A Day in the Civil War, Attack against Forts Hatteras and Clark, North Carolina

This post is excerpted from Every Day of the Civil War, A Chronological Encyclopedia By Bud Hannings. McFarland Publishing, Incorporated, Jefferson, North Carolina and London. 2010

August 28–29 1861–ATTACK AGAINST FORTS HATTERAS AND CLARK–Union warships had arrived off the coast in the vicinity of Fort Hatteras and Fort Clark, North Carolina, on the 27th. On the 28th at 0500, Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough (successor to Flag Officer Silas Stringham), aboard the USS Minnesota, orders the ships to open fire and take on the Confederate shore batteries. The powerful show of naval fire continues the bombardment without pause until 0900. The steam frigates Minnesota and Wabash, supported by the sloops Cumberland and Susquehanna, commence firing. Marines from each of the ships’ respective detachments join with the army force for the assault. Many of the troopers under General Benjamin Butler get stranded on a sandbar while landing, but Confederate Forts Hatteras and Clark haul down their colors. Fort Clark is abandoned and a contingent of Coast Guardsmen and other troops under Colonel Weber secure it.

Meanwhile, the USS Monticello advances onward toward Fort Hatteras, reaching a point about 600 yards from the objective when it comes under severe fire from the Confederate batteries. The artillery barrage inflicts some damage to the vessel. Rather than risk further harm or possible destruction of the ship, the Monticello pulls back, permitting the Minnesota, Pawnee and Susquehanna to ease up and provide a substantial amount of fire power to silence the guns on shore. Throughout the day, the naval guns bombard the Fort, while the southerners trade fire with the vessels and simultaneously pour fire into Union-held Fort Clark. By nightfall, exhaustion overwhelms both sides, mandating a pause in the fighting.

The incessant day-long barrages have inflicted a high toll on the Rebels within Fort Hatteras. The commander, Confederate Colonel William Martin, too tired to even stand, passes command to Flag Officer Samuel Barron, the naval officer in command of the Confederate ships in the area of Pamlico Sound. During the night of the 28th-29th, Confederate reinforcements arrive to bolster the beleaguered garrison.

Back at Fort Clark, the Union troops abandon their positions to seek safer positions out of the range of the Confederate artillery, but these troops also redeploy a battery of three guns, which, on the morning of the 29th, does much to deter additional reinforcements that approach on Confederate vessels. The guns, overseen by Coastguardsman Lt. Johnson, pinpoint the passageway and with a blanket of fire forbid passage, which eliminates any possibility of getting the reinforcements ashore.

At 1030, the Confederates hoist a white flag above the fort. Shortly thereafter, the garrison proposes to surrender the fort if afforded full honors of war, but Stringham and Butler decline. Having no genuine options, the beleaguered Confederates capitulate. Captain Samuel Barron of the Confederate States Navy (previously served in the U.S. Navy) boards the USS Minnesota and surrenders the fort. Confederate Brigadier General Richard C. Gatlin (West Point, 1832), commanding officer, Department of North Carolina, receives the blame for the loss and also for that of New Bern, North Carolina, during March of 1862. Captain Samuel Barron is paroled on September 25. After release, he is assigned duty in the Department of the Cumberland and Tennessee. During 1863 he is assigned command of the Confederate Naval forces in Europe.

The Union loses one killed and two wounded. Confederate losses are five killed, 51 wounded, 715 captured. U.S. Navy Seaman Benjamin Swearer, stationed on the USS Pawnee, is the first man to raise the Stars and Stripes over captured Fort Clark. Swearer, for his extraordinary heroism under fire in the face of the enemy, becomes a recipient of the Medal of Honor. Early in the engagement, the aide-de camp of General Butler swims to shore against heavy seas to deliver information to Colonel Weber at Fort Clark, but while there he gathers an enormous amount of intelligence that alters Butler’s plans. It had been the objective to destroy the forts; however, due to the new information, Butler returns to Washington and convinces General Scott to hold the forts. Scott orders Butler to proceed to New England to raise a voluminous force for use in North Carolina. During the latter part of September, the 20th Indiana Regiment, commanded by Colonel W.L. Brown, will arrive at Hatteras to bolster the forces already there.

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