During the antebellum era, Hatteras was one of the state’s busiest ports. Although its importance equaled Wilmington’s, its location made it more difficult to defend during the Civil War.
At the onset of the war, the Confederate state government built two forts to protect the port of Hatteras: Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark. Fort Hatteras was a 250-foot fort that contained twelve smoothbores. Fort Clark was built closer to the ocean and had five large cannons and two smaller ones. The forts’ locations allowed for the two to work in tandem and possibly trap Union invaders in a crossfire. They were difficult to defend, however. Enemy troops could land almost anywhere near Fort Clark (named after Governor Henry Toole Clark), and Confederate troops had no good escape routes. The forts also lacked sufficient numbers of men and ammunition. (Some have said former Governor Warren Winslow, who during the war advised Governor John Ellis and later served as chairman of the state’s Military and Naval Board, underestimated the need for a coastal defense, and that he is in great part to blame for the quick Union capture of Confederate Northeast North Carolina).
The forts’ construction was a grueling ordeal for workers. In addition enduring hard work in the summer heat, the men (blacks and whites) battled aggressive mosquitoes. Before the forts were built completely, Fort Hatteras experienced some of the first naval warfare during the Civil War. On July 10, 1861, the United States Navy fired at the fort, and the men in the fort, writes historian John G. Barrett, witnessed “the first hostile shots fired by the U.S. Navy at Southern held territory.”
By August, the forts were completely ready. Even so, an insufficient number garrisoned the forts. At Fort Hatteras, only 350 men guarded the fort. Its commander, Major W.B. Thompson, asked for 250 more men. Waiting for attack, with little to do, the men drank a lot, and according to one officer, they acted like schoolboys. Meanwhile, Fort Hatteras harbored Confederate raiders, who plundered successfully many times along the northeastern coast and disrupted American trade. To Union commanders, something must be done; Confederate raiding boats, including Winslow, Beaufort, Raleigh, and Ellis, were taking American supplies and sending them to Confederate troops in Virginia.
Union commanders decided to attack Fort Hatteras and eliminate the Confederate raiding threat along the North Carolina coast. Approximately 880 men from the 9th and 10th New York Volunteers boarded several smaller boats and left Fort Monroe, Virginia on August 25, 1861, and headed southward to Fort Hatteras. The fleet included seven warships: Cumberland, Harriet Lane, Minnesota, Monticello, Pawnee, Susquehanna, and Wabash. The Union force arrived near Hatteras on August 27 and waited for morning to attack. On August 28, Union troops landed approximately three miles north of Ft. Clark, for a heavy surf prevented the Union army from landing at their original destination. Union troops planned to attack Fort Clark on the 29th. That night, however, Confederates abandoned Ft. Clark and went to Hatteras; they were out of gunpowder. By nightfall, Union troops (without casualty) then occupied Ft. Clark and waited for the morning to mount an attack on Fort Hatteras.
While Union troops occupied Ft. Clark, Confederates planned to recapture the fort. Abandoning Ft. Clark, in fact, had been part of the Confederates’ original plan: They would abandon the fort, necessary reinforcements would arrive that night, and they would attack in the morning. The total number of requested reinforcements never arrived, so the Fort Hatteras’s commanders, Colonel Martin and Commodore Barron, started strengthening the fort’s defenses for an imminent Union attack.
On August 29, a heavy Union bombardment ensued. A Confederate return was almost non-existent—wet gunpowder, a fire in the fort, and many shots did not detonate. One officer estimated 3,000 Union shells were fired in 3 hours. After reading reports, Governor Clark later remarked, “Hatteras sustained the heaviest and most incessant firing that this country ever witnessed.” The Confederates could not endure much more (Many men were outside the small fort’s protective walls). Union Commodore Stringham soon demanded unconditional surrender. Within an hour after Stringham’s offer and before he surrendered, Confederate Commodore Barron sent as many men as possible to New Bern. He later went out to Stringham’s boat, Minnesota, and signed the terms of unconditional surrender.
Although the Union victory resulted in few casualties for either side (one Union dead and 12 Confederate dead), the capture of Fort Hatteras was a significant Confederate defeat. Approximately 700 Confederates had been captured, and thirty cannons and five small boats were now in Union hands. Of more significance, Southern privateering on the Outer Banks had been eliminated, the Union Navy acquired a fueling station that strengthened its blockading effort, and the Union Army obtained a post for military operation in Northeast North Carolina. The fort’s capture gave the Union a morale boost, after the humiliating defeat at First Bull Run.
Meanwhile in Confederate North Carolina, leaders and citizens were looking for someone to blame. Accusations of soldier drunkenness and ineffectiveness abounded. The Ordnance Department was blamed for the lack of weaponry and ammunition at Fort Hatteras. The fort was not particularly sturdy, so Army engineers were criticized. CSA Congress demanded an investigation. The fall of Fort Hatteras was one of the first Confederate defeats, and many North Carolinians were embarrassed. One Tar Heel expressed what many in his state undoubtedly thought: “Must history record in after years that in our struggle for freedom the first repulse our cause received was on the soil of the Old North State. . . .”
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1963) and John S. Carbone, The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina (Raleigh, 2001)