Civil War was fought in many places across the southern
landscape, but perhaps no region held as much importance to the
Union goals as eastern North Carolina. Control of the sounds and
rivers of North Carolina was vital to cutting off Lee's southern
supply routes to Virginia.
No large-scale battles were fought in the Albemarle, But dozens
of small strategic battles were waged for control of the region.
The first strategic move on the region came with General Ambrose
Burnside's Union expedition to capture Hatteras Inlet in late
1861. After a brief sea and land battle, the two Confederate
forts that controlled access to inlet fell into Union hands.
From there, Burnside quickly moved up Pamlico Sound and captured
Roanoke Island. From there, he had a base of operations from
which to conduct a systematic conquest of the northeastern and
central part of the coast.
Although Roanoke Island was the site of one of the
largest battles in the state, today there is no
physical evidence of the fight. The fall of Roanoke
Island, however, is remembered on the island for
another notable reason: it became a haven for
escaped and freed slaves who sought the protection
of the occupying Union army. By 1863, nearly 3,000
freedman had settled on the island and established
the first Freedman's Colony of the war.
The Wilmington-Weldon Railroad ran between
Wilmington, NC, and Richmond and soon became one of
the most important supply routes for Lee. Thus,
Burnside launched a series assaults up the Albemarle
Sound in an attempt to capture the line and control
the waterways. The undersupplied Confederates defended the towns
as best they could with a motley collection of armed boats
called the "mosquito fleet." Elizabeth City was first to fall,
then Edenton with barely a shot fired. The Federals then
occupied Plymouth, which cinched their control of the Albemarle
Plymouth changed hands several times during the war and was the
focal point of much of the fighting in the Albemarle region. The
Confederates had succeeded in building a formidable ironclad,
the Albemarle, which prevented Union ships from capturing the
town via the Roanoke River. Finally, on October 27th, 1864, in
one of the most daring maneuvers of the war, Federal soldiers
slipped over to the CSS Albemarle under cover of night, planted
an explosive using an improvised torpedo boat, and sent the
ironclad to the bottom of the river.
However, Union forays up the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers were not
as successful, thanks to heavy defensive positions such as Fort
Branch, which commanded the Roanoke River above Williamston from
a high bluff. The Wilmington-Weldon Railroad remained in
operation until the end of the war.
Meanwhile, federal troops from recently-captured New Bern
launched an attack on Washington in March, 1862, which they
captured after a fiery fight. The town remained in federal hands
despite several attempts at recapture by the Confederates.
Finally, in April 1864, the Confederates launched a final attack
which was successful--but only after departing Union troops
burned most of the town.
Perhaps the most historically valuable Civil War site is located
in 300 feet of water off Cape Hatteras. This is where the crew
of the USS Monitor met their fate on a stormy New Year's Eve in
1862. For 100 years, her resting place remained a mystery. Then,
in 1973, a Duke University research team located her lying
upside down on the sandy bottom 190 miles southeast of Cape
Hatteras. The site was placed on the National Register of
Historic Places in 1975.