Many who visit the Outer Banks have no idea that the Battle of Roanoke Island played a rather significant impact on the ultimate fall of Richmond which ended the Civil War in April 1865. While the battle that impacted the area was a short one, victory by the Union over local Confederate forces opened the eastern North Carolina waterways, including the ocean coastline itself, to total Union dominance over maritime traffic in the area. The South had hoped to maintain water commerce from the Atlantic into the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds but their loss on February 7, 1862 negated that possibility. Once the Carolina waterways were secured, the Union could apply more pressure on Hampton Roads and beyond toward Richmond. gaining complete control over a major port with its impact on shutting down incoming supply shipments via blockading the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina coast.
Many locals were part of the three thousand Southern soldiers guarding Roanoke Island. Family names like Daniels, Dowdy, Etheridge, Gallop, Jarvis, Barco and Mann were among those involved in the fight. They were assigned to a unit, Company B of the 8th Regiment, often called Shaw’s Guards, made up of Currituck County enlistees for at the time Roanoke Island was a part of Currituck County.
Union forces were under the command of Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside who designed the plan of attack with a force more than six times the number of the Confederate Army. In a flotilla of some sixty-six ships, the Union troops sailed out of Annapolis and made a short stop at Fortress Monroe at the mouth of Hampton Roads, a military facility that the Union maintained control over after war was declared. He continued sailing south, hugging the coast until reaching the waters adjacent to Diamond Shoals where they encountered a strong nor’easter on January 12, 1962. They lost their largest ammunition ship as well as one carrying all of their horses and several ships ran aground in Hatteras Inlet. Keep in mind that the inlet was only created fifteen years earlier and was still undergoing constant shifting and adjustment in its early years.
As a result of the ship losses, Burnside had to leave nearly seven thousand troops on Hatteras Island when they departed across Pamlico Sound, landing on the mainland at Stumpy Point. Thirteen thousand soldiers sailed to face the much smaller Confederate contingent of three thousand. The landing at Stumpy Point was the first time they actually saw Roanoke Island and several reconnoitering ships mapped out the best course while trying to identify enemy troop and cannon emplacements on the island shore.
At the same time, Confederate soldiers were trying to reinforce their earthen forts on the northern, higher elevation end of the island At Forts Bartow and the main camp, Fort Huber. A battle line was drawn across the Croatan Sound from Fort Bartow to Fort Forrest on the mainland, a line they didn’t want Union ships to cross. They knew the draft of the Union ships would not allow them to sail in on the Roanoke Sound and so they wouldn’t be surprised from the other side of the island. In order to force Union soldiers to disembark in the swamps and bogs of the southern portion of the island, they sank ships and drove stakes into the water as barricades on the battle line near the island shore.
On the afternoon of February 6, 1862, Union forces landed at Captain William Ashby’s farm south of Fort Bartow. They bivouacked overnight before beginning the attack in the morning. The Confederates, woefully undermanned and lacking training and supplies, weather a blistering artillery aerial assault and could only count on the swampland slowing the Union forces. It didn’t work and within about four hours, even the main battery of three cannons, the largest arms the Southerners had, was silenced. Casualties were low but two thousand five hundred Rebels surrendered and the battle ended.
Most of the Southern prisoners were released in Elizabeth City some three weeks later and many would see heavy action later for the Confederacy in Virginia. My great grandfather was one of them and he was ultimately captured again in the fall of 1864 during the siege of Petersburg. From there he was taken to the notorious Point Lookout prisoner of war (POW) camp in Southern Maryland where he spent the remainder of the war cold, hungry and dejected. He was one of nearly twenty thousand in that category at a camp that was dubbed as the northern version of Andersonville. Most of the men had no cover from the weather and limited edible food. When finally released, most of them walked home, finding odd jobs along the way to pay for passage of rivers or possibly get a ride on a wagon.
War truly is hell under any conditions, whether your side is the winner or the loser and I pray routinely that it can always be avoided. Unfortunately, mankind over the ages has never been able to end it and Roanoke Island had its own little part to play in such matters, way back in February 1862. History is meant to be remembered so that we might be able to avoid its repeat in future times.
Writer’s credit: This story was researched through National Park Service sites and the reference source North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865; Vol. 4; pgs. 533-542, copyright 2004