United States Navy (Civil War activity)

Written By Andrew Duppstadt

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

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.  

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.