Duty on Hatteras Island: No Vacation

The Outer Banks of North Carolina have become a popular resort area attracting thousands of vacationers each summer. It is the remote island atmosphere of ocean, sand, wind and surf that draws them to these barrier islands. The very things that attract present-day visitors are the very things that caused both Confederate and Union soldiers to grumble and complain about ever seeing duty on Hatteras Island.

Even present-day campers acknowledge that certain aspects of life on the islands can truly test their spirits. These include the intense heat and humidity, abundance of mosquitoes and biting flies, as well as dealing with the consequences of gale force winds and hurricanes.

Confederate forces first arrived on Hatteras Island on Thursday, May 9, 1861. Their objective was to protect and defend two small earthwork forts under construction at Hatteras Inlet.  Confederate privateers used Forts Hatteras and Clark as their base of operations. Their efforts were so successful, they prompted a strong Federal response. Commodore Silas Stringham led an expedition of Federal ships and troops in a successful attack on these Confederate batteries on August 28-29, 1861.

Prior to the attack Confederate troops attempted to survive with minimal supplies and ammunition. Good drinking water was scarce and shifting winds made it difficult to pitch a tent successfully. In the O.R. of the Navies, Series I, Vol.6 Daniel A. Campbell, Master of the Brig Lydia Francis, captured by Confederate privateers wrote,

Both forts (Hatteras and Clark) were constructed…under the super vision of Colonel Thompson, said to have formerly been in the U.S. Army. The laborers employed were about 180 negroes, said to be free and brought from different parts of the state. … The supply of ammunition was very short.  They had only about 100 kegs of powder. The guards on guard or picket duty were not allowed to carry their muskets loaded but carried their cart- ridges in their pockets, not being provided with cartridge boxes. Water is obtained by sinking wells in the sand to a depth of 5 or 6 feet…

The excitement of victory soon began to fade as Union soldiers left on Hatteras Island faced severe weather, lack of adequate lodging and food. Charles F. Johnson, of the N.Y 9th Vol. Infantry (Hawkins Zouaves), wrote:

The wind set in from the northeast that night, and it was not only very cold, but in sweeping down the open sandbank it carried with it a constant storm of fine sand, which pelted away unmercifully all night long. — The Long Roll, p.64 

The limited size of Forts Hatteras and Clark, as well as the shortage of permanent quarters, forced most of the Union troops to sleep in tents. However, pitching a tent in the sand with gale force winds proved to be a difficult, if not impossible, task. One soldier, with the 48th Pennsylvania Vol. Infantry, described his experience the following way:

…to have a tent prove false upon ‘a lone barren isle’, and in, the midst of a terrific rain storm, be obliged to face a Hatteras wind, with scant protection against its furry, frantically holding fast to the frail canvas house, waiting for a lull in the blast (vain hope)  to afford an opportunity to repeg, is so overpoweringly harrowing to the feelings, and so indescribably uncomfortable, that it is only those who actually experienced it who understand its supreme misery. —The Story of The Forty-Eighth, p.42

In early 1862, the men of Burnside’s Expedition experienced similar struggles with the elements. They came ashore to recuperate from sea sickness. Their transport vessels were nearly destroyed in storm tossed waters at Hatteras Inlet. One soldier with the 27th Massachusetts Vol. Infantry, wrote:

…Everybody expects to eat his peck of dirt before he dies, but no one thinks to get it all in one short _____ night…. the cooks, where they made coffee for the companies, would find two or three inches of sand in the bottom of their kettles, blown there while the water was boiling. Baked beans could not be chewed, they were swallowed as they entered the mouth, too gritty for chewing. — The Twenty-Seventh Mass. Regiment, p.52

Another soldier of the same regiment had such a negative experience on Hatteras Island that he recommended it be used as a place to send criminals:

If ever our country…should desire a penal colony for the punishment of criminals,….where the roar of waters from headlong heights howl and hiss in endless torture, there is no place on the globe better fitted for it than Hatteras…. Let them be restricted to a range of twenty miles north and south of this windy gorge, and there, for the rest of their lives, dig clams and fight mosquitoes; and injured justice would be amply satisfied. — The Twenty-Seventh Mass. Regiment, p.52

Is it not amazing how time changes our perspective of places and things?

© 2011 Emerging Civil War

1 Response to Duty on Hatteras Island: No Vacation

  1. Nice first post, Drew–welcome! It’s great to have someone on the ground there who’s able to talk about the important early action that took place at the OBX.

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