Battle of Elizabeth City
North Carolina and the Civil War
Battle of Elizabeth
Location: Pasquotank River (near Elizabeth City)
Campaign: Burnside's North Carolina Expedition (February-June 1862)
Principal Commanders: Stephen C. Rowan, United States Navy [US]; William F. Lynch, Confederate
States Navy [CS]
North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (13 Ships) [US]; Mosquito Fleet (6 Ships) [CS]
|Elizabeth City, NC, Map
|Courtesy Microsoft MapPoint
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Battle of Elizabeth City was fought on February 10, 1862, on the Pasquotank
River near Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Vessels of the US Navy's
North Atlantic Blockading Squadron engaged the Confederate Navy's Mosquito Fleet, which was supported by a shore-based
battery of four guns at Cobb's Point (now called Cobb Point), near the southeastern border of the town. The battle was part
of the Burnside Expedition and resulted in a Union victory, with Elizabeth
City and its nearby waters in their possession, and the Confederate fleet
captured, sunk, or dispersed.
|Battle of Elizabeth City
|Battle of Elizabeth City
Elizabeth City lies near the mouth of the Pasquotank River, where it flows into Albemarle Sound from the north. North of the city is the Dismal Swamp Canal. To the east is the southern segment of the Albemarle and Chesapeake
Canal, separated from the Pasquotank
River by only a narrow neck of land. Much of the food and forage delivered
from North Carolina to southeastern Virginia was transported along these two canals. In particular, Norfolk, Virginia depended upon continued access to the
canals for its subsistence. So long as the North Carolina Sounds remained in Confederate hands, Norfolk
could be well supplied despite the blockading efforts of the Union Navy at the mouth of the Chesapeake
That changed, however, in
early February 1862. In a battle fought February 7-8, a combined operation of a Union Army division under Major General
Ambrose E. Burnside and a naval flotilla under Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough captured Roanoke Island, a position in Croatan Sound that had previously shielded the sounds from Federal
depredations. Earlier, Union ships trying to enforce the blockade on the canals would have had to enter Pamlico Sound through
Hatteras Inlet, then pass several Confederate batteries on Roanoke Island before they could enter into Albemarle Sound. With the elimination of the batteries, however, all that
stood in the way of the Union Navy was the Mosquito Fleet of the Confederate States.
|Battle of Elizabeth City Map
|Battle of Elizabeth City
(About) Map of Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City, NC, showing
Confederate defenses and attacking Federal column of ships at Battle of Elizabeth City, February 10, 1862.
|North Carolina Civil War Battle Map
|Map of North Carolina Civil War Battlefields
Defense: The Mosquito
The first shots of Burnside's North Carolina Expedition were fired on February 7, 1862, in the Battle of Roanoke Island. On that first day of the two-day battle,
a force of 19 Union gunboats bombarded, rather inconclusively, four Rebel forts facing Croatan Sound and eight ships of the
Confederate States Navy. The Federal ships were parts of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, commanded by Flag Officer
Goldsborough. The Confederate vessels were drawn from a unit led by Flag Officer William F. Lynch, termed the "Mosquito Fleet,"
intended to serve on Albemarle
Sound and nearby waters. Two vessels of the Mosquito Fleet were not present: CSS Appomattox had been sent away
to Edenton for supplies and did not return in time for the battle, and schooner CSS Black Warrior was left out, presumably
because she lacked the mobility that steam power gave the rest of the fleet.
The gunnery duel lasted
from noon until sunset. The only significant casualty among the fleets was the loss of CSS Curlew, holed at the waterline
and beached to avoid sinking; when Roanoke Island was surrendered the next day, she was burned
in order to keep her out of Federal hands. One other ship was damaged, but not by enemy action: CSS Forrest damaged her screw
by running on a submerged obstacle, and was thereafter unable to move under her own power. The remainder of the Mosquito Fleet
suffered only minimal damage. They had to retire at the end of the day, with Forrest in tow, solely because they had nearly
run out of ammunition.
Flag Officer Lynch took
his fleet to Elizabeth City,
to resupply and to repair Forrest. Failing to find ammunition to replenish his magazines, he sent Commander Thomas T. Hunter,
former captain of CSS Curlew, to Norfolk. He later sent CSS
Raleigh up the Dismal Swamp Canal
for the same purpose. Hunter returned with enough to resupply only two ships; Lynch divided it among all of his remaining
serviceable ships. Raleigh, however, was not able to return
No further changes of status
affected the Mosquito Fleet. Thus, on the eve of battle, Lynch had at his disposal six ships in the water, each with only
enough shot and powder to be able to fire ten times. On the eve of battle, Lynch had at his disposal six ships in the water,
each with only enough shot and powder to be able to fire ten times. His flagship, Sea Bird, carrying two guns, was a converted
sidewheel steamer. Three of his other vessels were former tugs: Appomattox and Ellis, each with two guns, and Beaufort, with
only one. Fanny, with two guns, had been a transport vessel used by the United States Army until she was captured by Confederate
forces near Cape Hatteras. The last vessel, CSS Black Warrior, a schooner that had been pressed into service only four days
before the battle, was armed with two 32-pounder guns. In addition to the eleven guns of his fleet, Lynch counted on the four
guns of the Cobb's Point battery for support.
Mosquito Fleet at Elizabeth City
Sea Bird (flagship)
Black Warrior (schooner)
|Elizabeth City, North Carolina
|Satellite photograph courtesy Microsoft Virtual Earth (3D)
Offense: The Union
The surrender of Roanoke
Island on February 8 included all the Rebel forts that had faced on Croatan Sound, so they would no longer be able to
prevent passage of Union ships from Pamlico into Albemarle Sound. Flag Officer Goldsborough therefore ordered his gunboats to pursue the Mosquito Fleet and destroy it. Although none
of his vessels had been seriously injured in the bombardment of the preceding day, some were damaged enough that he decided
not to include them in his order. Fourteen ships remained, however, and they carried a total of 37 guns. Goldsborough himself
did not accompany the pursuit; in his stead was Commander Stephen C. Rowan. The fourteen were all, like their Confederate
counterparts, converted from civilian vessels in the first days of the war. Rowan's flagship Delaware, Hetzel, Isaac N. Seymour,
John L. Lockwood, Ceres, and General Putnam had all been sidewheel steamers before being acquired by the Navy. Shawsheen was
also a sidewheel steamer, and like two of her opponents was a former tug. Two other sidewheel vessels, Commodore Perry and
Morse, had been ferries. The remaining five ships, Louisiana, Underwriter, Valley City, Whitehead, and Henry Brinker were
If Captain Lynch had known that the Federal
fleet faced a shortage of ammunition, very much like his own, he perhaps would
have altered his tactics, although the outcome would likely have been the same. Nevertheless, Cdr. Rowan ordered the captains
in his fleet to conserve their ammunition. They were also instructed to use ramming and boarding, “so far as was possible,
to disable or capture the enemy ships.” On February 9, Rowan's gunboats passed the now-silent guns of Croatan Sound
and crossed Albemarle
Sound. Darkness fell as they approached Elizabeth
City, so they anchored for the night.
Federal Fleet at Elizabeth City
Isaac N. Seymour
John L. Lockwood
General Putnam (did not participate because
of mechanical trouble)
Lynch used the time that
the Union flotilla was anchored to arrange his own ships for the coming battle. He decided to base his position on the battery
of four guns at Cobb's Point, placing schooner CSS Black Warrior opposite the point, and his five remaining steamships in
line across the river a short distance upstream. He took this position because he expected the Union to try to reduce the
fort before proceeding, as they had done three days previously in the opening phase of the Battle of Roanoke Island. His final
instructions to his captains included the order not to let the ships fall into enemy hands; if all else failed, they should
try to escape, or else destroy their vessels.
At dawn on February 10,
Lynch made his first visit to the Cobb's Point battery, to coordinate its defense with his fleet, but found that it was manned
by only seven militiamen and a single civilian. Because the battery was the strong point of the defense he had planned, he
was constrained to order Lieutenant Commanding William H. Parker, captain of CSS Beaufort, to come ashore with most of his
crew to man the guns. He left only enough on the ship to take her up the canal. With the additional men, only three of the
four guns could be manned. When battle was joined, the militiamen promptly deserted; henceforth, only two guns could be used
against the enemy.
|Battle and Burning of Elizabeth City
|Civil War Battle and Burning of Elizabeth City
The battery turned out to
be irrelevant. Because his ammunition was low and his mission was to destroy the Rebel fleet, Rowan ordered his ships to bypass
the battery. Parker and his men got off a few wild shots that did no harm, but found that their guns would not bear once the
Federal fleet was upstream. They therefore could only watch as their ships were destroyed by the attacking Federal fleet.
First of the Confederate
fleet to be lost was schooner Black Warrior. She was fired on by the entire attacking force as they passed the Cobb's Point
battery, so her crew abandoned her and set her afire. Likewise, Fanny was run ashore and burned. A boarding party from USS
Ceres captured CSS Ellis in hand-to-hand combat. (Her captain would have blown up Ellis, but a black coal heaver discovered
the charges and revealed them to the boarding party.) CSS Sea Bird attempted to escape, but was run down and sunk by USS Commodore
Perry. CSS Beaufort and Appomattox
made good their escape into the Dismal Swamp Canal. There, in the final irony, Appomattox
was found to be two inches too wide to pass through a lock, so she had to be burned. CSS Forrest, on the stocks to repair
the damaged screw she had sustained on February 8, was burned, along with an unnamed and uncompleted gunboat. CSS Raleigh
was still at Norfolk, so she was not harmed. Casualties were
modest. The attacking Federal fleet lost two men killed and seven wounded, while the Rebels lost in all five killed, seven
wounded, and 34 captured.
When they learned of the
destruction of their fleet and the surrender of the Cobb's Point battery, Confederate troops retreating from Roanoke Island
set fires in Elizabeth City,
acting under orders from Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise to destroy the town. About two blocks had been consumed when sailors from
the Union flotilla arrived and were able to save the rest. The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was blocked near its entrance at the North River. The retreating Rebels started the obstruction. It was completed by the victorious Federal
forces, acting under the orders of Flag Officer Goldsborough.
The town of Edenton was taken bloodlessly on February 12 by four of Commander Cowan's gunboats. Two schooners
were captured and another destroyed, and eight cannon were seized. More generally, there was no longer a Confederate presence
on Albemarle Sound. It remained so for most of the rest of the war; the only significant challenge to Union dominance was
the short-lived experiment of CSS Albemarle in the summer of 1864. Although Norfolk
was not attacked, it was isolated and increasingly worthless to the Confederate Army. In May, the city was abandoned.
(References listed at bottom of page.)
Elizabeth City, North
Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle
and Occupation. Description: History has been kind to the Victor
and cruel to the Vanquished. This is a well research account of a little-known theater of the Civil War, which, through
the annals of history, has been ignored or forgotten. In February of 1862, however, a Union naval force captured the
small coastal community of Elizabeth City,
North Carolina, during Gen. Burnside's North Carolina Expedition. This fascinating history
characterizes the overall situation in northeastern North Carolina, where secessionists
and Union sympathizers tangled until the Battle of Appomattox.
Although the Confederate Navy paled in comparison to the Union Navy, this book allows the reader a glimpse
of Southern pluck and determination against Northern numbers. A small battle, yes, but insignificant, no. Elizabeth City
was a must-have Union objective in Gen. Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan. Why was Elizabeth City significant? Because
without accomplishing this objective, the capture of the city, Confederate blockade runners would enjoy an unimpeded supply
route to the Confederate Army. A most fascinating account of a Civil War battle that has been ignored and even
overlooked in history.
Recommended Reading: Storm over Carolina: The Confederate
Navy's Struggle for Eastern North Carolina. Description: The struggle for control of the eastern waters of North Carolina during the War Between the States was a bitter, painful,
and sometimes humiliating one for the Confederate navy. No better example exists of the classic adage, "Too little, too late." Burdened
by the lack of adequate warships, construction facilities, and even ammunition, the South's naval arm fought bravely and even
recklessly to stem the tide of the Federal invasion of North Carolina from the raging Atlantic. Storm Over Carolina is the account of the
Southern navy's struggle in North Carolina waters and it
is a saga of crushing defeats interspersed with moments of brilliant and even spectacular victories. It is also the story
of dogged Southern determination and incredible perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Continued below...
For most of
the Civil War, the navigable portions of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Chowan, and Pasquotank rivers were
occupied by Federal forces. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, as well as most of the coastal towns and counties, were also
under Union control. With the building of the river ironclads, the Confederate navy at last could strike a telling blow against
the invaders, but they were slowly overtaken by events elsewhere. With the war grinding to a close, the last Confederate vessel
in North Carolina waters was destroyed. William T. Sherman
was approaching from the south, Wilmington was lost, and the
Confederacy reeled as if from a mortal blow. For the Confederate navy, and even more so for the besieged citizens of eastern
North Carolina, these were stormy days indeed. Storm Over Carolina describes their story, their struggle, their history.
Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast (The Civil War in North Carolina) (456 pages). Description: Ironclads and Columbiads covers some of the most important battles and campaigns in
the state. In January 1862, Union forces began in earnest to occupy crucial points on the North Carolina coast. Within six months, Union army and naval forces effectively controlled
coastal North Carolina from the Virginia line south to present-day
Union setbacks in Virginia, however, led to the withdrawal of many federal
soldiers from North Carolina, leaving only enough Union troops to hold a few coastal strongholds—the vital ports and
railroad junctions. The South during the Civil War, moreover, hotly contested the North’s ability to maintain its grip
on these key coastal strongholds.
The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina (175 pages) (North Carolina Division
of Archives and History). Description: From the drama
of blockade-running to graphic descriptions of battles on the state's islands and sounds, this book portrays the explosive
events that took place in North Carolina's coastal region during the Civil War. Topics discussed include the strategic
importance of coastal North Carolina, Federal occupation
of coastal areas, blockade-running, and the impact of war on civilians along the Tar Heel coast.
A History of the Confederate Navy (Hardcover). From Publishers
Weekly: One of the most prominent European scholars of the Civil War weighs in with a provocative revisionist study of the
Confederacy's naval policies. For 27 years, University of Genoa history professor Luraghi (The Rise and Fall of the Plantation
South) explored archival and monographic sources on both sides of the Atlantic to develop a convincing argument that the deadliest
maritime threat to the South was not, as commonly thought, the Union's blockade but the North's amphibious and river operations.
Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory, the author shows, thus focused on protecting the Confederacy's inland waterways
and controlling the harbors vital for military imports. Continued below…
As a result,
to Savannah to Richmond, major
Confederate ports ultimately were captured from the land and not from the sea, despite the North's overwhelming naval strength.
Luraghi highlights the South's ingenuity in inventing and employing new technologies: the ironclad, the submarine, the torpedo.
He establishes, however, that these innovations were the brainchildren of only a few men, whose work, although brilliant,
couldn't match the resources and might of a major industrial power like the Union. Nor did
the Confederate Navy, weakened through Mallory's administrative inefficiency, compensate with an effective command system.
Enhanced by a translation that retains the verve of the original, Luraghi's study is a notable addition to Civil War maritime
history. Includes numerous photos.
References: Browning, Robert
M. Jr., From Cape
Charles to Cape Fear:
the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. Tuscaloosa:
University of Alabama, 1993; Campbell, R.
Thomas, Storm over Carolina: the Confederate Navy's struggle for eastern North Carolina. Nashville, TN:
Cumberland House, 2005; Parker, William Harwar, Recollections
of a naval officer, 1841–1865. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1883; reprint ed.,
Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1985; Trotter, William
R., Ironclads and columbiads: the coast. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1989; US Navy Department,
Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series
I: 27 volumes. Series II: 3 volumes. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894-1922; US
War Department, A compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
Series I: 53 volumes. Series II: 8 volumes. Series III: 5 volumes. Series IV: 4 volumes. Washington:
Government Printing Office, 1886-1901; Microsoft Virtual Earth.