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Midgett, Little Bannister, III

by Nell Wise Wechter, 1991

30 May 1852–24 Jan. 1928

Little Bannister Midgett, III, keeper of Chicamacomico and New Inlet stations, U.S. Life-Saving Service (1879–94), and chief boatswain's mate and officer-in-charge, Chicamacomico Coast Guard Station (1894–1916), was born at Clarks (now Salvo, N.C.) of English ancestry. He was the son of Dorothy Payne and Little Bannister Midgett II.

Young Midgett, who was living on the Outer Banks and coming of school age at the time of the general upheaval of southern institutions during the Civil War, was penalized in obtaining a formal education. All of his life he felt this limitation, blaming it on the "treasonable neglect of the Confederacy to maintain schools during the Rebellion." As he grew up, however, it became apparent that his lack of education would never hamper him in his chosen work. In his teens and early twenties, he worked as a surfman and as a surf fisherman. Both vocations were difficult and dangerous. He was an apt pupil, learning the rigors of the sea, particularly that dangerous part of the ocean, "the graveyard of the Atlantic," opposite the shores on which he lived. Already ingrained within him was the Midgett tradition of lifesaving, handed down by his grandfather and father before him.

In the 1870s the U.S. Life-Saving Service expanded its operations to include the North Carolina coast, constructing seven stations and placing the Outer Banks in the Sixth District. At that time, the stations went by number. According to the service's records, Midgett served for two seasons as a surfman in Life-Saving Station No. 20. On 7 Aug. 1879 J. W. Etheridge, superintendent of lifesaving stations in the Sixth District, sent a letter to Sumner Kimball, general superintendent of all lifesaving stations in the United States, recommending Midgett as keeper of No. 18, stating that "this man is considered to be the best surfman on the coast of North Carolina." Station No. 18 was Chicamacomico Station, built, together with two other stations on Hatteras Island, under the Congressional Enactment of 1878. In 1878 Midgett had been named contractor and supervised the building of this station. On 13 Oct. 1879 he was appointed keeper of Chicamacomico at four hundred dollars a year. He served there until 1888, when he transferred to New Inlet. In 1894 he was sent back to Chicamacomico, where he was serving when the Life-Saving Service and the Revenue Cutter Service formally merged and became the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915—a union that Midgett denounced to the day he died as "a shotgun wedding."

Midgett was a mighty man with an oar. He had an instinctive knowledge of the sea and how to use an oar in a surfboat. His logbook, in which he wrote most often in private, reflects a simplicity and directness that never shows a consciousness of his own heroism. His feats in a surfboat are legend. Of all the "Mighty Midgetts," he safely can be called the Paul Bunyan, because so many traditions have grown out of his life. A proud, yet humble man, he was descended from a long line of Outer Banks Midgetts who were not afraid of anything in the sea or out of it. It would be difficult to list all the shipwrecks in which he participated as a lifesaver. Perhaps no one will ever know for sure the exact number of lives he saved. In 1881 he rescued six survivors from the rigging of the stranded Thomas J. Lancaster, which broke up in a hurricane off Chicamacomico. When the George L. Fessenden broke into pieces off the Outer Banks in 1898, Midgett fired his Lyle gun, placing the line almost in the hands of the sailors hanging onto the boom. However, the seamen were unable to grab it because the vessel suddenly disintegrated, killing two crewmen with debris and knocking the others into the churning waters. Midgett, with his surfmen, heaved lines and succeeded in dragging three survivors from the surf.

In 1899 "San Ciriaco," the name the Puerto Ricans gave to the hurricane of 1899, spawned in the southern oceans near the equator, bred on the islands of the Caribbean, and spent most of its mature life off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. During the terrible days of that hurricane, numerous ships met their end and many lives were lost and saved. Midgett and his crew were busy night and day. When the Aaron Reppard wrecked, they were able to save only three of its company. Ship after ship fell apart. Midgett's logbook records the names of the vessels. Tirelessly, he and his surfmen worked, watched, and waited for opportunities to launch surfboats and to use the Lyle gun when possible; sometimes they even jumped into the surf to reach a drowning man. Midgett's philosophy was the traditional one of the Outer Banks lifesavers: "Regulations say you have to go out; regulations do not say anything about coming back." He is remembered for his honesty, his confidence that superseded fear, his love for his fellowman, and his forbearance and compassion. He left behind him, in other Midgetts, the conviction and the will to carry on the great tradition of lifesaving for which the U.S. Coast Guard is famed.

Ambitious and interested in politics, Midgett was a Republican by tradition. He was active in the Methodist church in Chicamacomico, serving in many official capacities during his lifetime. He was a Master Mason and belonged to an Elizabeth City fraternity.

He married Sabrina Midgett of Chicamacomico on 11 Jan. 1874. They had four sons and six daughters. Three of his sons—Etheridge, Dan, and Thomas—chose the U.S. Coast Guard as a career; two of his daughters married coastguardsmen. Midgett died in Manteo, where he and his wife were buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

References:

General Services Administration, National Archives and Records Service, Washington, D.C.: Nomination File of L. B. Midgett, 1879, Qualification File, 1879, from Assistant Inspector to Superintendent of Life-Saving, 6th Dist., October 1879, and Appointment File, 1879, Department of Transportation, U.S. Coast Guard, Public Affairs Division, Washington, D.C..

Ben Dixon MacNeill, The Hatterasman (1958).

David Stick, Graveyard of the Atlantic (1952) and The Outer Banks (1958).

Nell Wise Wechter, The Mighty Midgetts of Chicamacomico (1974).

Additional Resources:

Wright, David, and Zoby, David. Fire on the Beach: Recovering the Lost Story of Richard Etheridge and the Pea Island Lifesavers. New York: Oxford University Press. 2002. 28. http://books.google.com/books?id=JtiKkXvMENMC&pg=PA28#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed July 10, 2013).

"Chicamacomico Station History." Chicamacomico Historical Association. 2009. http://www.chicamacomico.net/Station_History.htm (accessed July 10, 2013).

Image Credits:

Chicamacomico Introduction. 8:12. YouTube video. Uploaded by lloydkhan, November 4, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y4HYNgQSbI (accessed July 10, 2013).

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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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