|The Currituck Sound, near Duck, NC. This body of water served as a key commercial route between North Carolina and Virginia. Union operations in the region aimed to ensure Northern control of such shipping lanes.|
We left our home base of Duck along the Currituck Sound and headed south to our first stop -- the Bodie Island Lighthouse, located within the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The current lighthouse dates from 1872. The federal government constructed the original lighthouse in 1847, but faulty engineering rendered the lighthouse unstable, and in 1859 a new one was built.
|Bodie Island Lighthouse (1872), located across the Oregon Inlet from the site of the Civil War-era lighthouse.|
Only a few short years later, the Civil War descended on the Outer Banks. The Confederates erected defensive positions to protect various waterways, including Fort Oregon at Oregon Inlet near the Bodie Island Lighthouse, as well as Forts Hatteras and Clark further south at Hatteras Inlet. In August 1861, Union naval vessels under Flag Officer Silas Stringham pounded the Confederate forts at Hatteras Inlet into submission. Union troops under Major General Benjamin Butler went ashore to secure a foothold at this important entrance to the Pamlico Sound. (Unfortunately, due to time constraints I was unable to get down to the Hatteras Inlet area this time around.)
Following the Union victory, Confederate commanders made the decision to abandon Fort Oregon without a fight. The departing Confederates destroyed the Bodie Island Lighthouse rather than allow it to fall into Union hands. A few years after the war ended, the government erected another lighthouse, which is the one tourists see today. Unlike the first two lighthouses, this one was built on the north side of Oregon Inlet, across from the earlier locations on the south side.
After visiting the lighthouse grounds and surrounding marshlands, the "Colonel" and I drove to Roanoke Island, the site of a strategic Union victory in 1862. Roanoke Island sits at the gateway to the Albemarle Sound. In the fall of 1861, the Union military recognized that the capture of Roanoke Island would cement control of the North Carolina sound region and give the Union a backdoor to attacking Confederate-held Gosport Navy Yard and Norfolk. Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside, who would go on to command the Army of the Potomac, was given permission to raise an expedition to take Roanoke Island. His novel force was comprised of soldiers from seacoast towns in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough led the naval side of the joint operation.
Roanoke Island was poorly defended by a small force of about 2,500 Confederates from Virginia and North Carolina under the command of ex-Virginia governor Henry Wise. (During the actual battle, Wise was suffering from pleurisy, and command passed to Colonel Henry Shaw.) The Confederates had constructed a few small forts and batteries on the island. The naval force under Captain William Lynch consisted of just eight boats -- a contingent that Wise derisively called the "Mosquito Fleet." As a defensive measure, Lynch had sunk some hulls and pilings in the Croatan Sound to the west of Roanoke Island.
The entire Union Coastal Division of around 13,0000 men left Annapolis in early January 1862 and met up with Goldsborough's twenty gunboats at Ft. Monroe in Virginia. The fleet of about 80-odd vessels, including transports and supply ships, steamed towards Hatteras Inlet, but was delayed by extremely rough weather. In addition, several ships were unable to clear the sand bar to enter Pamlico Sound, so the assembly of the fleet was further delayed until the passageway could be deepened.
The force finally headed to the Croatan Sound to the west of Roanoke Island on February 5. After dealing with poor weather the next day, the Union forced launched an attack at 11:30 a.m. on February 7. Goldsborough's gunboats pounded Confederate Ft. Bartow and drove Lynch's small fleet out of the sound. Under the cover of naval guns, Burnside's men boarded row boats and landed on the island. This was the first large amphibious operation of the war and would set an example for future joint operations, both in the Civil War and afterwards. By midnight, 10,000 troops were camped at Ashby's Landing.
On the morning of February 8, Burnside sent his three brigades against the thin Confederate line of about 1,000 men. The Federal troops attacked the Confederates on the front and both flanks, captured a three-gun battery, and broke the defenders' line. The Confederate soldiers beat a hasty retreat, abandoning equipment as they raced to the northern end of the island before being taking prisoner by Burnside's men. In all, the victory came with a relatively small price tag -- 37 killed, 214 wounded, and 13 missing. The Confederates lost 23 killed, including Wise's son, and 58 wounded.
Today little remains of the actual battlefield, but a few markers commemorate the engagement on Roanoke Island. My father-in-law and I first visited a marker dedicated to the land battle on NC 345, just south of the intersection with U.S. 64.
|"Gallant Charge of Hawkins's Zouaves Upon the Rebel Batteries on Roanoke Island," Harper's Weekly, March 1, 1862 (courtesy of sonofthesouth.net). The famed Zouave regiment under Colonel Rush Hawkins, known officially as the 9th New York, claimed credit for taking the Confederate battery on Roanoke Island. The Northern press, infatuated with the colorful Zouaves, ran with the story and sang the praises of the regiment. In fact, the 21st Massachusetts and 51st New York under Brigadier General Jesse Reno planted their flags first atop the Confederate battery.|
|A marker commemorating the Burnside Expedition at the Outer Banks Welcome Center on Roanoke Island. This marker provides context for the actions that occurred on Roanoke Island in February 1862.|
No trip to Roanoke Island is complete without a stop at Ft. Raleigh National Historic Site, located off of U.S. 64 on the north side of the island. The focus is on the first English settlements in America (1585-87), and the story of the "Lost Colony" is fascinating in its own right. However, the Visitor Center offers an overview of the Civil War action on Roanoke Island. (Note that the Visitor Center has recently undergone some renovations, so it appears that the exhibits are not yet fully re-installed.)
|Ft. Raleigh National Historic Site visitor center exhibit on Civil War-related events on Roanoke Island.|
|Front side of the Freedmen's Colony Monument, just outside the Visitor Center at the Ft. Raleigh National Historic Site.|
|The Naval Battle of Roanoke Island marker is located off U.S. 64, just before the Manns Harbor Bridge on the northwest corner of Roanoke Island. This marker gives a good sense of the naval action in relation to the geography of Roanoke Island.|
|The Ft. Huger marker is directly across the highway from the Naval Battle of Roanoke Island marker. Ft. Huger was one of three Confederate forts on the western side of the island. The remaining earthworks of Ft. Huger are located on private property. This position looks out over the Croatan Sound towards the site of the 1862 naval battle.|
|"The naval fight in Croatan Sound -- landing of national troops -- showing also obstructions in the Sound, with the rebel fleet beyond," original printed source unknown (courtesy of North Carolina Civil War Image Portfolio, UNC University Libraries). This view looks towards the northwest corner of the island where Ft. Huger was located.|
|The Ft. Blanchard marker is located on the south side of U.S. 64 not far from the Ft. Huger marker. The remaining earthworks were not visible from this location. The third fort on the western side of the island, Ft. Bartow, came under heavy fire during the naval battle. A marker also commemorates Ft. Bartow, although time did not permit a detour to visit this out-of-the-way marker.|
|Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse along the waterfront in Manteo, NC.|
|"The national fleet passing through the marshes between Croatan and Pamlico Sounds," 1862, original printed source unknown (courtesy of North Carolina Civil War Image Portfolio, UNC University Libraries). An earlier incarnation of the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse is visible to the right of the engraving.|
In preparation for a Civil War tour of the Outer Banks, the following books may prove useful:
Peter M. Chaitin, The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (1984).
Kevin Dougherty, Strangling the Confederacy: Coastal Operations in the American Civil War (2010).
Drew Pullen, The Civil War on Roanoke Island North Carolina (2002).