- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

Second in an occasional series about the Civil War and the natural wonders of the Old South.

When North Carolina seceded from the Union, few people gave much thought to the Outer Banks. At that time, the barrier islands were home mainly to wildlife, navigational stations, lighthouses and miles of pristine beaches and sand dunes. Soon, however, military actions would dominate the sleepy communities on the coast.

The Outer Banks formed before the last Ice Age when inland rivers deposited their alluvial loads along the edge of the Atlantic basin. The movement of water into the Atlantic combined with the currents and wave action in the ocean to create narrow humps of sand along the coast that were punctuated at intervals by the steady flow of rivers such as the Cape Fear River.

In 1861, the Outer Banks was thinly populated and was dominated politically by the Piedmont section of the state. The area was not the popular tourist attraction it would become, and with no industry or significant agriculture, it did not draw the attention of distracted Confederate leaders.

North Carolina Gov. John Ellis did initiate some wartime precautions, including helping Confederate authorities extinguish and remove Fresnel lenses in lighthouses along the coast and assembling a small coastal fleet of armed vessels. However, Confederate authorities in Richmond did not appreciate how vulnerable the Outer Banks area really was.

Welles and Butler

With the exception of the port of Wilmington, the enormous potential of North Carolina’s coast was largely untapped in 1861. The region had the potential to become a center for blockade running and commerce raiding that could extend or sustain the war. There were half a dozen or so navigable channels through the Outer Banks, although some, such as Hatteras Inlet, could accommodate only oceangoing vessels with lighter drafts. The twin Cape Fear inlets and the Beaufort Inlet were the most important commercial deep-water openings. Whoever controlled the channels controlled the eastern portion of the state.

Not everyone failed to observe the Outer Banks. Union authorities immediately noticed, because privateers and pro-Southern blockade runners were using Hatteras Inlet in early 1861 as a base from which to raid Union merchant ships and ply commercial trade along the coast.

The first of several unlikely partnerships that specifically targeted the Outer Banks involved Union Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and politico Benjamin F. Butler. Butler, who would prove to be one of the most inept of President Lincoln’s appointed generals, enjoyed some small success when his men captured Newport News, Va., in May 1861, but he embarrassed himself shortly thereafter in a June 10 disaster at Big Bethel, Va. He was lobbying actively for a move to close Hatteras Inlet to privateers and blockade runners so he could rehabilitate his reputation.

Welles, who was well aware of the national embarrassment after the Battle of First Manassas and the need for some type of military success, also saw reports crossing his desk that indicated a landing force could be placed anywhere on Hatteras Island without serious opposition. Just two small Confederate forts were guarding the inlet.

First victory

Butler proceeded with planning and in the late summer approached Hatteras Inlet with a joint task force comprising seven ships mounting 149 guns, nearly a thousand infantry and numerous support vessels. With the cooperation of fire from the circling naval vessels, Union infantry conducted the first amphibious landing since the Mexican War and took control of Fort Clark on Hatteras Island without an assault when the ragtag garrison of several hundred Confederates ran out of ammunition and abandoned the fort. The biggest scare for Union forces came from a herd of wild Hatteras ponies that were mistaken for Confederate cavalry.

The retreating Fort Clark garrison joined other Confederate forces in Fort Hatteras. Even though other reinforcements arrived, the Confederates were poorly trained, led by ineffective officers and demoralized by Union shellfire. The next day, Aug. 29, 1861, Union gunboats fired more than 3,000 shells at Fort Hatteras, and the fort abruptly ran up the white flag. Confederate Commodore Samuel Barron, commander in chief of coastal North Carolina and leader of the combined Fort Hatteras forces, formally surrendered to Butler.

With hardly a fight, one of the Outer Banks’ most important openings was closed permanently. There were very few casualties, and many local residents hardly knew what was happening. In the North, however, Butler’s capture of Hatteras was hailed as a great victory. “Our first victory of any kind,” Union Adm. David Porter called it.

In the South, by contrast, some newspapers made wry jokes about the loss, while some clueless Confederate authorities asked for even more North Carolina soldiers to serve outside the state. However, Confederate Secretary of Navy Stephen Mallory apparently recognized the enormity of the loss.

Ordinary Union soldiers also were perplexed by the apparent lack of Confederate effort to defend the island. “Small, water-flooded, and insignificant,” one soldier later described the two forts at Hatteras. The soldiers also were intrigued by the local people. “There are women here who never wore shoes,” one soldier wrote home.

McClellan and Burnside

The Union effort against the Outer Banks was just beginning, and the second partnership against North Carolina resulted in far graver consequences for Confederate hopes along the coast. In late 1861, generals and friends George B. McClellan and Ambrose E. Burnside created a comprehensive plan to conquer eastern North Carolina.

McClellan was enjoying a meteoric rise to power that would culminate on Nov. 5, 1861, in his appointment as commander in chief. He also was meeting with the Blockade Strategy Board and others to refine broader war strategy. One idea McClellan fully supported was the creation of the Coast Division, by some accounts the world’s first modern amphibious unit. The 15,000-man unit was trained and equipped specifically to be used in combined operations with the Navy. He gave command of the unit to his old friend Brig. Gen. Burnside.

McClellan and Burnside both were fated to see their reputations ruined in Virginia at the hands of Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, but at this time, their teamwork was efficient, innovative and brilliantly successful.

Roanoke Island

The next phase of the Union invasion of coastal North Carolina was an attack on Roanoke Island. The island was situated north of Pamlico Sound between the Outer Banks and the mainland and was being fortified by both Confederate and state forces.

The newly outfitted Coast Division departed from Fort Monroe in Virginia on Jan. 6, 1862, with 12,000 soldiers and 80 ships. When they arrived at Hatteras later in the month, a series of Atlantic gales battered the fleet and resulted in the loss of at least four ships. Entrance into the sound was delayed. By Feb. 1, the attempt was made again, and the majority of Union vessels slid over the shallows into Pamlico Sound.

North Carolina Gov. Henry T. Clark (who had replaced the deceased John Ellis) appealed fruitlessly to Richmond for more Confederate aid. By some accounts, Clark intentionally kept state militia from reinforcing the island in order to gain the attention of Richmond. Command of the Confederate forces on the island was assigned to former Virginia governor and Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise, who traveled in person to Richmond to plead for reinforcements. Beyond his own legion and the local troops already present, no help was given.

On Feb. 7, Union Adm. Louis Goldsborough’s gunboats opened fire on Fort Bartow on the western side of Roanoke Island, and shortly thereafter, Burnside’s men began landing near Ashby’s Harbor to the south of the main Confederate defenses. By late afternoon, more than 4,000 men had landed on the island.

During the bombardment, the Confederate Mosquito Fleet, a small squadron of makeshift Confederate gunboats commanded by Commodore David Lynch, attacked the superior Union fleet. Lynch’s force lost several ships and was forced to withdraw in the face of a superior force. By midnight, the entire Federal army had landed.

Stunning victory

The next day, Burnside sent two of his three brigades up the lone road that traversed the island. The Confederate line they approached was anchored on either side by supposedly impenetrable swamps. When the initial attack bogged down, however, Burnside’s men poured into the swamps on either side of the road and suddenly found themselves astride the Confederate position. The entire Confederate line fell apart, and hundreds of men began falling back toward the fortified positions to the north.

Confederate Col. H.M. Shaw, in charge while Wise was sick, inexplicably hoisted the white flag before the retreating Confederates could reorganize, and suddenly the island was in Union hands along with 2,500 Rebel prisoners. It was a repeat of the Confederate debacle at Hatteras and gave the Union army a solid lodgment between the Outer Banks and the vulnerable interior.

“Burnside had taken the most important military objective between Wilmington and Norfolk,” historian William Totter wrote, “and he had done it at a cost of only 37 men killed and 214 wounded.” It was a stunning Union victory and a miserable Southern defeat. It also confirmed for Union authorities the enormous potential in combined Army and Navy operations.

New Bern

Burnside was far from finished, however. After the capture of Roanoke Island, Goldsborough sent part of the Union fleet upriver to further disable Lynch’s pesky Mosquito Fleet. Just two Rebel vessels escaped. Combined Union forces also captured the small port town of Elizabeth City and the town of Edenton.

Another coastal town, Winton, was destroyed wantonly by Burnside’s forces and would not be rebuilt until after the war. The rest of coastal North Carolina appeared ready to be taken out of the war. In addition, Burnside was in position to threaten the crucial Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, an overburdened line that carried nearly all of the important north-south traffic through the eastern Confederacy.

Before moving inland, however, Burnside needed to consolidate captured territory and neutralize two other important enemy targets: the port city of New Bern and Fort Macon on the tip of Bogue Sound near Beaufort. The entire upper portion of the Outer Banks already was under Union control, and capturing these remaining strong points in the southern portion would leave open only the Port of Wilmington for Confederate use. Wilmington (technically not part of the Outer Banks) was extremely heavily fortified.

New Bern was located on the Neuse River in the southwestern corner of Pamlico Sound. Yet another weak collection of Confederate and state forces concentrated south of the city under the leadership of Gen. Lawrence O’Bryan Branch. Burnside’s force was superior in training and numbers and exploited a weak militia unit placed near some brick kilns in a brickyard. After repeated attacks, the victorious Union wings swept forward, capturing not only the city, but hundreds of arms, cannon and Rebel prisoners.

Fort Macon

From New Bern, it was just a short journey by rail, foot or boat to Bogue Sound, Beaufort and Fort Macon. Confederate Col. Moses J. White, a young, inflexible officer given to epileptic seizures, commanded the fort and was determined to resist. Union Gen. John G. Parke was sent by Burnside to take the fort. He repaired the railroad from New Bern to Bogue Sound, occupied Morehead City and Beaufort with just minor resistance, and landed Union siege forces on Bogue Bank within a few thousand yards of Fort Macon. Parke politely asked for White’s surrender, and White equally politely declined.

When the combined artillery of the Union fleet and besieging troops opened fire on the fort, however, things quickly changed. Fort Macon was an older brick-masonry design not intended to withstand a modern siege. Although Confederate casualties were light, the bombardment convinced White that resistance was futile. The fort was surrendered on April 25, 1862, and the entire Outer Banks region was closed from this point on to all regular Confederate traffic.

Events in Virginia, however, were paramount to Washington officials. McClellan was still in charge of the Army of the Potomac, and after the disappointing Peninsula Campaign in July 1862, most of Burnside’s forces were recalled to Virginia to help counter Lee’s battlefield successes. It would be nearly three years before the Union resumed the offensive in North Carolina. Nonetheless, Burnside’s campaign, largely overlooked by military historians, made possible the later capture of Wilmington that cut Lee’s final supply line.

Remnants of war

From late 1862 onward, the Outer Banks returned to its prewar sleepiness. Union troops garrisoned only strategic points. The pro-Union sentiment that was expected when Butler’s men arrived was muted at best. Blockade runners occasionally were run ashore, such as the Confederate ship Prevensey, a 500-ton iron side-wheel steamer that grounded on Emerald Isle.

The geography of the Outer Banks continued to evolve. During the course of the war, dozens of wrecks and abandoned ships disappeared under the incessant pounding of the sea and surf. Ships intentionally sunk by both sides to restrict navigation altered the course of shipping channels. In the Atlantic, reefs filled with rich sea life formed where wrecked ships settled on the bottom. Villages were abandoned, occupied or sometimes destroyed.

Some physical traces of the Civil War remain for the truly curious modern visitor, such as Fort Macon or the famous Outer Banks lighthouses. A sign marks the demise of the Prevensey, and curious divers often explore offshore wreck sites. Stories are still told in local bars and hangouts.

These remnants do not suggest the full story of how the war swept over the Outer Banks like a hurricane; nor do they answer the question of why Confederate authorities failed to do more to protect the area.

Jack Trammell is a teacher and administrator at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. His Civil War novel “Gray” is available through popular outlets. He can be reached at jacktrammell@yahoo.com.

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