Battle of South Mills
Other Names: Camden
Location: Camden County
Campaign: Burnside's North Carolina Expedition (February-June 1862)
Date(s): April 19,
Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. Jesse Lee Reno [US]; Col. Ambrose
Forces Engaged: 21st Massachusetts and 51st Pennsylvania [US];
3rd Georgia [CS]
Estimated Casualties: 150 total (US
120; CS 30)
Result(s): Inconclusive (Federals withdrew.)
|Civil War Battle of South Mills
General Ambrose Burnside’s expedition into eastern North Carolina in 1862 scored a series of successes with the capture
of Roanoke Island in February, New Bern, and Washington in March, and Fort Macon in April (see North Carolina Coast and the American Civil War). Among the few Confederate victories in that season was the defeat of a force sent to destroy the Dismal Swamp Canal
locks at South Mills.
|Battle of South Mills Map
|Civil War Battle of South Mills History
Burnside ordered 3,000 men under
General Jesse Reno to blow up the locks in order to preclude the chance that Confederate ironclad gunboats might be
floated down the canal from Norfolk. The troops landed just south of Elizabeth City on the evening of April 18. Carrying with them two wagons of explosives, the Federals made a strategic error
by taking a wrong road and adding ten miles to their overland route north. (They executed the mulatto guide who had misled
them.) Weary and robbed of any chance of surprise, the Union troops meet 900 Confederates, commanded by Colonel Ambrose Wright,
a few miles below South Mills.
|Civil War Battle of South Mills: The Coast
|(Click to Enlarge)
|Great Dismal Swamp & South Mills
|(Civil War North Carolina Coast)
Description: Learning that the Confederates were
building ironclads at Norfolk,
Burnside planned an expedition to destroy the Dismal Swamp Canal locks to prevent transfer of the ships to Albemarle Sound. He entrusted the operation to Brig. Gen. Jesse Lee Reno’s command, which
embarked on transports from Roanoke Island on April 18. By midnight, the convoy reached Elizabeth City and began disembarking troops.
On the morning of April 19, Reno
marched north on the road to South Mills. At the crossroads a few miles below South Mills, elements of Col. Ambrose Wright’s
command delayed the Federals until dark. Reno abandoned the expedition and withdrew during
the night to the transports at Elizabeth City.
The transports carried Reno’s troops to New Berne (present-day New Bern) where they arrived on April 22. (See Civil War Battle of South Mills, by D. H. Hill, Jr.)
The Great Dismal Swamp and the American Civil War
The Battle of South Mills was the only battle near
the canal. However, wartime activity left the canal in a deplorable condition.
|Civil War Battle of South Mills Map
|(Union and Confederate Battlefield Positions)
|The Great Dismal Swamp
The Dismal Swamp Canal, opened to waterway traffic
in 1805, became a "prize of war" during the Civil War. In the early months of war, southerners used the canal to transport
much-needed supplies. W. F. Lynch, Commander of the C.S.S. Sea Bird, a side-wheel steamer, received naval supplies
via the canal when he was in charge of a tiny fleet defending Roanoke Island.
After Roanoke Island fell into Union hands on February 8, 1862, Lynch decided to take a position at Elizabeth City. However,
on February 10th, units of Admiral Goldsborough's fleet captured Elizabeth
City and the Sea Bird was rammed and sunk by the U.S.S. Commodore
Perry. Two other ships fled northward up the Pasquotank River
to the Dismal Swamp Canal en route to Norfolk. While C.S.S. Beaufort made it safely through the canal
to Norfolk, C.S.S. Appomattox was two inches too wide
to enter the locks. Rather than let his ship be captured by the enemy, the captain set it on fire.
Union forces did not attempt to destroy the locks of the Dismal Swamp
until two months later. According to The Rebellion Record
Frank Moore, Editor, it was known that "Rebel entrenchments and batteries to protect the canal" had been installed at South Mills
. Also, this was the time of the "ironclads," with the battle between the Monitor
and the Merrimack
at Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862.
|South Mills & The Great Dismal Swamp Region
|(North Carolina Civil War History Map)
Word reached General Burnside, who had established a position in New Bern, that Confederates were building ironclads in Norfolk and intended to bring them south through the Dismal Swamp
and Currituck Canals. Therefore, General Burnside ordered General Jesse L. Reno to move troops to South Mills and blow up
its locks, then proceed to the Currituck Canal and
destroy its banks.
|South Mills & Great Dismal Swamp
|(North Carolina Coast Civil War History)
General Reno advanced, or forwarded, his command of 3,000 men from Roanoke
Island on April 17th and transported them by water to Elizabeth
City. From there, they marched north to South Mills, accompanied by three
wagons loaded with explosive materials to be used on the locks. After an exhausting all-night march, at noon Reno's men encountered the Third Georgia Regiment, commanded by Colonel A. R. Wright, about
three miles below the locks. The two sides engaged at the edge of the woods at the north end of Sawyers Lane.
On April 19th for five hours the 750 defenders withstood all
Union assaults until their artillery commander, C.S. Captain W. W. McComas, was killed.
Running low on ammunition and to avoid being flanked, Wright withdrew his
troops to a new position behind Joy's Creek, about a mile away. Unaccustomed to the oppressive heat and after sustaining numerous
casualties, the Union forces did not pursue and, in fact, rapidly withdrew back to their transports near Elizabeth City, leaving their dead and wounded
behind and the Canal intact.
|Battle of South Mills
|(Click to Enlarge)
(Left) Union and Confederate forces maneuvering
for position during the Battle of South Mills.
Soon afterwards, however, Norfolk
surrendered on May 10, 1862, and Union troops transported goods on the Canal. Leroy G. Edwards, Collector of Tolls for the
Dismal Swamp Canal Company, testified: "In the latter part of the summer of 1862, the U.S. forces took possession of the work. They gave us much trouble ... goods were
carried through under military permits. I asked payment of tolls, which were refused."
During this time, a sizable number of Confederate
sympathizers and deserted soldiers were in hiding in the Swamp, making periodic raids on Federal boats. Official Army records
document that on December 5, 1863, Brigadier General Edward A. Wild led forces from Norfolk
to South Mills and Camden Court House to capture these rebel forces.
However, the two small steamers carrying
supplies for his forces were by "some unaccountable blunder ... sent astray through the wrong canal" and did not catch up
with General Wild until he arrived at Elizabeth City. In the vastness of the Great Dismal Swamp, the Rebels eluded this expedition.
All settlements discovered on this march were burned and confiscated, innocent men were hanged and women were taken as hostages.
North Carolina Governor Zebulon B. Vance referred to General Wild's actions as a "disgrace to the manhood of the age. Not
being able to capture soldiers, they war upon defenseless women. Great God! What an outrage!" The
Union forces returned to Norfolk on December 24, leaving a
trail of destruction behind them.
|South Mills Great Dismal Swamp Canal Locks
|(Civil War Battle of South Mills, North Carolina)
Following the surrender at Appomattox
on April 9, 1865, the Canal was returned to its owners in a deplorable condition.
(Sources listed at bottom of page.)
Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the
experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs,
and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy
along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of
the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter
part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut
out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...
offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee,
Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves
and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle
instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian
Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical
Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had
upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly,
and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The
Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.
The Civil War on the Outer Banks: A History of the Late Rebellion
Along the Coast of North Carolina from Carteret to Currituck With Comments on Prewar Conditions and an Account of
(251 pages). Description: The ports at Beaufort, Wilmington, New Bern and Ocracoke, part of the Outer Banks (a
chain of barrier islands that sweeps down the North Carolina coast from the Virginia Capes to Oregon Inlet), were strategically
vital for the import of war materiel and the export of cash producing crops. Continued below...
From official records, contemporary newspaper accounts, personal journals of the soldiers, and many unpublished
manuscripts and memoirs, this is a full accounting of the Civil War along the North Carolina coast.
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.
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.
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.
southmillsbattle.home.coastalnet.com; National Park Service; NC Office of Archives and History; Microsoft MapPoint.