It was the winter of 1861 and the armies of the Union had failed in their attempts to win any significant victories over the Confederates. The population of the North, tired and sickened by the blood being shed, were questioning whether the price they were paying in blood and treasure was for the war was too high.
A despondent President Lincoln was wondering if the war and the Union would be lost. As Union General Ambrose Burnside departed for coastal North Carolina, tensions were high.
Both the nation and the entire world had their eyes on little Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks as Burnside began his amphibious attack on the beaches that earned a victory that changed control of the Southern waters.
Each year many thousands of visitors travel down Route 64 on their way to Nags Head or to peruse the shops of downtown Manteo but very few of them are aware that they are in the middle of a battlefield. Little do they know that a battle was fought between 20,000 soldiers and sailors and over sixty ships, around Roanoke Island. It was a minor engagement, as Civil War battles go, but the repercussions of it far outweighed its results at the time.
Map of the Battle of Roanoke Island – Library of Congress
Union Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside put together his plan with the Outer Banks serving as a jumping off point for an invasion of all of eastern North Carolina. He created his expedition with troops trained and experienced with ocean operations from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Numerous ferryboats were commandeered for their shallow draft and their ability to maneuver in the tight waterways of the region. The aptly named Coastal Division, a motley little fleet of sixty-six ships, put out to sea from Annapolis, Maryland on January 8, 1862.
After stopping over briefly at Fort Monroe, Virginia, this expedition made straight for the post of Colonel Rush Hawkins at Hatteras Inlet.
The fleet was struck by a nor’easter on January 12th and was scattered and number of the smaller ships were almost swamped. On the next day, they began a rendezvous at the inlet and found that some of the ships were unable to cross over the sand bar at the mouth of Pamlico Sound, even after efforts to lighten their loads.
At the same time, due to another storm, the ship City of New York became was lost with her entire cargo of ordnance and supplies, The Zouave, a gunboat, was also lost, and another ship, the Pocahontas sank along with most of the horses she was carrying onboard.
Three weeks later, the remainder of the fleet was finally assembled in the sound and began steaming for Roanoke Island. Due to the loss of ships, the Union force had to leave behind three full regiments at Hatteras Inlet with no transportation and the remaining ships were so crowded that many of the soldiers found it impossible to sleep.
Finally the fleet arrived off of Stumpy Point, NC on February 6, 1862 , where they first saw Roanoke Island, with only sixty ships and just 13,000 men. Burnside was able to learn the strength Confederate forces and layout of their defenses from local escaped slaves. The eastern side of Roanoke sound was too shallow for most of the ships so General Burnside had to land on the western side of the island. The Confederate defenses were configured keeping this in mind.
At the top one third of the island, the Confederates had massed their defensive strength. From Fort Bartow to Fort Forrest, the Confederates had driven piles and sunk eight ships to block the Union Navy’s approach to the remainder of the island.
Forts Blanchard and Huger lay beyond Fort Bartow and a three-gun battery dominated the only road on the island on a knoll called Supple’s Hill. Roughly 3,000 Confederates from North Carolina and Virginia were manning all of these installations.
Burnside discovered that the only favorable landing lay to the south of Fort Bartow on Captain William Ashby’s farm. Besides offering a protected harbor at which to land, Ashby’s farm was also out of range of Forts Blanchard and Huger and Fort Bartow’s guns were blocked partially by a slight hill in between. Burnside would make the landing here on the next morning.
An intense bombardment of Fort Bartow and the small fleet of the Confederates, derisively referred to as the “Mosquito Fleet”, commenced around 11:30 that morning. The fort and the fleet suffered a punishment by the overwhelming weight of the Union ordinance.
The fort, along with the camp behind it, caught on fire and two of the ships, the Curlew and Forrest, were driven aground near Fort Forrest. In just under four hours, all Confederate resistance was subdued and by nightfall, all of the Union troops were ashore with the Confederate hopes were pinned down amidst their small three gun battery in the middle of the island.
The Union troops began marching out from the landing area at 7:30 a.m., after suffering through a rainy, sleepless night. Pushing on down the road to the battery, Union soldiers driving back Confederate skirmishers. As they came around a turn in the road, Union forces had their first view of the island’s main defense – the three gun battery.
This battery, sitting astride the road, was thirty-five yards wide with an eight feet wide, three feet deep ditch filled with water to guard the front. The three guns were supported by at most 1,000 very poorly armed soldiers remaining from various regiments.
The field in front of the battery was only about seven hundred feet long by three hundred feet wide and was surrounded by marshy swamps. Confederates had put their faith in these pools of swampy, slimy ground. As the swamps were so treacherous and impassable, they expected that the Union would be forced to funnel their attack down the roadway. However they were wrong.
Even though the ground was difficult to navigate and the units had become mixed with the air filled with smoke from the firing of numerous rifles and cannons, and with the Union troops accidentally fired upon each other in the confusion, the Union regiments were eventually able to successfully attack the three gun battery.
The Confederates, struck from the front and both ends had to abandon their defensive works and flee back to their camps, strewing the road along their way from the battlefield with the equipment that had encumbered them in their flight. many of the newly arrived Confederate troops tried to row over to Nags Head and safety but some were forced to return. A Confederate reinforcements came from the northern shore of the island they were met by the victorious Union soldiers and were pushed back into the Confederate camps and were forced to surrender.
Burnside captured Roanoke Island with minimal cost in casualties to his men. The official Union losses were tallied at thirty-seven killed, 214 wounded, and thirteen missing. Confederate losses were just twenty-two killed and fifty-eight wounded, however, 2,500 Confederate soldiers had surrendered. The Union, still reeling from the Bull Run disaster, gained much from this victory and together with the victory on February 15, 1862 at Fort Donelson in Tennessee, the Union war effort received a much needed boost; The Union war morale was lifted by the victory at Roanoke Island.
The capture of Roanoke Island served to open the inland riverline port cities, Plymouth, New Bern and others, to direct invasion and threatened Morehead City, North Carolina and Norfolk, Virginia from their weaker rear areas. All of these cities had fallen to Union forces by the summer of 1862, and the vital rail line from the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia to its only remaining east coast blockade running port in Wilmington, North Carolina was seriously threatened. With the enormous Union success at Roanoke Island, the stranglehold on the South was continuing to tighten.
As time has passed the victory of Roanoke Island may not be remembered alongside the historical recountings of some more famous battles like Gettysburg and Vicksburg, however, this short battle on this tiny little island on NC’s Outer Banks may have helped to turn the tide for the Union’s war effort. And even though there are no battlefields or forts remaining on the Outer Banks, the battle and the occupation by the Union Army that followed it will stand as important to the history of the area and the people who living there.