Monday, July 4, 2011

Civil War Tour of the Outer Banks: Bodie Island Lighthouse and Roanoke Island

This past Saturday I returned with my family from a week-long vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  The region, which is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on one side, and a series of sounds on the other, is known for its stunning beaches, historic lighthouses, and fresh seafood.  But the Outer Banks was also the setting for a couple of important Civil War actions related to the Union blockade of the Southern coastline.  Armed with a Civil War Trail map, information from Civil War Traveler, and print outs from the Historical Marker Database, my father-in-law and I set out last Tuesday to discover some of the lesser-known Civil War sites scattered across this top tourist destination.

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. 
Bodie Island Lighthouse

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. 

Roanoke Island

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. 

The Battle of Roanoke Island marker is located close to the site of the Confederate three-gun battery that was taken by Union troops during the battle.  The Confederate defenses were concentrated around this battery, which was placed across a causeway, the only north-south road on the island.  The Confederates cut a clear field of fire in front of the battery.  Because both sides of the road consisted of swampy marshland, the Confederate commanders expected that the Union attackers would stick to a direct frontal assault as they approached along the causeway.  Burnside, however, ordered his men to march into the swamps, and before long, the Confederates were surrounded on three sides.  

"Gallant Charge of Hawkins's Zouaves Upon the Rebel Batteries on Roanoke Island," Harper's Weekly, March 1, 1862 (courtesy of  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.
We next headed to the new Outer Banks Welcome Center on U.S. 64, just west of the intersection with NC 345.  The marker there tells the story of the entire Burnside expedition in North Carolina, including the successful movements against Elizabeth City, New Bern, and Ft. Macon.

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.
The historic site also commemorates the Freedmen's Colony on Roanoke Island.  During the early days of occupation of Roanoke Island, the Union Army labeled slaves a "contraband of war."  Slaves from across the region were soon fleeing to the Union lines and freedom.  In May 1863, the Union commander, Major General John G. Foster, moved to deal with the influx of slaves and ordered the establishment of a freedmen's community on the northern part of the island.  A church, several schools, and even a sawmill flourished there.  By 1865, the population of the colony had grown to nearly 4,000, and over 150 inhabitants served in black Union regiments.  Unfortunately, the colony never became self-sufficient, and the federal government decommissioned it in 1867.  The Freedmen's Colony Monument and a few markers outside the Visitor Center tell the story of this social experiment.

Front side of the Freedmen's Colony Monument, just outside the Visitor Center at the Ft. Raleigh National Historic Site.  
After touring the Ft. Raleigh site, the Colonel and I drove west on U.S. 64 and checked out a few markers associated with the naval battle and the Confederate defenses of Roanoke Island.  These markers were easily accessible from the road, and the traffic was light enough that I crossed by foot from one side of U.S. 64 to the other with little difficulty.

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.
Our last stop before returning to home base was the town of Manteo.  My father-in-law is a lighthouse aficionado, so we stopped to check out the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.  This replica is based on an 1877 screwpile lighthouse that was located in a narrow channel between the Croatan Sound and Pamlico Sound.  I only mention this lighthouse because the one in existence during the war was passed by Burnside's troops on the way to the fight at Roanoke Island and is pictured on at least one contemporary engraving.  (See below.) As an explanatory marker notes inside the lighthouse, the structure was a "witness to the Battle for Roanoke Island."

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.
As the Colonel and I returned to the family quarters in Duck, I was reminded of how much I love travel.  Each destination has a way of revealing its own history that leads me to dig a little deeper.  Before the Outer Banks trip, I was vaguely familiar with the Union coastal operations in North Carolina.  Now, after visiting the sites and reading more about them, I have gained a greater appreciation for this important aspect of the Civil War.  And dare I admit that I even have a new-found respect for Burnside?

Further Reading

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).


Richard said...

I just spent a week on a family vacation on the Outer Banks, but a bit further south on Hatteras Island. We did cross Hatteras Inlet on a ferry to Ocracoke Island, but I did not notice any historical markers in the area (though I did not really have the chance to look much.)

Unfortunately, nobody else in my family has as much interest in the Civil War, so it wasn't productive as a history trip, but it's a great, great place for a family vacation.

(And I did have a reprint of booklet called "North Carolina as a Civil War Battleground" originally published in the late 1950s that I read on the trip down there. It's short, but a quick and fairly informative overview of North Carolina in the war.)

Ron Baumgarten said...

I agree that it is a great place for a family vacation. We had a nice time all around.

I know there are a few Civil War Trails markers down around Hatteras, as well as the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, which has some exhibits on the Civil War.

I was lucky that my father-in-law is interested in the Civil War, and that my wife gave me a day off from Dad duty to do some sightseeing; otherwise, it would have been the water and shops. (When the twins are older, I'll take them with me to explore!) We also checked out the Wright Brothers Memorial, which was a really interesting site as well.

I will have to look for the booklet. NC certainly has some interesting Civil War history.

Richard said...

A few years ago, we went a bit further south to the "Southern Outer Banks" and did get to visit Fort Macon, which was active in several wars including the Civil War. That was actually the first real "fort" I had visited and I enjoyed it.

The "graveyard of the Atlantic" is a neat story though I have not seen the museum for several years.

On our trip we did pass by the area where Blackbeard was finally captured and killed.

Ron Baumgarten said...

I hope to get to Ft. Macon one of these days. I know my wife is interested in heading to Wilmington, so during some future vacation I might get to Ft. Fisher.

The pirate saga is yet another interesting aspect of Outer Banks history. I had no idea how much there was to explore there until we decided to go this year. To me "OBX" was always just a car sticker people put on their vehicles around here!