surveys of Lake Michigan down to Grand and Little Traverse Bays and obtained data for an essential chart of the dangerous part of the lake for ships sailing between the Straits of Mackinac and Chicago. Another of Captain Meade’s accomplishments was modifying and adapting a method to determine longitudes by electric telegraphy to the Great Lakes Survey.

Before Captain Meade commanded the lakes Survey, scientists read water levels of the Great Lakes with temporary gauges with no uniform plane of reference. In 1858, Captain Meade recommended that standardized instruments be set in place across the Great Lakes basin to measure water levels. In 1859, Captain Meade established nineteen weather stations on five of the Great Lakes and set up a system of analyzing data obtained from the weather gauges to predict storms and warn mariners of coming storms. He also created a system for perfecting wind force and direction observations. Local surveys of a few harbors on Lake Superior were made in 1859 and by 1861 a general survey of Lake Superior at its western end was in progress.

In his first annual report in 1856, Captain Meade asked for $2,750 for meteorological and water level observations over the entire Great Lakes region. In his fourth annual report, October 20, 1860, the Great Lakes Survey published the first detailed report of the Great Lakes. Captain Meade later wrote that he considered his early work on coastal lighthouses and the Great Lakes Survey as among the most important duties of his extensive career.

Despite his demanding duties and his dedication to his work, Captain Meade had long been aware of the political undercurrents of slavery and anti-slavery, and states’ rights versus the federal government that were tearing the national fabric apart. Familiar with both Northern and Southern sentiments through his work on northern and southern lighthouses, he tried to reason with diehards on both sides and he hoped that more rational people would steer the country through a middle course. He foresaw that a war between the North and South would not be a brief, decisive affair, but a long, soul wrenching, devastating, and consequential war.

True to his principles, in the 1860 election, Captain Meade voted for the Constitutional Union Party, made up of former Whigs desiring to keep the country from splitting over the slavery issue. The party was organized on the principle of recognizing no other political doctrine than the Constitution, the Union, and the Enforcement of the Laws.

As the war clouds continued to gather over the United States, Captain Meade and his crew attended a mass meeting in Detroit, where both sides debated the secession question, sometimes with raised voices. When Northern advocates asked Captain Meade to sign a Loyalty Oath to the United States government, he refused on the grounds that he would not sign any kind of oath until the War Department asked him to do so. The war drew closer, and Captain Meade petitioned Washington D.C. for a command, but received no word of one. Instead, his instructions were to proceed to his surveying duties on Lake Superior in August of 1861. Obeying his orders, Captain Meade had begun his Lake Superior surveying when on August 31, 1861, he received orders to report to General George McClellan in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after arriving in Washington, D.C., Captain, soon to be General Meade wrote to a friend.

“I cordially agree with you in earnest prayers that a merciful Providence will so guide the hearts of rulers on both sides as to terminate this unnatural contest. But as for myself I have ever held it to be my duty to uphold and maintain the Constitution and resist the disruption of this Government. With this opinion, I hold the other side responsible for the existing condition of affairs. Besides, as a soldier, holding a commission, it has always been my judgment that duty required I should disregard all political questions and obey orders. I go into the field with these principles trusting to God to dispose of my life and actions in accordance with my daily prayer, that His will and not mine should be done.”

Less than a decade after he built his lighthouses and  advanced the work of the Lakes Survey, Captain George Gordon Meade became Major General George Gordon Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac and victor over General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army at Gettysburg.


Great Lakes Survey

General Meade Society

George Meade Biography – Tufts University

Great Lakes Update – Origins of the Detroit District

Brief History of the Great Lakes Survey

Captain George G. Meade and the United States Lake Survey

The Life and Letters of George Gordon Meade

Letter from Captain Meade to Poe, Lake Michigan Survey

 Adelson, Bruce. George Gordon Meade: Union General. Chelsea House Publishing, 2001.

Lloyd, John Bailey. “Eighteen Miles of History on Long Beach Island.” 1994 Down The Shore Publishing and The Sand Paper, Inc.

Sears, Stephen. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin, 2003

Woodford, Arthur M. Charting the Inland Seas: A History of the U.S. Lake Survey, United States Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District, Detroit, Michigan, 1991