After Federals captured Roanoke Island on the North Carolina coast, Commodore William F. Lynch’s fleet of Confederate vessels withdrew northward, up the Pasquotank River. They stopped at Elizabeth City, the terminus of the Dismal Swamp Canal and the gateway to many vital waterways connecting North Carolina and southern Virginia. Lynch could have escaped to safety at Norfolk, but that would surrender North Carolina’s entire coast to the Federals. He therefore resolved to defend the town with his six ships, which were the last Confederate ships left in the North Carolina sounds.
Meanwhile, the Federal captors of Roanoke Island looked to expand their occupation zone. Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the Federal naval fleet, directed a top subordinate, Commander Stephen C. Rowan of the U.S.S. Delaware, to lead 13 gunboats in pursuit of Lynch’s “mosquito” fleet. Rowan had orders to “bag them all if possible.” At dawn on February 10, Rowan’s vessels entered the mouth of the Pasquotank.
Lynch could arm just two of his ships due to lack of ammunition. He arranged his fleet in a line of battle across the river, with the flagship Sea Bird placed opposite the Confederate fort and battery at Cobb’s Point. Finding the fort manned by just eight volunteers, Lynch personally took command after learning that the Federals were approaching. He ordered his ship captains to hold firm until they ran out of ammunition.
The Federals advanced within range of the Confederate guns around 8:30 a.m. They continued moving forward despite coming under enemy fire from both Lynch’s fleet and the fort. According to a witness, “When three quarters of a mile from the battery, Rowan’s signal floated out in the morning breeze, ‘Dash at the enemy.’ Commanding officers shouted for full speed, and their coal heavers maniacally threw shovelfuls into the glowing fireboxes.”
The Federals moved full steam ahead. The Confederate captains ignored Lynch’s order to hold and quickly turned their ships about. Within a half-hour, the Federals had destroyed four vessels (the C.S.S. Beaufort, Black Warrior, Fanny, and Sea Bird), and captured the C.S.S. Ellis. The Confederates scuttled the C.S.S. Appomattox when she could not get through a lock in the Dismal Swamp Canal. The C.S.S. Forrest, under repairs and not part of the battle, was also destroyed. This virtually wiped out the “mosquito” fleet and closed the southern route to Norfolk and Richmond.
The Confederate forts and batteries at Cobb’s Point were destroyed as well, leaving Elizabeth City defenseless. The Federal vessels arrived at the town a few hours later. By that time, most white residents had fled, leaving behind several burning buildings and a throng of cheering slaves. The Federals sustained nine casualties in the operation (two killed and seven wounded), and the Confederates lost four killed. In his report to Flag Officer Goldsborough, Rowan singled out Quarter-Gunner John Davis for bravery:
“I would respectfully call your attention to one incident of the engagement which reflects much credit upon a quarter gunner of the Valley City and for which Congress has provided rewards in the shape of medals. A shot passed through her magazine and exploded in a locker beyond containing fireworks. The commander, Lieutenant Commander Chaplain, went there to aid in suppressing the fire, where he found John Davis, quarter gunner, seated with commendable coolness on an open barrel of powder as the only means to keep the fire out, all the while passing powder to provide the division on the upper deck while under fierce enemy fire.”
Davis received the Medal of Honor for this action under General Order Number 11 on April 3, 1863.
Less than two weeks after taking Elizabeth City, Rowan led a fleet of eight gunboats up the Chowan River toward Winton. The Federals withdrew under heavy artillery fire, but they returned the next morning and bombarded the town into submission. Federal troops, supported by the U.S.S. Delaware and Commodore Perry, came ashore and burned buildings, churches, and homes.
The Federals then turned their attention to New Bern. With no more naval support, the Confederates turned to planting obstructions in the waterways to stop the Federal naval advance. This proved moderately successful, as Goldsborough reported to Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox, “At Washington (N.C.), and also at New Bern the obstructions in the river are very formidable, and admirably placed…” However, this only delayed the Federal push toward New Bern, which continued into March.
- Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville. New York: Vintage Books, 1958.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
- McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
- Stempel, Jim, The CSS Albemarle and William Cushing: The Remarkable Confederate Ironclad and the Union Officer Who Sank It. Jefferson, N.C., and London: McFarland & Company (Kindle Edition), 2011.