North Carolina as a Civil War Battlefield


Military actions in North Carolina during the Civil War can be divided into three phases. The first phase encompasses the period of time from North Carolina’s secession until the late spring or early summer of 1862. It begins with the Union assault on the fortifications at Hatteras in fall 1861 and continues through the Burnside Expedition of spring 1862 during which Roanoke Island, New Bern, Beaufort, and Fort Macon were captured. This resulted in Union control of both the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and the occupation of much of eastern North Carolina. The second phase is the period from summer 1862 through fall 1864 when military action in the state was at its ebb. Even so, there were significant military actions that occurred within this time span, including the Union’s strengthening of its naval blockade of the coast and raids by Gen. John G. Foster and Gen. Edward Potter. The Confederates countered these actions with a number of attempts to recapture New Bern, a raid on a Union gunboat in the Neuse River, and the retaking of Plymouth. The final phase covers the Confederacy’s demise in North Carolina, beginning in fall 1864 and ending with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender at Durham Station in April 1865. Most of the state’s major military actions occurred during this phase of the war, including the battles in the Cape Fear region, the fall of Wilmington and Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign.

Phase One: Early War Action, May 1860 – April 1862

In the war’s first few months, North Carolina garnered little attention from the Union military. The state was largely forgotten by the Confederates as well, and most of the troops raised were organized into regiments and sent elsewhere in the Confederacy. Aside from small garrisons at a handful of coastal fortifications there was little military presence in the state. President Lincoln ordered a blockade of all southern ports in April. The Confederate response of blockade running into and out of the state’s ports began to attract the attention of the powers in the North, and the Union set out to eliminate the lucrative trade. To that end, forces under Gen. Benjamin F. Butler and Commodore Silas Stringham converged at Hatteras Inlet in late August 1861 to attempt the closure of that passageway to the sea. Acting in concert, the Union army and navy successfully captured Forts Clark and Hatteras, and effectively closed the inlet to blockade running on August 28-29. The operation at Hatteras was viewed as an important victory at a time when the Union was desperately in need of a military success.

In order to completely control the waters of northeastern North Carolina, the Union organized the Burnside Expedition. Again, a joint army-navy operation, the Burnside Expedition lasted from late January through late April 1862 and resulted in the occupation of much of eastern North Carolina. Led by Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, the expedition’s first target was Roanoke Island. Capturing the island would ensure Union control of both the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. This would give the Union military an effective foothold in the eastern part of the state from which to base future operations. Roanoke Island fell to Union forces on February 8. The US Navy then turned its attention toward destroying North Carolina’s small, fledgling navy, nicknamed the Mosquito Fleet. The Mosquito Fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Elizabeth City on February 10, and the town of Winton was burned on February 19.

illustration of the Battle of Roanoke Island, February 8, 1862
Battle of Roanoke Island, February 8, 1862

Burnside’s next target was the state’s former capital of New Bern. By March 12 the Union forces were in position to strike the Confederates defending the town. Union gunboats began shelling the riverbank on March 13, in preparation for landing troops. After a brief defense, the Confederates retreated upriver to Kinston, and by the end of the day on March 14, Burnside controlled New Bern. Some of North Carolina’s best known Civil War personalities participated in the Battle of New Bern including Confederate officers Lawrence O’B. Branch, Robert F. Hoke, and Zebulon B. Vance. From New Bern, Union troops followed the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad southeast, capturing Havelock, Carolina City, and Morehead City. By March 24, Union forces had occupied the port town of Beaufort and began planning their assault on Fort Macon, a masonry fortification on Bogue Banks that guarded the Beaufort Inlet.

Union troops were ferried to Bogue Banks from March 29 to April 10. Once on the island, they erected gun emplacements and prepared to lay siege to Fort Macon. Col. Moses J. White commanded the fort. He was hampered by old, smoothbore artillery pieces that lacked the range and accuracy of the Union guns and a garrison of only 300 men that were fit for duty. On April 25 the Union guns opened fire on the fort from land and sea. The older masonry fortification was no match for the Union’s rifled artillery, and soon it became apparent that the fort’s walls and powder magazines could be breached under heavy fire. Colonel White was forced to surrender Fort Macon.

By late April 1862, the Union thoroughly controlled the coast of North Carolina from the Virginia border to the White Oak River. Occupation forces remained in coastal North Carolina, at such locations as Roanoke Island, Plymouth, New Bern, and Beaufort. Beaufort became a coaling station for the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, thereby making it less difficult for the Union to conduct interior raids, refuel the blockading force and supply troops. New Bern became the military and political center for the Union in North Carolina. Roanoke Island and New Bern also became home to two large freedman’s colonies, as thousands of slaves flocked to these locations in order to escape bondage and enjoy the protection of the Union forces. However, the capture of Fort Macon and the end of the Burnside Expedition marked the last major military action in the state for over two years, as the Union turned its attention to other theaters of the war, such as Virginia, South Carolina, and the Mississippi River.

Phase Two: Contested Ground, Contested Waters, May 1862 – November 1864

While there were numerous small skirmishes in eastern North Carolina throughout the remainder of the war, no major Union military assaults took place until the First Battle of Fort Fisher on Christmas of 1864. However, there were some Union pushes into the interior of the state and some offensive actions by the Confederates as well. Foster’s Raid and Potter’s Raid highlight the Union efforts, while important Confederate actions were the repeated attempts to dislodge the Union from New Bern and the recapture of the town of Plymouth.

illustration of the Battle of Kinston, December 14, 1862
Battle of Kinston, December 14, 1862

In December 1862, Gen. John G. Foster, commander at New Bern, organized a raid to Goldsboro to burn the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad bridge there. Foster’s force of 10,000 infantry, 640 cavalry, and 40 artillery pieces left New Bern on December 11. On December 14, Foster’s army engaged the Confederates just outside of Kinston in the Battle of Southwest Creek (or the First Battle of Kinston). Outnumbered, the Confederates withdrew and Foster continued his march. The Union forces again encountered Confederate resistance on December 15 and 16 at Whitehall (now known as Seven Springs). The Confederates were at work building the ironclad ram CSS Neuse. Though the hull was hit by several shot and shell, Union attempts to completely destroy the unfinished vessel were unsuccessful. Following the two days of fighting, Foster continued on toward his objective. Reaching the railroad bridge on December 17, Foster’s forces battled Confederates and eventually were able to set fire to the bridge. Foster ordered his troops from the field of battle and returned to New Bern, calling his raid “a perfect success.” Unfortunately for Foster, the damage to the bridge was only superficial and the Confederates managed to rebuild it within a few weeks. The following summer, the Neuse floated downriver to Kinston where it was outfitted with engines, cannons and iron plating.

Foster’s chief of staff, Gen. Edward E. Potter, led another expedition into the interior in mid-July 1863. His force of cavalry left New Bern, and, on July 19, arrived in Greenville. Finding no Confederate resistance, he looted the town and burned the Tar River Bridge. Continuing on, Potter split his force, sending a detachment to Rocky Mount while he led the rest of the troops to Tarboro. On July 20, Potter’s men reached Tarboro and destroyed a Confederate ironclad under construction as well as other military and civilian property. Upon learning that the Confederates were closing in on him, he decided to return to the safety of New Bern on July 21. Potter reunited with the detachment he had sent to Rocky Mount, and they reported having destroyed a great deal of property as well. The pursuing Confederates finally caught up with Potter’s force and fought a two-day long running skirmish until the Union soldiers reached New Bern on July 23. Potter’s Raid was a tremendous success as he returned to the Union stronghold having cut Confederate lines of communication, destroyed vast quantities of supplies and an ironclad, and brought back 100 Confederate prisoners, 300 horses or mules, and 300 “contrabands”.

The Confederates developed plans to take offensive action of their own. There were two major attempts to expel the Union forces from their stronghold at New Bern. The first such attempt was made in late January and early February 1864. Gen. George E. Pickett was sent to eastern North Carolina with approximately 13,000 men and a cooperating naval force under Cdr. John Taylor Wood. The army was split into three columns, each to attack the city from a different vantage point, while the 250-man naval detachment descended the Neuse River from Kinston. It was hoped that the sailors and marines could capture one or more Union gunboats in the river and use them to offer support for the army’s operation. Unfortunately, due to Pickett’s poor leadership and the failure of two of his subordinates to carry out their duties, the attack on New Bern failed. Only Gen. Robert F. Hoke, a North Carolinian, had executed his part of the plan. The naval detachment was much more successful, as Wood’s expedition captured and burned the USS Underwriter before heading back to Kinston.

Undaunted by the setback at New Bern, Hoke made plans to recapture the town of Plymouth on the Roanoke River and returned to North Carolina in April 1864. Also planned as a joint army-navy expedition, the naval element consisted of the ironclad ram CSS Albemarle which had been built by the Confederates at Edwards Ferry. Nicknamed the “Cornfield Ironclad” because it was literally built in a cornfield, the Albemarle was destined to play a major role in the assault on the Union stronghold. Skirmishing outside of the town began on April 17. Arriving on April 19, the Albemarle encountered two Union gunboats, the USS Miami and USS Southfield. In the ensuing battle, the Confederate ironclad rammed the Southfield and sent it to the river bottom, and Cdr. Charles Flusser was killed on board the Miami when an artillery round bounced off of the Albemarle’s iron casemate and back onto his ship, exploding near him. Hoke’s men went on the offensive as the Albemarle shelled the Union position from the river. On April 20, Gen. W.H. Wessells, who was completely surrounded, surrendered to the Confederates. The defeat at Plymouth forced the Union to evacuate nearby Washington on April 27 but not before sacking the town.

The success at Plymouth prompted Hoke and his men to again turn their attention toward New Bern. Hoke had been disappointed at the failure of the operation there a few months earlier and was determined to succeed. This time he enlisted the aid of another ironclad ram, the CSS Neuse, almost completed at Kinston. Hoke also requested the assistance of the Albemarle. The Union fleet was waiting for the Confederate ironclad when it emerged into the Albemarle Sound. The Albemarle fought well, but sustained enough damage to force it back upriver to Plymouth for repair. The Neuse encountered difficulty as well, running aground on a sandbar only a half-mile from its dock. Unable to get free, the Neuse would be of no use to Hoke in his assault. Skirmishing around New Bern began on May 4 and continued on May 5. Hoke’s attack, though promising, was halted by an urgent message from Richmond, ordering his return to Petersburg to help meet a threat from Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. After Hoke’s withdrawal, New Bern never faced another Confederate assault.

The Confederate success at Plymouth was short-lived. On the night of October 27, 1864, the CSS Albemarle was sunk at its dock during a daring raid led by naval Lt. William B. Cushing. As a result, Plymouth was retaken by the Union on October 31 and Washington shortly thereafter, reestablishing Union dominance in the area.

Phase Three: Late War Action, December 1864 – May 1865

By winter 1864 the Union was poised to strike North Carolina from several vantage points. Gen.William T. Sherman completed his March to the Sea in late December and turned his attention northward to the Carolinas. The Union high command also turned their attention to the Cape Fear region, particularly Fort Fisher and Wilmington, long neglected in favor of numerous failed attempts to subdue Charleston, which the Union viewed as the very seat of secession. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia entrenched around Petersburg and Richmond, and the Union determined to force it to abandon its fortifications by cutting off their main source of supplies through Wilmington.

In December 1864 the Union assembled a joint operation to reduce and capture of Fort Fisher. The plan called for the navy to bombard the fort, while the army landed a force to the north. Once the naval bombardment had effectively damaged the fort, the infantry would begin their assault. Commanding the expedition were Adm. David Dixon Porter and Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. The First Battle of Fort Fisher took place on Christmas, with the navy opening its bombardment on December 24. On Christmas Day, as Porter anxiously awaited the ground attack on the fortification, Butler’s force instead retreated. The navy’s artillery fire had been largely ineffective and had not dismounted enough of the fort’s heavy guns to allow for an assault without heavy casualties. The weather had taken a turn for the worse, and Butler also learned that Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s division of 6,000 men had arrived in Wilmington and would soon be to the rear of his troops. Porter was incensed and blamed the failed attempt to take the fort on Butler’s lack of courage and mismanagement.

Following the Christmas debacle, the Union high command replaced Butler with Gen. Alfred H. Terry and sent the expedition back to Fort Fisher for a second attempt. On January 13, 1865 the Second Battle of Fort Fisher began as the navy once again shelled the fort. Gunners on board all of the vessels in the fleet were ordered to concentrate their fire on the fort’s gun chambers in order to maximize the bombardment’s effectiveness. The plan of attack this time also made provisions for a naval landing party, supported by marines to be put ashore and attack the fort from the beach, at its northeast bastion. Terry would land his force north of the fort as before and make the ground assault while putting troops in position to protect his rear from possible reinforcements from Wilmington. Manning this defensive line were United States Colored Troops, African American soldiers, under the command of Gen. Charles J. Paine. After two days of bombardment, many of the fort’s land face guns had been disabled, making an assault much easier. As sailors and marines stormed the northeast bastion of the fort, they were slaughtered by murderous Confederate gunfire from inside the fort. However, as many of the Confederate troops and officers were distracted by the sailors’ charge, Terry’s main assault breached the western salient of the fort at the River Road sally port, giving the Union a foothold inside the fortification. The Union soldiers methodically fought their way across the length of the land face and down the interior of the fort. Both Gen. W.H.C. Whiting and Col. William Lamb, Fort Fisher’s commander, were wounded and captured. The fort was overwhelmed and forced to surrender. Though some Confederate sailors were able to escape across the Cape Fear River, most of the fort’s garrison was captured. Meanwhile, General Hoke’s troops waited at Sugar Loaf, north of Fort Fisher, for an order to attack the Union troops from behind. Instead they received orders from Gen. Braxton Bragg in Wilmington to retreat, leaving Fort Fisher to its fate. On January 15 Fort Fisher was officially in Union hands and the lifeline of the Confederacy was cut.

illustration of the Union Army Attack on Fort Fisher - January 15, 1865
Union Army Attack on Fort Fisher -
January 15, 1865

Following the fall of Fort Fisher, the Union Navy entered the Cape Fear River. The fortifications at the mouth of the river were abandoned and troops relocated to Fort Anderson on the opposite side and upriver from Fort Fisher. The Union split its forces into two wings, one which moved north up the peninsula from Fort Fisher toward Wilmington and the other crossing the river to capture Fort Anderson. Gen. Jacob D. Cox and Gen. John M. Schofield led a 6,000 man force against Fort Anderson, which was defended by less than half that number. Operations against Fort Anderson were also assisted by navy gunboats as had been the case against Fort Fisher. The vessels had to proceed with caution, in order to avoid the line of torpedoes or underwater mines that had been placed in the river by the Confederates. On February 17 and 18 Union gunboats shelled Fort Anderson. The fort’s commander, Gen. Johnson Hagood began evacuating his troops on the night of February 18, knowing he could not defend the position. Fort Anderson fell into Union hands the following morning. While Union gunboats shelled artillery batteries on the riverbank south of Wilmington, the army fought skirmishes at Town Creek in Brunswick County and at Forks Road, just outside of Wilmington. These were the Confederates’ last efforts to defend the port city. Bragg ordered the city evacuated, and Wilmington fell to Union forces on February 22.

As Union forces were securing their hold on Wilmington, Gen. William T. Sherman was marching into North Carolina from the south, after having captured Columbia, South Carolina. He sent Jacob Cox’s force to New Bern to make an advance against Goldsboro. Cox started for Goldsboro on March 6 with approximately 13,000 troops and met Confederate resistance two days later at Wyse Fork, east of Kinston. On the first day of battle, the Confederates held their ground, and Robert F. Hoke captured most of the 15th Connecticut regiment. After two more days of battle, Confederate forces evacuated Kinston and moved to Goldsboro to join forces with Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. The ironclad ram CSS Neuse was ordered into action to cover the evacuation. The gunboat spent most of March 11 firing on the Union army. Following the evacuation, the crew of the Neuse scuttled the gunboat and retreated behind the army, leaving Kinston to the Union forces.

On March 11, as the Confederates were evacuating Kinston, Sherman marched into Fayetteville and took possession of the arsenal after minimal resistance. The retreating Confederates removed most of the arms, munitions, and equipment prior to leaving the town, and Sherman ordered that the arsenal be destroyed. Sherman continued his march, splitting his 60,000 man force into two wings. The right wing of Sherman’s army encountered Confederate resistance under Gen. William J. Hardee on March 15-16 at the Battle of Averasboro. This resistance simply delayed the left wing of the Union force, which eventually caught up with the rest of the army at Bentonville.

The delaying action at Averasboro was exactly what General Johnston, commanding all Confederate forces in North Carolina, needed. Knowing that Sherman’s army was nearly twice the size of his own, Johnston hoped to catch the Union force divided. Johnston positioned his troops along the Goldsboro Road near the village of Bentonville and awaited the arrival of one wing of Sherman’s powerful army. The Battle of Bentonville was fought March 19-21 and was the largest battle fought in the Old North State. Initially, the Confederates broke through Union lines but failed to completely crush the enemy. When the two wings of the Union army united, it ensured Johnston’s defeat. The armies battled for two more days, but on March 21, Union forces under Gen. Joseph A. Mower advanced to within 200 yards of Johnston’s only avenue of retreat. Though the Confederates managed to drive them back, Johnston withdrew his force from the field that evening and retreated to Smithfield. Sherman did not pursue, but continued to Goldsboro and re-supplied his weary troops.

illustration of the Battle of Bentonville
Battle of Bentonville — Union artillery in action on
the Morris Farm, late afternoon, March 19, 1865

From March 28 through April 26, 1865, Union Gen. George H. Stoneman led a destructive raid from Tennessee through western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. The main purpose of the raid was to disrupt both the North Carolina and Piedmont Railroads. On March 28, troops in Boone burned the jail and destroyed the county records, while at Patterson, a cotton mill was burned and stores of bacon and corn were confiscated. From April 3-10, Stoneman’s force was in southwestern Virginia, but it returned to North Carolina on April 10. In order to hit multiple targets, Stoneman frequently divided his force. On April 10, the towns of Salem and Winston surrendered and were spared from harm. The Piedmont Railroad bridge over Reedy Fork was burned, as was another bridge over Buffalo Creek. The 3rd South Carolina Cavalry was routed and a portion of the North Carolina Railroad was cut. Finally, at High Point, a depot containing 1,700 bales of cotton was burned. One of Stoneman’s main targets was the town of Salisbury because of the Confederate prison located there. Salisbury was captured after token Confederate resistance on April 12, and, on April 12-13, the public buildings and military stores there were burned.

Stoneman turned westward and arrived in Statesville on April 13. Confederate stores, a depot, and the offices of the Iredell Express were burned. On April 16, a detachment of Stoneman’s force occupied Lincolnton, crossed into South Carolina, and burned a railroad bridge over the Catawba River. Stoneman returned to Tennessee on April 17, via Blowing Rock and Boone, while sending Gen. Alvan Gillem on to Asheville. On April 18, Gillem encountered Confederate resistance near Morganton, but was able to overcome it and occupy the town. Gillem was confronted by a much stronger Confederate force led by Gen. James G. Martin at Swannanoa Gap on April 20. Knowing that Martin’s force would prove difficult to defeat, Gillem rerouted his men to Rutherfordton, crossed the Blue Ridge, and approached Asheville via Hendersonville. Having heard of the ongoing negotiations between Generals Johnston and Sherman, Martin’s men refused to fight. On April 24, General Martin met with General Gillem and arranged for the Union force to be supplied from Confederate stores and have safe passage back to Tennessee. Stoneman’s Raid ended on April 25 when Gillem’s force occupied Asheville. After leaving an occupying force the following day, Gillem began the journey back to Tennessee.

Aside from Stoneman’s Raid, major military actions ceased once Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender became widely known. Raleigh was surrendered to Union forces on April 13. Generals Sherman and Johnston met in April at the farm of James and Nancy Bennett near Durham Station to work out the details of Johnston’s surrender. This agreement was finalized on April 26, 1865 and officially ended the Civil War in North Carolina.

The final shots of the war in North Carolina, however, had yet to be fired. Skirmishing continued in the mountains of western North Carolina following Stoneman’s Raid. Union Col. George W. Kirk raided Franklin and Waynesville in early May 1865. His detachment of cavalry engaged a small Confederate force belonging to Thomas’ Legion, a military organization partially made up of Cherokee tribesmen from the mountains. This action, of little consequence, but it was the last engagement of the war in North Carolina.