The Civil War was fought in may 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 supply routes to Virginia. Wilmington was the primary port of entry for Confederate blockade runners, and supplies made their way to Lee via the Wilmington-Weldon Railroad, which traversed much of eastern North Carolina.
Apart from the Siege of Fort Fisher (which brought together the largest combined land and sea assault of the war), no large-scale battles were fought on eastern North Carolina soil. But dozens of small strategic battles were waged for control of the region. Beginning in 1861, with the Battle of Hatteras Island and ending with the fall of Wilmington in January 1865, eastern North Carolina's battlefields are an important link to our culture.
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.
In March 1862, he sent an army of 8,000 men up the Neuse River towards New Bern, then one of North Carolina's primary ports. There, 4,000 inexperienced Confederate troops defended the town. The two armies came together just down river from New Bern on March 14, and the Confederates were overwhelmed. The Federal occupation of the city until the end of war spared the town the fate of many other southern cities that were destroyed by the war. In fact, it became the most photographed city in the south during the war. Today, it is easy to see why. The quiet, shaded streets bordering the wide rivers offer visitors a glimpse into the town's ante-bellum past.
At the Attmore-Oliver House (511 Broad Street), visitors can pick up a self-guided walking tour of the city, which includes many homes and buildings that played a vital role in the occupation: the Captain's Walk house, which served as a Union barracks; the Jones-Lipman House, which doubled as a prison; and the Slover-Guion House, which General Burnside occupied as his headquarters.
At the same time that New Bern was under siege, another of Burnside's expeditions was moving on Fort Macon on Bogue Banks near Beaufort. The first was built in 1830 under the direction of a young Robert E. Lee, who was then a federal army officer. The Confederates commandeered the fort at the start of the war and it was still in their control. The impressive octagonal stone fort guarded Beaufort Inlet and was crucial to Federal objectives along the lower Pamlico Sound.
On April 25, the Federals began an 11-hour land and sea bombardment of the fort. Remarkably, out of 1,100 shots fired by Union artillery, 560 hit the mark, an accuracy that was assured by a Union gunner stationed on a Beaufort rooftop to signal artillery corrections. The fort surrendered the next day.
Today, the fort is the centerpiece of one of the state's a most visited state park, which includes miles of white sandy beaches and nature trails. The fort is open to the public and houses a number of interesting exhibits interpretative events, and living history demonstrations.
Perhaps the most historically valuable Civil War site is located in 300 feet of water off Caper Hatteras. This is where the crew of the USS Monitor met their fate on a stormy New Year's Eve in 1862.
The Monitor was the Union Navy's first ironclad ship, and its historic battle with the Confederate ironclad, Merrimack, in 1862 signaled the end of the era of wooden warships. After the stalemate battle in Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Monitor set sail for Beaufort to assist in the Union blockade. Nicknamed ''Cheesebox on a Raft'', the Monitor rode very low in the water, maneuvered poorly, and was towed by the steamship Rhode Island. So when the ironclad ran into stormy weather off the Outer Banks on December 31, 1862, it soon became obvious that the sea would do what the Merrimack's guns had failed to do.
Early in the evening the ironclad began filling up with water. By midnight, as the Rhode Island attempted to rescue the crew, the Monitor sank beneath the towering waves with 16 crewmen still on board.
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. Several artifacts have been recovered from the wreck and are on display at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
In the last years of the war, the capture of Wilmington became one of President Lincoln's top military goals. From the war's beginning, the formidable Fort Fisher had successfully guarded the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Hundreds of daring blockade runners slipped through the Union blockade. Once in range of the fort's guns, they docked at Wilmington, 20 miles up the river. From there, badly needed supplies were transported to Lee's Army in Virginia. By 1864, Wilmington was the only southern port still in operation and the source of nearly al of Lee's provisions.
Union forces had launched several unsuccessful attempts to capture Fort Fisher, earning the fort the nickname "Gibraltar of the South." In December 1864, Lincoln ordered a massive land-sea assault on the fort. On January 12, after some of the heaviest hand-to-hand combat of the war, the fort finally fell. From there, Union troops moved up the Cape Fear. On February 21, Wilmington surrendered and the fate of the Confederacy was sealed. Less then two months later, Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
The CSS Neuse State Historic Site in Kinston is home to the remains of a Confederate ironclad that were raised from the Neuse River. In 1862, Confederate forces evacuated Kinston after the fall of New Bern, and scuttled the ironclad. Today, a Visitor Center offers an intimate glimpse into the history and construction of the ironclad.
Although Roanoke Island was the site of one of the largest battles in the state, today there is no physical evidence. 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. Today, the colony is remembered by the descendants of the freedman with a living history and interpretative event each spring.
The town of Washington also boasts a rich Civil War history. The town fell into Union hands in 1862 and was then burned. Yet many beautiful ante-bellum homes remain and are highlighted on a self-guided tour that winds through shaded streets and along the riverfront.
Thirty miles to the north, the town of Plymouth was also the scene of fighting. Here, 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 Albemarle under cover of night, planted an explosive using an improvised ''torpedo boat'', and sent the ironclad to the bottom of the river. Today, the Port O'Plymouth Museum interprets the town's Civil War heritage with exhibits and living history demonstrations.