The first successful campaign of Union forces in the Civil War was against the coastal area of North Carolina. This effort, which began in August 1861 and continued through the spring and summer of 1862, featured the first amphibious landing of the war and combined Army and Navy operations in an early success. Following closely on its heels was Ulysses S. Grant’s successful campaign through Tennessee—perhaps not coincidentally also a combined Army-Navy expedition. The difference was that while Grant’s campaign started a chain of events that were strategically important for the Union, the North Carolina operations in 1861 and 1862 never proved to be the disastrous blow to the Confederacy that Union military planners anticipated, despite the capture of key points in the coastal area. Perhaps this was because the focus of Northern priorities and resources was concentrated elsewhere through the first 31⁄2 years of the war.
The Northern occupation forces may have discovered what the Confederates who opposed them already knew—this region is abundant in natural beauty and resources, including food resources from the sea. Today Civil War travelers can experience these joys and explore the rich traditions of the area. The Outer Banks and coastal cities have developed sites and amenities to celebrate the region. Recreational features, especially fishing, boating and other water activities, are world class. The weather can be treacherous at times, especially along the Outer Banks. However, weather concerns should never preclude a visit to this area. Most storm fronts here are tracked well in advance, and residents and business owners take steps to prepare for them.
This tour covers a large area, and ideally five to seven days would be allotted to cover it completely and unhurriedly. Due to the scattering of historical events over a wide area, it cannot be organized chronologically, which is fine because there is no downside to reversing the direction. This tour route begins at the intersection of I-95 and U.S. 64 (Rocky Mount, N.C.), which can be easily reached traveling east from the Raleigh-Durham area or south from the Richmond-Petersburg area. The tour ends at the intersection of I-95 and U.S. 70. From there, one can continue west or south to other Civil War sites.
Proceed east on U.S. 64 toward the town of Plymouth. After their initial landing in 1862 and the successful capture of Roanoke Island, Federal forces advanced to strategic locations in the eastern part of the state using North Carolina’s navigable waterways. On the way to Plymouth is the first of three optional side trips in this area. Turn left on N.C. 903 and go north to Hamilton. Fort Branch is 2l⁄2 miles east of Hamilton on Fort Branch Road. This earthen fort on the Roanoke River at Rainbow Bend was strengthened and challenged enemy craft after Federal gunboats ascended the river in July 1862. Ongoing restoration of the fort and events at the site make this an interesting stop.
At the intersection of U.S. 64 and U.S. 17, a second side trip can be made to Washington. The Federals occupied Washington beginning in March 1862 after Confederate forces withdrew. The Rebels attacked here in September of 1862 and laid siege to the town the following spring. A walking-tour brochure of historic Washington is available at many downtown businesses. Hollyday House, 706 W. 2nd Street, was used as a hospital during the Federal occupation. Return to U.S. 64 and continue east to Plymouth. Follow the sign indicating a left turn to go downtown.
Occupied by Union forces in the summer of 1862, Plymouth was revisited by the Confederates on December 10 when the 17th North Carolina, under Lt. Col. John C. Lamb, attacked the Federal garrison. The gunboat USS Southfield was damaged in the attack, but the Union infantry eventually turned away their undermanned foes. However one Rebel sniper in the Ausbon House, at 3rd and Washington streets, refused to give up. Bullet holes and damage to the chimney attest to his fight to the death here. It is one of the few buildings in the town to survive the war. A North Carolina Civil War Trails marker in the parking lot across 3rd Street tells the story of the house and Plymouth’s other Civil War events (most occurred in 1864, including the sinking of CSS Albemarle). A replica of the gunboat is afloat in the river at the foot of Adams Street.
Continue east on U.S. 64 to Roanoke Island. If time permits, the final and most extensive side trip in this area begins by crossing the Roanoke River on N.C. 45 to Winton. Here on February 20, 1862, a Southern town was intentionally burned for the first time. The previous day a slave woman was ordered by her master to lure Federal gunboats under Commander Stephen C. Rowan into a trap. But the Federal expedition’s army commander, Colonel Rush C. Hawkins, spied the hidden Confederates, and the ships withdrew before sustaining much damage. On the 20th, Rowan shelled the Confederate positions on the Chowan River, and Hawkins’ troops landed, clearing and burning the town.
There are historic markers here and at other points along U.S. 17 and U.S. 158. There is a marker commemorating the naval battle of Albemarle Sound at Edenton, and a monument to the U.S. Colored Troops stands at Hertford. Of relevance to the 1862 campaign is Elizabeth City, where on February 10 gunboats under Rowan attacked Fort Cobb on the Pasquotank River and defeated remnants of the Confederate squadron chased from Roanoke Island. Elizabeth City also has the Museum of the Albemarle, devoted to the history of the famous Rebel ship and the region. In the April 19, 1862, battle of South Mills, the Confederates stopped the Federals from taking the Dismal Swamp Canal, an important Southern supply line. The canal’s Welcome Center is on U.S. 17. Near Indiantown Creek Bridge are the remains of CSS Scuppernong, which was burned by the Federals in June 1862. For more information on these sites, see the reference at the end of the contact information on P. 68. Return to U.S. 64 via U.S. 17 and N.C. 45 or take U.S. 158 south to Nags Head and enter Roanoke Island from the east.
The pivotal battle in the 1862 campaign for coastal North Carolina was at Roanoke Island. Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside had begun planning the Union campaign in the second half of 1861. Gaining the interest of his friend Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, who influenced the president and the Blockade Strategy Board on the merits of the mission, Burnside recruited and trained his army at Annapolis, Md., in late 1861. Many were fishermen and merchant seamen of the Northeast. They would get their first taste of combat at Roanoke Island. The strategic position separated North Carolina’s two major sounds, Albemarle and Pamlico. The Confederates, though severely undermanned on the coast, fortified the island and concentrated 3,000 men there under Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise, a former governor of Virginia. A defeat for the Rebels on the island would give the North ample opportunity to operate along the coastal sounds.
With warships and transports of the U.S. Navy under Captain Louis M. Goldsborough, Burnside and his men arrived at Roanoke Island on February 7, 1862. The 108 guns of the Federal warships shelled Fort Bartow and eight lightly armed Rebel gunboats, dubbed the “mosquito fleet” by General Wise, while three Federal brigades rode launches to Ashby’s Harbor, two miles south of the fort. The Confederates had built a defensive line in the middle of the island along the only north-south road. With just three pieces of artillery and about 1,000 men to defend the 80-foot-wide redoubt, Wise depended on a cleared field of fire to his front and dense swamps flanking the position to aid in his defense. The Southern district commander at Richmond denied Wise’s request for reinforcements.
On the morning of February 8, Burnside’s three brigades, under Brig. Gens. John G. Parke, John G. Foster and Jesse L. Reno, advanced north to the Confederate position. Foster’s men, in the center, encountered stiff resistance, but Reno’s men slogged through the swamp and attacked the right flank of the Rebel line. By the end of the day, 2,500 Rebels were taken prisoner, while a handful escaped to the mainland or joined Wise’s other small force at Nags Head.
Just west of the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge on U.S. 64, a marker points out Confederate Fort Forrest, actually a seven-gun barge beached on the mud flats. Cross the bridge and look for the Outer Banks Welcome Center on the right. A tablet on the grounds describes the Burnside Expedition. The Federal warships were positioned just north of here in Croatan Sound on February 7. Ashby’s Harbor, about a mile south, is inaccessible. The center has a wealth of historical, lodging and recreational information on Roanoke Island and the surrounding area. Just south of the intersection of U.S. 64 and N.C. 345 on the southeast corner is the only remaining indication of the February 8 battle, a fenced-in portion of the redoubt and a brick marker describing the action. Parking is across N.C. 345. Exercise caution crossing this busy intersection.
North on Business U.S. 64 is the town of Manteo, which has a delightful array of shops, restaurants and lodging establishments. Across a narrow bridge on Ananias Dare Street is Roanoke Island Festival Park, a state art and history gallery, museum and activity center that has Civil War exhibits. Continue north on Business U.S. 64. Just before the William B. Umstead Bridge are two frontage roads with parking, one on each side of the road. South of the highway there is a marker for Fort Huger. The Confederate ships under Commodore William F. Lynch were unable to draw the Federal warships farther north, into a field of sunken obstructions across Croatan Sound and the fire of Forts Huger, Blanchard and Forrest. On the north side of the highway is Freedmen’s Colony Park. A marker describes the naval action in the sound. Another exhibit tells the story of the ex-slaves who flocked to the island from the mainland after the battle, and the community they began here.
Other Civil War attractions on the island are a one-third-scale replica of USS Monitor at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island and the First Light to Freedom National Underground Railroad Monument at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, the location of the first English colony in the New World and the permanent Freedmen’s Colony from 1862-67.
Leave Roanoke Island by taking U.S. 64 east to U.S. 12 and head south to Hatteras. Along the 54-mile stretch of N.C. 12 between U.S. 64 and Hatteras, and elsewhere on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, there are many recreational, wildlife-viewing and historical features, but only those with Civil War ties will be mentioned here.
In the Atlantic Ocean off the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center, USS Oriental, a Federal troop transport, sank in rough seas. The boiler and other parts of the shipwreck are visible about 100 yards offshore. Eight miles south, at the U.S. Lifesaving Service Station, a marker describes the Chicamacomico Races, an October 1861 skirmish during a Confederate attempt to retake captured forts. A new monument across N.C. 12 at the Rodanthe Civic Center details the action. At the Salvo Day Use area, at milepost 43.7 on the right of N.C. 12, a marker describes the capture of another U.S. Navy ship, Fanny. At Buxton, where the 1870 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stands guard over dangerous Diamond Shoals, is a marker recognizing the Civil War–era lighthouse and one acknowledging the sinking of USS Monitor on December 30, 1862, 17 miles offshore.
In August 1861, a Federal squadron of warships including USS Minnesota, USS Cumberland and USS Wabash, under Commodore Silas Stringham, and 800 men under Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler arrived off Hatteras Inlet. The warships pounded Confederate Fort Hatteras on August 28. Due to heavy surf, only a portion of Butler’s force landed, but his men captured the fort after the bombardment. Fort Clark, the other Rebel fort to the north, had been taken the previous day without a fight. The two nearby lighthouses on Ocracoke and Hatteras islands were relit after the Confederates doused them to disrupt the Northern blockade and aid privateering. A small Federal occupation force remained on Hatteras Island, and the gateway giving the U.S. Navy access to the North Carolina sounds was opened.
In the town of Hatteras along N.C. 12 there are markers for the war’s first amphibious assault, which occurred here, and one describing the first provisional government—the islanders attempt to reconstitute Unionist rule after the Federal landing in 1861. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum is just to the right of the ferry entrance. This developing museum covers all aspects of maritime history in one of the world’s most notorious shipwreck areas. A gem in the collection is the partially restored 1854 Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Fresnel lens, which was removed by the Confederates when war broke out. In the parking lot of the museum are pictorial monuments covering the attacks on Forts Clark and Hatteras, Burnside’s Expedition, the loss of Monitor and Civil War maritime casualties.
Take the free North Carolina state ferry to Ocracoke Island. The ferry passes the sites of Forts Hatteras and Clark, though no evidence of either fort is currently visible. The ferry also crosses the Hatteras Inlet, where Federal ships were challenged crossing the bar. Continue south on N.C. 12 to Ocracoke. There is a modest fee for the ferry to Cedar Island, and reservations are suggested. Just before the ferry entrance, a marker at the Silver Lake Public Boat Landing describes the destruction of Fort Ocracoke, and there is a roster of Outer Banks residents who fought in the Civil War. The 1823 Ocracoke Lighthouse is visible from the village and ferry.
Upon landing at Cedar Island, continue south on N.C. 12, then follow U.S. 70 to Beaufort. The town and Morehead City across the inlet were important Civil War ports and the terminus of a railroad leading inland. On Front Street and nearby streets in Beaufort are antebellum houses. Each has a plaque indicating when it was built. Cross U.S. 70 into Morehead City and follow the signs for Atlantic Beach. Cross the bridge and go east on N.C. 58 to Fort Macon State Park.
Fort Macon was a Third System brick-and-mortar fort with 43 guns guarding Bouge Inlet and the ports of Beaufort and Morehead City. On April 26, Federals under General Parke forced the surrender of the fort and its 400-man garrison after bringing siege artillery to bear from a point on Bouge Banks within a mile of the fort and combining it with fire from Federal warships. The location of the Federal position is indicated on N.C. 58. The fort itself is open during the day year round and has interpretive displays and a museum. The state park here has water recreation facilities. Return to Morehead City and proceed northwest on U.S. 70.
In March 1862, Burnside’s main objective was New Bern (spelled New Berne during the war), a colonial city and North Carolina’s second largest port. Four miles below the city a Confederate force of 4,500 under Brig. Gen. Lawrence O’Bryan Branch manned a line of breastworks that extended 2l⁄2 miles west of Fort Thompson on the Neuse River. Burnside landed his three brigades under Foster, Parke and Reno 16 miles below the city on March 13. By nightfall, they were two miles from the Rebel works. On the morning of March 14, the Federals advanced, and after some hard fighting, Colonel Isaac P. Rodman led the 4th Rhode Island and other units through a weak point in the line, in a brickyard near the railroad. Branch’s withdrawal of the Confederates turned into a rout, and the Federals marched into New Bern.
About 17 miles north of Havelock (three miles south of New Bern) turn left off U.S. 70 onto Taberna Way. Just across the railroad tracks, which parallel the highway on the west, there are markers for the New Bern battle and a narrow trail leading down to some traces of fortifications. This 23-acre site is next to the same railroad right-of-way and close to the brickyard that existed during the battle. Continue north of U.S. 70 and enter New Bern on Business U.S. 70. Just after the bridge, a sign identifies Union Point Park, a warehouse district that was burned by the Confederates as they evacuated the city on March 14. The Craven County Visitor Information Center, at 219 Pollock Street, has information on the historic buildings in the city. Among those of Civil War interest are the Charles Slover House, at 201 Johnson Street, which was used as a headquarters by Burnside and Foster. New Bern Academy, on New Street between Metcalf and Hancock, was used as a Federal hospital. The John Wright Stanley House, on George Street near the reconstructed seat of the royal governor, Tryon Palace, was the birthplace of Confederate General Lewis A. Armistead.
After the victories at New Bern and Fort Macon, the Federals set their sights on Goldsboro, where the coastline joined the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, a vital supply link for the Rebels in Virginia. Before he could move on Goldsboro, Burnside and much of his force were recalled to Fort Monroe, Va., after Robert E. Lee turned McClellan away from Richmond. Foster, left in command in North Carolina, made one attempt to drive on Goldsboro in December 1862, but first had to battle Confederates at Kinston. The Federals reached Goldsboro, where they destroyed a railroad bridge (which the Confederates rebuilt). Proceed northwest on U.S. 70. In Kinston and to the south on U.S. 258 are markers for the December battle, and the remains of another Confederate gunboat, CSS Neuse, are at the Richard Caswell Memorial and CSS Neuse State Historic Site. Continue northwest through Kinston and Goldsboro to the end of the tour at I-95. In this area the final struggle to maintain North Carolina for the Confederacy was fought in 1865. But that’s a subject for a future column.
Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.