Emerging Civil War welcome guest author George W. Hettenhouse
The Northern Outer Banks, a narrow strip of sand that extends from the Virginia/North Carolina border to Hatteras Inlet, NC, roughly 120 miles to the south, is full of history. The first English child born in the colonies, Virginia Dare, began her life on Roanoke Island. Hatteras Inlet was the location of the first Union victory in the Civil War, the first step in the Anaconda strategy to control the inlets and sounds on the Southern coast. After Burnside’s 1862 capture of Roanoke Island, the island became a thriving Freedman’s Colony. Some 40 years later the Wright Brothers would achieve powered flight from the sand dunes south of Kitty Hawk.
A lesser known historical figure from the area is Richard Etheridge. Born as a slave in 1842 on Bodie Island (now a part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore), young Richard was raised alongside the children of his owner, John Etheridge. Though it was illegal at the time, he learned to read and write.
During the Civil War, Union General Butler’s attack in August 1861 quickly overwhelmed the earthwork Confederate Forts Hatteras and Clark at Hatteras Inlet while Burnside’s Campaign at Roanoke Island in 1862 made Etheridge a free man. Richard and 100 of his friends joined the 36th USCT; they had secondary roles early in the war, including guard duty at Point Lookout, Maryland. Later, the regiment, with Etheridge as a Sergeant, saw action in the Petersburg Campaign at New Market Heights. He was transferred west as a “Buffalo Soldier” in 1865 and received his discharge in 1866.
Upon returning to the Outer Banks, he resumed his livelihood of fishing and farming and became interested in civic affairs. In 1875, he joined the newly-formed U.S. Lifesaving Service at Bodie Island, serving as Surfman #6, the lowest position on the crew. The sea off of Cape Hatteras is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” because of storms and the close proximity of the Gulf Stream. (The USS Monitor went to the bottom there while being towed to Wilmington, NC in 1862.) In the early years of the Lifesaving Service, the politicized organization was criticized for its performance – 188 lives and a half-million dollars in property in a two month period. There was talk of annexing the LSS into the U.S. Navy.
A governmental review resulted in a reorganization and the appointment of the best surfmen in the service to positions of command. Etheredge was promoted to the position of Keeper at the Pea Island Station, becoming the only African American in a position of command in the service. White surfmen refused to serve under him, and Pea Island Station soon became an all African American crew.
Etheridge was aware of the attention his station was receiving and ran the station with military precision. On a terrible night in October 1896, the three-masted schooner E. S. Newman lost its sails and drifted 100 miles before driven aground off Pea Island in the hurricane. The captain had his wife and three-year old daughter aboard and sent up a distress signal. The station had already suspended operations because of the severity of the storm. Unable to launch a surfboat or to deploy a Lyle Gun, the situation seemed impossible. Two surfmen, the strongest swimmers, tied themselves to a line and managed to reach the wreck. With the line tied to the boat, the crewman rescued one person at a time, beginning with the child, as the crew on the beach pulled them ashore. After nine trips all aboard had been rescued.
Etheridge was regarded as the most courageous and ingenious lifesaver in the service. He served as the Keeper at Pea Island for twenty years, falling ill and dying at age 58 at the station in May 1900. The station continued to be manned by an all-black crew through World War II as German U-boats preyed on merchant vessels with supplies for European allies.
Etheridge and crew were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal in March 1996. A 154 foot Sentinel-class Coast Guard cutter, the USCGC Richard Etheridge, was launched in August 2012. Now, in February 2018, a newly-built bridge on Pea Island has been named the Captain Richard Etheridge Bridge. He is regarded as a local hero. He and his family are buried at the Pea Island Lifesaving Station memorial on the grounds of the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Sometimes recognition can be slow in coming.