The Federal Blockade Strategy Board had declared Cape Hatteras to be a haven for Confederate blockade runners that guarded several vital waterways into the state. The cape could be accessed by entering Hatteras Inlet, a gap in North Carolina’s sandy coast about 18 miles southwest. The inlet was also the main entrance to Pamlico Sound, a large body of water between the beach and the mainland.
The Federal command assigned Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham, head of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to lead a joint army-navy operation to destroy the Confederate forts guarding the cape at Hatteras Inlet. These log-and-sand defenses included Fort Hatteras commanding the sea channel and the smaller Fort Clark, east of Hatteras. Some 600 Confederates guarded the forts.
Stringham’s fleet of seven warships included the U.S.S. Cumberland, Pawnee, and Wabash, and the flagship was the wooden steam frigate U.S.S. Minnesota. The fleet had 143 rifled guns, and Stringham was familiar with the fort-reduction tactics used in the recent Crimean War. Also part of the fleet were two army transports containing nearly 900 infantrymen under Major General Benjamin F. Butler. Butler had suggested this type of expedition to the War Department, hoping to regain favor after his defeat at Big Bethel and his removal from command at Fort Monroe.
The ships left Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the 26th, embarking on the first major amphibious operation of the war. They reached Cape Hatteras that afternoon and anchored three miles out. Boats were prepared to land the Federal troops at dawn. The next morning, Butler, traveling aboard the Minnesota, transferred to the Harriet Lane to coordinate the landing. Stringham’s warships moved into attack formation and began shelling the Confederate batteries at Forts Clark and Hatteras. The ships stayed safely beyond the range of the inferior Confederate fire, moving in a large circular pattern to keep the Confederates from training on their targets.
Butler began landing his infantry on surfboats just before noon. However, rough tides due to high winds prevented most troops from landing, with the water drowning dozens of men and rendering their gunpowder useless. About 300 men landed before Butler suspended the operation. This partial force moved south toward Clark. Confederate fire stopped around 12:30 p.m., and Stringham ordered the Federal bombardment to end. The Federal ground troops moved into Fort Clark, found it abandoned, and raised the U.S. flag.
Stringham sent a warship up the inlet to see if Fort Hatteras had been abandoned as well. The Confederates there opened fire, signaling that it had not. The Federals responded, and the two sides traded shots until nightfall. Hatteras was greatly reduced, and the Confederate guns were too light and their powder too defective to cause any damage to the fleet. Stringham was confident that his guns would finish the job the next day.
Bad weather delayed operations for 24 hours, with the Federal warships resuming their bombardment on the 29th. The Confederates traded shots with them for three hours, but their guns could not match the range of the rifled naval cannon. Confederate reinforcements were hurried in from Portsmouth, Virginia, under Flag Officer Samuel Barron, commanding the coastal defenses of Virginia and North Carolina. But they provided no help under the relentless naval bombardment. Finally, at 11:10 a.m., a white flag was raised over Fort Hatteras.
When the Federal ground troops entered the fort to accept the surrender, the Confederates refused on the grounds that they could have held out against the army, and would therefore only surrender to the navy. Stringham and Butler met with the Confederate commanders, and it was agreed that the Confederates would surrender to the “armed forces” of the United States. The 615 officers and men were taken back to Fort Monroe as prisoners of war. The first Federal joint army-navy operation was a success.
News of the victory reached Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox in Washington late on the 31st. He went over to the White House and had President Abraham Lincoln awakened near midnight. After filling in the president on the details, “in his nightshirt, Lincoln ran into the Cabinet room, and literally danced a jig around Gus Fox.” This was the first significant Federal victory of the war, and it spread jubilation throughout the North. It closed one of the most important ports to Confederate blockade runners, which made the job of the Federal blockading squadron much easier. It also boosted northern morale, which had been shaken by the recent defeats at Bull Run and Wilson’s Creek. Southerners were devastated, as reflected in an editorial in a Raleigh newspaper:
“What does the entrance of the Yankees into our waters amount to? It amounts to this: The whole of the eastern part of the State is now exposed to the ravages of the merciless vandals. New Berne, Washington, Plymouth, Edenton, Hertford, Elizabeth City, are all now exposed, besides the whole of the adjacent country.… Our state is now plunged into a great deal of trouble.”
Butler regained his esteem among the Federal command, despite the fact that he and his troops did very little to secure the victory. Even so, Lincoln rejected his plan to use the forts as a base for invading North Carolina. The president instead favored the plan envisioned by Butler’s superior, Major General John Wool, in which inland armies would conduct invasions while coastal forces sealed ports and supplied blockading ships. To the disappointment of many in the North, the Federals did little to follow up on this major victory.
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- Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 29-31.