North Carolina Coast and the American Civil War

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North Carolina Coast and the American Civil War

North Carolina Coast and the Civil War Homepage

North Carolina Coast and the Civil War
The American Civil War was fought in many places across the southern landscape, but perhaps no region held as much importance to the Union's Anaconda Plan as eastern North Carolina. Control of the sounds and rivers of North Carolina was vital to cutting off the Confederacy's southern supply routes to Virginia. As the Federal government tightened its blockade, rapidly raising the number of its ships from 42 in 1861 to 671 in 1864, it viewed "the necessity of possessing the North Carolina sounds as well as its Outer Banks." To accomplish its objectives, the Union command, with combined land and naval forces, launched a series of expeditions, campaigns, and operations against the North Carolina coast. (North Carolina Coast and the American Civil War: Operations, Campaigns, and Expeditions.)

Civil War on the North Carolina Coast Map
North Carolina Civil War Battlefields Map.gif
Most Civil War battles were fought along North Carolina's coast

North Carolina Coast Civil War Map
North Carolina Coast Civil War Map.gif
North Carolina Civil War Coast Battle Map

Early in the Civil War, Union forces were deployed to blockade North Carolina's coast and then occupy the islands in order to strangle Southern-friendly shipping and control the deep-water rivers that fed the "sounds." The Atlantic coast of North Carolina was protected by a series of barrier islands, and control of the islands and the bodies of water west of them known as "sounds" was crucial for both sides during the Civil War. Losing the coast, consequently, placed most of eastern North Carolina in danger and threatened the critically important supply line on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. The Union referred to its strategy as the Anaconda Plan; the implementation of Union General Winfield Scott's strategy of "divide and conquer."

Early in the war, "General Robert E. Lee was fearful that General Ambrose Burnside would find out the defenseless condition of North Carolina and move forward. Every night General Lee telegraphed: 'Any movement of the enemy in your front to-day?'"


At the close of 1862, only two regiments of infantry were left in North Carolina, the Fiftieth and Fifty-first, and the Union forces on the coast could, had they been apprised of the heavy movement of troops, "have swept without opposition over all the State. A people less brave and less patriotic would never have consented to incur such a risk with so strong an enemy at its doors. The governor exposed his own capital to save that of the Confederacy." At the close of the Civil War, consequently, North Carolina had "forty regiments in Virginia."

In an effort to alleviate the state of affairs at the opening of 1864, a force of magnitude was sent to North Carolina. General George Pickett, a well-known soldier of great zeal and valor, with a division of troops, advanced to the State to assist the forces already there.

The close of 1863 was gloomy enough in eastern North Carolina. Moore thus describes it: "The condition of eastern North Carolina grew hourly more deplorable. Frequent incursions of the enemy resulted in the destruction of property of all kinds. Especially were horses and mules objects of plunder. Pianos and other costly furniture were seized and sent North, while whole regiments of 'bummers' wantonly defaced and ruined the fairest homesteads in eager search for hidden treasure. The 'buffaloes,' in gangs of a dozen men, infested the swamps and made night hideous with their horrid visitations. They and their colored coadjutors, by all manner of inducements, enticed from the farms such of the negro men as were fitted for military duty....To the infinite and undying credit of the colored race, though the woods swarmed with negro men sent back on detailed duty for the purpose of enlisting their comrades in the Federal army, there were less acts of violence toward the helpless old men, women and children than could have been possibly expected under the circumstances."

Map of North Carolina and Civil War on the Coast
Civil War Battles Fought in North Carolina Map.jpg
Civil War Battles Fought in North Carolina Map

General Lee said if Fort Fisher fell he could not subsist his army.

In January 1865, after a failed attempt in December 1864, "the U.S. navy department was able to concentrate before Fort Fisher a larger force than had ever before assembled under one command in the history of the American navy--a total of nearly sixty vessels."

"All day and all night on the 13th and 14th of January 1865," says Confederate Colonel Lamb, "the Union fleet kept up a ceaseless and terrific bombardment....It was impossible to repair damage at night. No meals could be prepared for the exhausted garrison; the dead could not be buried without new casualties. Fully 200 had been killed during these two days, and only three or four of the land guns remained serviceable."

No effort of any importance seems to have been made by the commanding general, Braxton Bragg, to assist the doomed fort.

Then the massive land forces approached nearer and nearer by pits and shelter, and Colonel Lamb, and all their officers and men fight for the important fort; frequently did they signal for the aid they sorely needed.”

General Whiting, a most gallant and noble soldier, and Colonel Lamb, a determined veteran and warrior, were both severely wounded. On the 15th of January, after exhausting every energy, Fort Fisher was surrendered. The Federal loss is stated at 1,445. The Confederate garrison lost about 500. Few more gallant defenses against such odds are recorded. General Whiting died shortly after in a Northern prison, and North Carolina soon witnessed that great Battle of Bentonville--the largest battle fought in North Carolina and the last full-scale Confederate offensive--and then the nation experienced the Reconstruction Era.

North Carolina Coast Civil War Map
North Carolina Coast Civil War Map.gif
Civil War North Carolina Coast Map of Forts

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North Carolina and the American Civil War

Recommended Reading: The Civil War on the Outer Banks: A History of the Late Rebellion Along the Coast of North Carolina from Carteret to Currituck With Comments on Prewar Conditions and an Account of (251 pages). Description: The ports at Beaufort, Wilmington, New Bern and Ocracoke, part of the Outer Banks (a chain of barrier islands that sweeps down the North Carolina coast from the Virginia Capes to Oregon Inlet), were strategically vital for the import of war materiel and the export of cash producing crops. From official records, contemporary newspaper accounts, personal journals of the soldiers, and many unpublished manuscripts and memoirs, this is a full accounting of the Civil War along the North Carolina coast.


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:  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: The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina (175 pages) (North Carolina Division of Archives and History). Description: From the drama of blockade-running to graphic descriptions of battles on the state's islands and sounds, this book portrays the explosive events that took place in North Carolina's coastal region during the Civil War. Topics discussed include the strategic importance of coastal North Carolina, Federal occupation of coastal areas, blockade-running, and the impact of war on civilians along the Tar Heel coast.


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. 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.

Includes: History of North Carolina Coast American Civil War, List of all North Carolina Civil War Battles and Battlefields Summary, Results, North Carolina Civil War Facts, Details, Battlefield Maps, map, Photos, Picture, Photographs

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