Historic Albemarle Timelines
THE CIVIL WAR 1861- 1864
The 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 Sound.
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.