Battle of Elizabeth City

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Battle of Elizabeth City

 

Other names: None

 

Location: Pasquotank River (near Elizabeth City)

 

Campaign: Burnside's North Carolina Expedition (February-June 1862)

 

Date(s): February 10, 1862

 

Principal Commanders: Stephen C. Rowan, United States Navy [US]; William F. Lynch, Confederate States Navy [CS]

 

Forces Engaged: North Atlantic Blockading Squadron: 14 Ships [US]; Mosquito Fleet: 6 Ships [CS] 

Elizabeth City, NC, Map
elizabeth city map.gif
Courtesy Microsoft MapPoint

Estimated Casualties: 55 total

 

Result(s): Union victory

 

Description: In the American Civil War, the Battle of Elizabeth City was fought on 10 February 1862, on the Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Participants were vessels of the US Navy's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, opposed by vessels of the Confederate Navy's Mosquito Fleet; the latter were 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 a part of the campaign in North Carolina that was led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and known as the Burnside Expedition. The result was a Union victory, with Elizabeth City and its nearby waters in their possession, and the Confederate fleet captured, sunk, or dispersed. 

The Battle of Elizabeth City: A History

Battle of Elizabeth City
Battle of Elizabeth City.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

Recommended Reading: 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. Continued below...

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.
 

Elizabeth City North Carolina Map.gif

Background

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 Bay.

 

That changed, however, in early February 1862. In a battle fought on 7 and 8 February, 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 Navy.

Battle of Elizabeth City Map
Battle of Elizabeth City Map.jpg
(Click to Enlarge Map)

(Chart of the Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City, NC, showing the Confederate defenses and the attacking Federal column of ships at the Battle of Elizabeth City, 10 February 1862.)

North Carolina Civil War Battle Map
North Carolina Civil War Battle Map.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

Defense: The Mosquito Fleet

The first shots of Burnside's North Carolina Expedition were fired on 7 February 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 in time.

 

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)

Beaufort

Fanny

Appomattox

Ellis

Black Warrior (schooner)

 

Offense: The Union Fleet

The surrender of Roanoke Island on 8 February 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 screw steamers.

 

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. As it was, Cdr. Rowan ordered the captains in his fleet to conserve their ammunition. They were told to use ramming and boarding, “so far as was possible, to disable or capture the enemy ships.” On 9 February, 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

Louisiana

Hetzel

Underwriter

Delaware (flagship)

Commodore Perry

Valley City

Morse

Isaac N. Seymour

Whitehead

John L. Lockwood

Ceres

Shawsheen

Henry Bricker

General Putnam (did not participate because of mechanical trouble)

Elizabeth City, North Carolina
Elizabeth City, North Carolina.jpg
Satellite photograph courtesy Microsoft Virtual Earth (3D)

Battle: 10 February

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 10 February, 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.

Civil War Battle and Burning of Elizabeth City
Civil War Battle and Burning of Elizabeth City.jpg
(Click to Enlarge)

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 (5 cm) 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 8 February, 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.

 

Follow-up

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 12 February 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.)

Recommended Reading: Confederate Blockade Runner 1861-65 (New Vanguard). Description: The lifeblood of the Confederacy, the blockade runners of the Civil War usually began life as regular fast steam-powered merchant ships. They were adapted for the high-speed dashes through the Union blockade which closed off all the major Southern ports, and for much of the war they brought much-needed food, clothing and weaponry to the Confederacy. Continued below...

This book traces their operational history, including the development of purpose-built blockade running ships, and examines their engines, crews and tactics. It describes their wartime exploits, demonstrating their operational and mechanical performance, whilst examining what life was like on these vessels through accounts of conditions on board when they sailed into action.

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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.

 

Recommended Reading: 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 Morehead City. Continued below...

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.
 

Recommended Reading: 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.

 

Recommended Reading: 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, from Vicksburg 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.

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