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Fall of Fort Hatteras

May 2024
4min read


Boston Journal

In late August, an amphibious expedition under Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler attacked the Hatteras Inlet batteries of Forts Clark and Hatteras, the first step in the North’s strategy to shut down blockade running, control the South’s coast, and deny the Confederacy access to foreign trade.

A reporter from the Boston Journal put together this account of the action.

Time 9:45. Boom! Whiz—z—z! The Wabash opens the action, and plants three shells, apparently directly in the small, or northern battery. The fort responds promptly, but a shout of derisive laughter from the gun deck is the comment, when its shot falls in the water at half the distance from the fort to the ship. Every gun-captain in the ship is anxiously waiting the order to fire. The word is passed, “No firing until it is ordered from the quarter-deck!” It is misunderstood on the gun-deck. Somebody says it is, “Fire when you’re ready!” On the shore, half-way between the forts and the landing, twenty or thirty horses are running toward our troops, and twice as many cows are running in the opposite direction. Bang! goes a gun from the main deck, and a shell is landed almost among the cows. At the same instant the Harriet Lane sent a messenger of the same sort among them, and the animals find their way across the peninsula. Then the gunner discovers his mistake. He thought he was firing at the enemy’s cavalry as they charged up the beach. Now the order is understood, and the men stand by their pieces, watching the effect of the shells which now go thick and fast from the Cumberland and Wabash, and of the shots which begin to come from the smaller and upper fort. “Fire the pivot gun when you're ready!” is the order now passed forward to Mr. Foster, and directly we get within range a nine-inch shell is sent from the bow, and explodes just over Fort Clark. We pass inside of the other vessels, nearly a quarter of a mile nearer the shore, and the fire, once opened from the Minnesota's batteries, is kept up with the greatest rapidity while we remain within range. The enemy’s shots come near us, but do not quite reach us. The ship is put about so as to return, presenting the other broadside to the shore, and, as she wears, a couple of shot drop under her stern at a distance of a dozen yards or so. We go back north of the other vessels, and returning again, we are in season to see a shot dropped midway between the Wabash and Cumberland. Another passes just over our bow, and drops beyond us; and so the firing is kept up constantly, and manifestly with terrible effect upon the forts...

From Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, third volume, edited by Frank Moore, (D. Van Nostrand, 1862).

For a full day Cmdre. Silas Stringham and his seven warships pounded nearly 1,000 Confederates manning Forts Hatteras and Clark on North Carolina's Outer Banks, above, forcing the garrisons to surrender the next morning.


New York Herald

William Fiske, above, risked his life to swim through the breakers to carry critical Confederate documents and classified information on troop movements to Union Gen. Benjamin Butler.

A New York Herald writer described the heroic efforts of 25-year-old Capt. William O. Fiske of the 31st Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Later with the First Louisiana Regiment, the first Union regiment of white soldiers in any of the Confederate states, Fiske would become a brigadier general and survive the war.

After the smaller fort had been silenced a boat was sent ashore with Mr. Fiske, aid to General Butler, who swam through the breakers to convey to Colonel Weber’s command the orders of the General and information of the intended movements of the fleet. Upon entering the redoubt called Fort Clark, he seized upon the books and papers found there; among them are official documents and the letter books of the commanding officers. Mr. Fiske strapped this package upon his shoulders and swam out again to the only boat that was left sea-worthy, and carried them to the General, who was thus informed of what was going on at the moment of the appearance of the fleet off the inlet. When the meeting was held on the Minnesota to arrange terms of capitulation, the rebel officers were utterly astonished at the accurate information of the General, and inquired anxiously how he knew what they were doing the day before, and who was the person among them to whom signals had been made from the fleet. The General simply replied that he possessed means of accurate information.

From a New York Herald story excerpted in the September 21, 1861, issue of Harper's Weekly.


Barron Report

A former U.S. naval officer, Cmdre. Samuel Barron commanded the defense of Forts Clark and Hatteras. After his surrender and capture, he was released in a prisoner exchange and went on to represent the Confederacy in Europe.

I was requested by Colonel Martin and Major Andrews, commanding the post, to assume command of the fort, to which I assented, Colonel Bradford volunteering to assist me in the duties of defence. In assuming this responsibility, I was not unaware that we could be shelled out of the fort; but expecting arrival from Newbern of a regiment of North Carolina volunteers at or before midnight, (the fleet having put to sea and appearances indicating bad weather,) we designed an assault on Fort Clark, three-quarters of a mile distant from Fort Hatteras, which had been taken possession of by a party landed from the shipping; but, unfortunately, the regiment did not arrive until the following day, after the bombardment had commenced, and when the time came that I deemed evacuation or surrender unavoidable, the means of escape were not at my command. On the next day at 7.40 A. M. the fleet, consisting of the Minnesota, Wabash, Susquehanna, Cumberland, Pawnee, and Harriet Lane, (other steamers being in company,) took their position and opened fire. In addition to the batteries of the ships, the enemy had, during the night, erected a battery of rifled guns near Fort Clark, which also opened upon us.

With the surrender of Fort Hatteras, which controlled the crucial entry point into Pamlico Sound, the Union cut off blockade runners from bringing supplies to the Confederacy.

During the first hour the shells of the ships fell short, we only firing occasionally, to ascertain whether our shot would reach them, and wishing to reserve our very limited supply of ammunition till the vessels might find it necessary to come nearer in; but they, after some practice, got the exact range of their nine, ten, and eleven-inch guns, and did not find it necessary to alter their positions, while not a shot from our battery reached them, with the greatest elevation we could get. This state things, shells bursting in and over the fort every few seconds, having continued for about three hours, the men were directed to take shelter under the parapet and traverses, and I called a council of officers, at which it was unanimously agreed that holding out longer could only result in a greater loss of life, without the ability to damage our adversaries, and, just at this time, the magazine being reported on fire, a shell having fallen through the ventilator of the “bomb-proof” into the room adjoining the principal magazine, I ordered a white flag to be shown.

From The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, vol. 3 (Government Printing Office, 1881.)

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