Union Navy and U.S. Naval Operations in North Carolina during the American Civil War

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U.S. Navy and Union Naval Operations and Battles in North Carolina
U.S. Navy and Union Naval Operations in North Carolina

Battle between the Sassacus and the Albemarle,
Battle between the Sassacus and the Albemarle.gif
Battle of Sassacus and Albemarle, May 1864.

CSS Albemarle engaging several Federal gunboats
CSS Albemarle engaging Federal gunboats.jpg
CSS Albemarle engaging several Federal gunboats on Albemarle Sound, North Carolina, on 5 May 1864

(Left) Drawing entitled "Wood Versus Iron", a naval encounter during the American Civil War on 5 May, 1864 in Albemarle sound. 19th Century photograph of an artwork by Acting Second Engineer Alexander C. Stuart, USN, 1864. It shows CSS Albemarle engaging several Federal gunboats on Albemarle Sound, North Carolina, on 5 May 1864. From left to right are USS Commodore Hull, USS Wyalusing, USS Sassacus, CSS Albemarle, USS Mattabesett and the CSS Bombshell, which was captured during the action. Albemarle was not significantly damaged during this action, which left Sassacus disabled by a hit in one of her boilers. From Photo # NH 1673 Department of the Navy Historical Center. (Right) Battle between the Sassacus and the Albemarle, May 1864.

The United States Navy’s activities off the North Carolina coast undoubtedly influenced the outcome of the Civil War.  Even though many never saw a Union sailor or ship up close, the US Navy affected daily life in North Carolina because its blockade controlled nearly two-thirds of the coast. The threat of a naval bombardment was ever-present, too.
At the outset of the Civil War, the Union Navy implemented a strategy to blockade the Confederate coast from Alexandria, Virginia to the Rio Grande.  Although initially unprepared for this daunting task, the U.S. Navy, in time, increased its fleet to over 600 ships and gained control of almost every port along the southern coast and the Mississippi River.  The Union war effort benefited greatly from the implementation of this part of General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan.

Early North Carolina Operations

In North Carolina, the US Navy had two additional responsibilities: controlling the sounds and inland waters and raiding coastal salt works and other strategic targets.  Union military commanders realized that controlling the sounds and the rivers necessitated the occupation of more than one-third of the state and offered opportunities to strike at the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, one of the Confederacy’s main supply lines.  In order to accomplish this mission, Commodore Silas Stringham and General Benjamin Butler conducted a joint expedition, which closed Hatteras Inlet and captured Forts Hatteras and Clark.  This task’s successful completion on August 28-29, 1861, set the stage for an even bolder expedition during the following spring.
Union control of North Carolina’s sounds rested on the success of another joint operation between the army and navy: the Burnside Expedition.  Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough and General Ambrose Burnside commanded nineteen naval vessels and forty-six army transports carrying over 12,000 troops.  The expedition achieved its first objective of the operation, the capture of Roanoke Island, on February 8, 1862.  The island, located at the crucial position between the Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds, offered Burnside the option to strike in either direction.  The Union fleet pursued the smaller and weaker vessels of North Carolina’s “Mosquito Fleet” up the Albemarle Sound and into the Pasquotank River.  Two days later (February 10), it destroyed the state’s meager navy during the Battle of Elizabeth City.  With control of the Albemarle Sound firmly secured, Burnside refocused his attention southward on the Pamlico Sound and New Bern, the Sound’s gateway located at the juncture of the Neuse and Trent Rivers. 
By March 12, 1862 the Union fleet rested in the Neuse River just offshore the heavily fortified former capital.  Union gunboats in preparation for landing troops, shelled the riverbank on March 13.  Late in the day on March 14, Burnside seized control of New Bern and the Confederates retreated upriver to Kinston.  (For the remainder of the war, the town remained under Union control and served as a port for the Union.)  Next, Burnside followed the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad through Havelock, Morehead City, and Beaufort so that he might capture Fort Macon on Bogue Banks.  On the night of March 24, General James G. Parke secured Beaufort and made preparations to move on to Fort Macon. 

From March 29 to April 10, Union troops gathered on Bogue Banks for the assault on the brick and mortar fortification.  On April 25, Union siege artillery and gunboats off the coast opened fire on the fort.  The heavy, rifled artillery of the Union quickly took its toll on the masonry fortification and the fort’s commander soon surrendered.  Thereafter, the Union thoroughly controlled the coast of North Carolina from the Virginia border to the White Oak River.  Occupation forces remained in coastal North Carolina, particularly at Roanoke Island, Plymouth, New Bern, and Beaufort.   Beaufort became a coaling station for the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, thereby making it less difficult for the Union to conduct interior raids and refuel the blockading force and supply troops.

William Barker Cushing

US Navy and Civil War History Map
US Navy and Civil War History Map.jpg
Union Navy in Line of Battle during naval bombardment of Fort Fisher

Union raids along the coast of North Carolina were generally small missions aimed to destroy salt works and capture suspected blockade runners.  William Barker Cushing, one of the most daring Union naval commanders of the war, became famous in the North and the South by conducting successful operations outside of the scope of his orders,.  One such raid quickly turned into a more complicated ordeal than Cushing had planned.  On November 23-25, 1862, Cushing steered his ship, USS Ellis, up the New River to Jacksonville, where he and his crew captured Wilmington-bound mail, raised the United States flag over the courthouse, confiscated the local postmaster’s slaves, and seized two schooners and a number of stands of public arms.  However, on the way back downriver, the expedition came under fire from Confederate artillery and later became grounded on a sandbar.  Cushing and his men fought the Confederates on shore for two days, before finally scuttling the Ellis and avoiding capture by escaping in one of the prize schooners.
On February 29, 1864 Cushing and a crew of twenty men set out in two small boats for the mouth of the Cape Fear River in an attempt to capture Confederate General Louis Hebert, commander of the Cape Fear Department.  Arriving at the general’s headquarters in Smithville (now Southport), Cushing found that the enemy had gone to Wilmington.  Not wanting to leave empty-handed, Cushing took the general’s adjutant W.D. Hardman prisoner.

Cushing is perhaps best known for sinking the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle, which he blamed for the death of his good friend Lieutenant Commander Charles Flusser, who died the previous April while commanding the USS Miami against the ironclad. On the rainy night of October 27, 1864, Cushing sailed a thirty-foot-long steam launch, Picket Boat Number One, armed with a spar torpedo, into the Plymouth harbor.  He and his crew eluded detection and took the ironclad by surprise.  Running straight at the Confederate gunboat and jumping a log boom surrounding it, Cushing planted the spar torpedo under the boat’s hull and detonated the 100 pounds of gunpowder, and thereby sank the Albemarle at her moorings.  The Union sailors were then forced to swim for their lives under heavy, Confederate fire, and many drowned.
In the war’s last few months Cushing played a major role in the Union Navy’s efforts to control the Cape Fear River.  He sounded the channel of New Inlet during the Battle of Fort Fisher and conducted reconnaissance operations prior to the Battle of Fort Anderson.  Having worked for over three years to blockade the Cape Fear coast, the navy finally got its opportunity to capture Fort Fisher and take control of the region in late 1864 and early 1865.  The bombardments of Fort Fisher on December 24-25, 1864, and January 13-15, 1865, were the largest in history at the time.  Over the course of the two battles, the fleet fired over 40,000 shots.  The navy later bombarded Fort Anderson, on the opposite bank of the Cape Fear, but not as heavily as it had shelled Fort Fisher. 

Fort Macon, North Carolina
Fort Macon, North Carolina.jpg
Panoramic view of Fort Macon, North Carolina

(About) Fort Macon, a masonry fortification, represented the typical fortress during the Civil War. Fort Macon was one of thirty new Third System coastal forts that were constructed along the coastline of the United States following the War of 1812. It was built on the eastern end of Bogue Banks, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and was intended to defend the entrance to the ports of Beaufort and Morehead City. It was designed for defense against attacking enemy naval forces and therefore constructed of masonry. When the Civil War began, rifled-artillery had been invented and added to U.S. warships, thus rendering all masonry forts obsolete. The rifled-barrel could deliver a projectile with pinpoint accuracy and devastating effect against masonry, stone and rock, and other fixed fortifications. Macon sustained 560 hits from Union guns during the Siege of Fort Macon from March 23 to April 26, 1862, on the Outer Banks of Carteret County, North Carolina, when Union forces, under the command of General Ambrose E. Burnside, pressed the fight during the North Carolina Expedition. The battle results in one Federal killed and eight Confederates killed and mortally wounded. In addition to larger smoothbores, navy vessels during the Civil War were armed with new rifled cannons that could accurately deliver heavier projectiles from much greater distances, therefore in 1867 Congress halted additional appropriations for Third System fortifications and in 1870 the construction of well-dispersed masonry-revetted earthen fortifications began.

The End of the War

The navy also participated in the land assault on Fort Fisher, putting over 2,200 sailors and Marines ashore to attack the fort’s northeast bastion.  Commanded by Fleet Captain Kidder Randolph Breese and Captain Lucien L. Dawson, the small force launched their assault in conjunction with the army.  While Marines used state-of-the-art rifles to provide covering fire, sailors assaulted the fort with only pistols and cutlasses.  The fort’s defenders responded with artillery and rifle that ripped apart the naval detachment.  (Only an estimated ten percent of the party even made it to the fort’s walls.)  Though their ground assault was crushed, the navy had played an integral role in the capture of Fort Fisher and continued to be an important element in the Wilmington Campaign, in the Union capture and occupation of the Cape Fear region and in hastening the war’s end.

By Andrew Duppstadt, North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites


(Sources listed at bottom of page)

Recommended Reading: Civil War Navies, 1855-1883 (The U.S. Navy Warship Series) (Hardcover). Description: Civil War Warships, 1855-1883 is the second in the five-volume US Navy Warships encyclopedia set. This valuable reference lists the ships of the U.S. Navy and Confederate Navy during the Civil War and the years immediately following - a significant period in the evolution of warships, the use of steam propulsion, and the development of ordnance. Civil War Warships provides a wealth and variety of material not found in other books on the subject and will save the reader the effort needed to track down information in multiple sources. Continued below…

Each ship's size and time and place of construction are listed along with particulars of naval service. The author provides historical details that include actions fought, damage sustained, prizes taken, ships sunk, and dates in and out of commission as well as information about when the ship left the Navy, names used in other services, and its ultimate fate. 140 photographs, including one of the Confederate cruiser Alabama recently uncovered by the author further contribute to this indispensable volume. This definitive record of Civil War ships updates the author's previous work and will find a lasting place among naval reference works.

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Recommended Reading:  Storm over Carolina: The Confederate Navy's Struggle for Eastern North Carolina. Description: The struggle for control of the eastern waters of North Carolina during the War Between the States was a bitter, painful, and sometimes humiliating one for the Confederate navy. No better example exists of the classic adage, "Too little, too late." Burdened by the lack of adequate warships, construction facilities, and even ammunition, the South's naval arm fought bravely and even recklessly to stem the tide of the Federal invasion of North Carolina from the raging Atlantic. Storm Over Carolina is the account of the Southern navy's struggle in North Carolina waters and it is a saga of crushing defeats interspersed with moments of brilliant and even spectacular victories. It is also the story of dogged Southern determination and incredible perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Continued below...

For most of the Civil War, the navigable portions of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Chowan, and Pasquotank rivers were occupied by Federal forces. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, as well as most of the coastal towns and counties, were also under Union control. With the building of the river ironclads, the Confederate navy at last could strike a telling blow against the invaders, but they were slowly overtaken by events elsewhere. With the war grinding to a close, the last Confederate vessel in North Carolina waters was destroyed. William T. Sherman was approaching from the south, Wilmington was lost, and the Confederacy reeled as if from a mortal blow. For the Confederate navy, and even more so for the besieged citizens of eastern North Carolina, these were stormy days indeed. Storm Over Carolina describes their story, their struggle, their history.


Recommended Reading: Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast (The Civil War in North Carolina) (456 pages). Description: Ironclads and Columbiads covers some of the most important battles and campaigns in the state. In January 1862, Union forces began in earnest to occupy crucial points on the North Carolina coast. Within six months, Union army and naval forces effectively controlled coastal North Carolina from the Virginia line south to present-day Morehead City. Union setbacks in Virginia, however, led to the withdrawal of many federal soldiers from North Carolina, leaving only enough Union troops to hold a few coastal strongholds—the vital ports and railroad junctions. The South during the Civil War, moreover, hotly contested the North’s ability to maintain its grip on these key coastal strongholds.


Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...

The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly, and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.


Recommended Reading: Naval Strategies of the Civil War: Confederate Innovations and Federal Opportunism. Description: One of the most overlooked aspects of the American Civil War is the naval strategy played out by the U.S. Navy and the fledgling Confederate Navy, which may make this the first book to compare and contrast the strategic concepts of the Southern Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory against his Northern counterpart, Gideon Welles. Both men had to accomplish much and were given great latitude in achieving their goals. Mallory's vision of seapower emphasized technological innovation and individual competence as he sought to match quality against the Union Navy's (quantity) numerical superiority. Welles had to deal with more bureaucratic structure and to some degree a national strategy dictated by the White House. Continued below...

The naval blockade of the South was one of his first tasks - for which he had but few ships available - and although he followed the national strategy, he did not limit himself to it when opportunities arose. Mallory's dedication to ironclads is well known, but he also defined the roles of commerce raiders, submarines, and naval mines. Welles's contributions to the Union effort were rooted in his organizational skills and his willingness to cooperate with the other military departments of his government. This led to successes through combined army and naval units in several campaigns on and around the Mississippi River.


Recommended ReadingConfederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865. Description: The author, Prof. D. H. Hill, Jr., was the son of Lieutenant General Daniel Harvey Hill (North Carolina produced only two lieutenant generals and it was the second highest rank in the army) and his mother was the sister to General “Stonewall” Jackson’s wife. In Confederate Military History Of North Carolina, Hill discusses North Carolina’s massive task of preparing and mobilizing for the conflict; the many regiments and battalions recruited from the Old North State; as well as the state's numerous contributions during the war. Continued below...

During Hill's Tar Heel State study, the reader begins with interesting and thought-provoking statistical data regarding the 125,000 "Old North State" soldiers that fought during the course of the war and the 40,000 that perished. Hill advances with the Tar Heels to the first battle at Bethel, through numerous bloody campaigns and battles--including North Carolina’s contributions at the "High Watermark" at Gettysburg--and concludes with Lee's surrender at Appomattox.

Sources: Daniel Ammen, The Atlantic Coast (Wilmington, 1989); John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1963); Robert M. Browning, From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: The North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War (Tuscaloosa, 1993); Chris E. Fonvielle, Jr., The Last Rays of Departing Hope: The Wilmington Campaign (Campbell, CA, 1996); Rod Gragg, Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher (New York, 1991); John W. Hinds, Invasion and Conquest of North Carolina: The Anatomy of a Gunboat War (Shippensburg, 1998); L.J. Kimball, The Battle of New River, 23-25 November 1862 (Jacksonville, NC, 1997); Rowena Reed, Combined Operations in the Civil War (Lincoln, 1993); Charles M. Robinson, III, Hurricane of Fire: The Union Assault on Fort Fisher (Annapolis, 1998); Richard A. Sauers, The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina: A Succession of Honorable Victories (Dayton, 1996).

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