August 29, 1861 – The first joint Federal army-navy expedition of the war resulted in the capture of Hatteras Inlet, one of North Carolina’s busiest ports for blockade running.
The Federal Blockade Strategy Board had declared that Hatteras Inlet was the most important of North Carolina’s four inlets deep enough for blockade runners to deliver supplies to the Confederacy. The inlet was a gap in the sandbar providing the main entrance to Pamlico Sound, a large body of water between the beach and the mainland, about 18 miles southwest of Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks.
Two makeshift forts built of sand and logs guarded the inlet: Fort Hatteras, an eighth of a mile west of the inlet covering the sea channel, and the smaller Fort Clark, east of Fort Hatteras. Just 350 Confederates of the 7th North Carolina and 12 smoothbore cannon garrisoned the forts.
Capturing Hatteras Inlet would be a navy operation, led by Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, commanding the Federal Atlantic Blockading Squadron. But capturing the forts would require army support. Major General Benjamin F. Butler, who had recently been removed as commander of the Department of Virginia at Fort Monroe, was selected by the new department commander, Major General John E. Wool, to raise a force to accompany the warships.
Butler led 860 infantrymen of the 9th Massachusetts and the 20th New York on transports protected by the warships U.S.S. Cumberland, Minnesota, Monticello, Pawnee, Susquehanna, Wabash, the revenue cutter Harriet Lane, and the tug Fanny. The naval force included 143 rifled cannon and Stringham’s valuable knowledge of modern fort destruction tactics, having served with the Mediterranean fleet during the Crimean War.
The fleet anchored about three miles offshore on the night of the 27th, then began their attack the next morning. Part of the fleet began bombarding Fort Clark and a battery north of the fort, using the successful Crimean War tactic of moving while firing and not anchoring, thus depriving the Confederate artillerymen in the fort of having a stationary target. Confederates soon abandoned the battery north of Clark and retreated into the fort.
Meanwhile, other warships escorted the army transports to their landing site, about three miles east of Fort Clark. Butler observed the infantry landing from Harriet Lane and aborted the mission after just 315 troops made it ashore due to high winds and rough seas. The ground forces closed in on Clark’s defenders, even though their gunpowder was wet and useless. But the Confederates soon ran out of ammunition as well, and they abandoned the fort. Federals entered without opposition and raised the U.S. flag by 2 p.m.
The Federals turned their attention to Fort Hatteras, which was reinforced after dark by Confederates from other nearby posts led by Flag Officer Samuel Barron. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward had tried enlisting Barron to keep Virginia in the Union, but now Barron commanded all Confederate coastal defenses in both Virginia and North Carolina.
The Federal bombardment resumed around 10 a.m. The clearing weather enabled the Federals to pour a steady fire into the fort, beyond the range of Confederate cannon. Midshipman Roswell H. Lamson aboard U.S.S. Wabash wrote that evening: “It was terrible to watch the large shells as they came down in the fort bursting almost as soon as they struck, scatter sand and tents, dismounting guns and tearing everything but the bombproof covers to pieces. For a long time we fired a shell every three minutes from the forward gun, and it was nothing but a continual bursting of shells around, over, and among them.”
Although casualties in the fort were light, Barron agreed to surrender after a council of war. They raised the white flag at 11:10 a.m. Barron refused to surrender to Butler, whose troops had a minimal impact on the outcome; he said he would only “surrender to the man who had whipped him” and gave his sword to Stringham.
The Federals escorted 615 Confederate prisoners onto the transports as Butler’s troops raised the U.S. flag over Fort Hatteras. The Federals also captured 1,000 small arms and 15 cannon. This Federal victory panicked coastal southerners who feared that enemy forces would soon invade their communities. However, the Federals did not yet have the resources needed to expand on this success.
The fall of Hatteras Inlet closed an important port to blockade runners. It also served the Federal blockading fleet as a coal and supply station. And it greatly boosted northern morale after the defeats at Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek. Butler regained his esteem among the Federal command, despite his minimal participation in the operation. President Lincoln allowed him leave to reunite with his family and recruit more volunteers in New England. Stringham grew resentful over receiving little recognition for the innovative tactics he used to pound the forts into submission.
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