Confederates under Major-General D.H. Hill were trying to break the strong Federal grip on the coast of North Carolina. Hill had tried to regain New Bern in March, and when that failed, he turned to nearby Washington.
The Confederates blocked the roads to prevent the transfer of reinforcements from New Bern, while the Federals at Washington built an elaborate trench system to repel the attackers. The Confederates positioned batteries along the Pamlico River, east of Washington, to prevent Federal gunboats from rescuing the garrison. Guns were placed at both Hill’s Point and Swan’s Point on the river’s south bank, and obstructions were placed in the river.
The Federals were led by Brigadier-General John G. Foster, commanding the Department of North Carolina. The Confederates began laying siege to Foster’s garrison by encircling the Federals and cutting off their supply line. Federal gunboats hurried to relieve the Federals under siege, and on April 2 they silenced the Confederate battery at Hill’s Point. This naval aid indicated that Federal communications were still operational.
The next morning, the Federals got a morale boost when the gunboats silenced the Confederate battery just outside Washington. However, the Confederates met Federal relief forces under Brigadier-General Francis B. Spinola at Blount’s Creek and sent them running. This was the second failed attempt to relieve the garrison over the last 10 days. Foster resolved to escape from Washington himself and personally lead Federal reinforcements from New Bern.
On the 13th, the Federal transport steamer Escort delivered food, ammunition, and reinforcements to the Federal garrison at Washington while under heavy fire from Confederate batteries along the Tar River. The Escort’s crewmen had placed hay bales on the decks to absorb the fire, but no shots hit the vessel.
Two days later, Foster left Washington aboard the Escort. Confederate guns scored nearly 40 hits on the ship near Hill’s Point, but none did serious damage as the ship made it past the guns and the obstructions. This opened a line from which the Federals could get reinforcements and supplies, thus breaking the Confederate siege. Also, some Confederates had been pulled out of the siege line by Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, overall Confederate commander in the region, to join in his siege of Suffolk.
This further weakened the operation until Hill decided to pull out. His rear guard clashed with Federals at Kinston as the Confederates withdrew. Although the Confederates had failed to capture either New Bern or Washington, they kept the Federals occupied in those towns while other Confederates gathered much needed foodstuffs in the region for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Nevertheless, Hill was disgusted by the failure to capture Washington. He issued General Order Number 8, which praised his troops’ conduct but rebuked the North Carolina militia for failing to join his cause.
- Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fredericksburg to Meridian. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (Kindle Edition), 2011.
- Longacre, Edward G. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.