A War that Wasn’t Wanted and the Expedition Hurricane
North Carolina did not want a fight.
South Carolina must have been itching for one because she seceded in 1860, before President Lincoln took office. She commandeered federal forts in the state, then dared Lincoln to provision the troops at an unfinished Fort Sumter by firing on it.
North Carolina was enjoying unprecedented prosperity.
Her economy was booming. Wealthy planters did not want to lose their investments or their power. Small farmers were doing well and weren’t interested in fighting to support planters’ interests. Lincoln didn’t seem so threatening, though he hadn’t even been on the ballot in North Carolina. And, generally, people liked living under the protection of the federal government.
Debate over secession could be acrimonious, but as late as February, 1861 the vote by the legislature in Raleigh (the new capital) was overwhelmingly pro-Union.
A month after the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and Lincoln’s immediate proclamation to stop the rebellion, North Carolina became the 11th and last state to vote to secede.
She had no choice. She would have been at war with her neighbors, fighting her Sister States. The vote was unanimous.
Pro-Union sentiment was strongest in the eastern and western parts of the state. Many pro-union planters, fearful of ruin, moved family and slaves to the central part of the state; others aligned with the Confederacy.
North Carolina had nothing to gain and everything to lose by seceding. And lose she did.
She sent 130,000 of her young men into the war. She lost 40,000, half to disease. More than any other confederate state on both counts.
Albemarle counties raised volunteer units, many of whom saw the full brunt of the war, including the fateful Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg. Captain Benjamin Skinner wrote of the constant whistle of the musical minnie… above our heads.
There was no standing army but each county had its own militia. It was not unusual for troops to be furnished with firearms purchased from private citizens. Sometimes daily rations amounted to as little as a few crackers and a quarter pound of meat, and men might go for a month without a change of clothes.
Wrote the same Captain, Sufferings, privations & hardships have been endured such as no modern armies of their countrys have ever been called upon to undergo…but the… greater our sufferings now the more glorious will be our greater triumph…
Within a year, General Ambrose Burnside’s Expedition had captured towns in the east and established a blockade.
Control of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds was firmly in Union hands in a bid to cut off General Lee’s southern supply routes to Virginia.
Hatteras had fallen. Roanoke Island was falling.
Union troops and a fledgling Navy easily outmaneuvered seven small Confederate boats they called The Mosquito Fleet to capture the Island. On land volunteers tangled with Burnside’s men but were no match for the larger forces.
They were captured and three weeks later they were paroled. They then set about forming a new company with others and joined another regiment.
Apparently the release of captives was common in the early years of the war. Prisoners of war would be held for a while, then freed, sometimes after taking an oath of allegiance to the Union. Whether they re-enlisted was an individual decision.
Life in Albemarle counties was overturned. Sound and rivers became thoroughfares for gunboats. Towns were shelled in skirmishes to maintain the Union blockade.
To counter Union action the state authorized counties to form guerilla bands called Rangers to harass Union forces. Rangers in the Albemarle were most effective, since their members were so familiar with its forbidding terrain. They also prevented slaves from crossing Union lines and terrorized Union sympathizers.
Stating that they were virtually bandits, an angry Union commander threatened serious reprisals. Locals, too, were not happy with the depredations and the secretive nature of these bands.
Meanwhile, Albemarle residents had been smuggling supplies for Lee’s army. Provisions would be shipped from Norfolk Virginia through the Dismal Swamp Canal into northeast North Carolina.
From there they were ferried west through swamp and river, then back up north to Lee’s army in Petersburg, or further north to Richmond, Virginia. The hand-off of supplies was probably done relay-style, from crew to crew.
To stop the smuggling, federal forays destroyed bridges and roads but the supply stream continued. The Union then organized Negro troops to intervene, a move that was bound to incite citizens, particularly in light of reputed atrocities. It worked. Citizens were kept in a state of fear and panic.
A truce of sorts was arranged. The Union would remove Negro troops if citizens stopped smuggling and the Rangers were disbanded. A jittery peace was restored, though it a Union captain acknowledged later that this circuitous supply route through northern North Carolina remained effective during the War.
Exports of cotton, lumber, ships stores and fishery products that were expected to pay the bills were halted by the blockade. Imports of necessary goods were blocked. Basics became luxuries.
From 1862 to 1865 prices soared because of profiteering by smugglers: a barrel of flour went from $18 to $500; corn, a staple, went from $1 a bushel to $30. Parched corn was used to make coffee, and sorghum was grown and processed instead of purchasing sugar.
Wrote one resident, Sure this War is meant to check the profusion in which we have lived & to teach the rising generation economy & the employment of their resources.
Many southerners could not believe that slaves would want to escape bondage. They were quite sure that slaves felt such a strong attachment to their masters they would never leave, that they were being driven or enticed to federal camps. When slaves took advantage of the Emancipation Proclamation, planters felt betrayed.
Yet as soon as Union troops arrived in an area slaves would follow their camps. Slaves that did not flee often piloted Union ships and revealed the location of Rangers.
If you can cross the creek to Roanoke Island, you will find safe haven.
Roanoke Island became a refuge for escaped and freed slaves. Protected by the Union army, over 3500 refugees would settle there in a camp called the Freedman’s Colony where community life flourished: families could live as families, children could attend schools, gardens could grow and going to church was central to life.
Some freedmen from Roanoke Island and other camps in eastern Carolina offered their skills to Union forces, or became spies, guides and scouts, built forts and bridges and served in four Union regiments.
After the war the land was returned to the original owners and colony members became refugees again. Reports of depredations by some of these refugees and others caused counties to establish militia to maintain control.
It wasn’t all rosy for Union ships on Burnside’s Expedition. Bad weather plagued them in turbulent seas. In November, 1861, the Expedition Hurricane scattered a Union fleet of 75 ships off Cape Hatteras. Two vessels sank, and others were wrecked by Confederate forces. Storm surge was so high it inundated Hatteras Island.
Words from one sailor: Wind continued to rise till at 11 pm it blew almost a gale…The scene was fearful but magnificent. The ship was tossing and pitching…The waves were rolling at least 20 feet high.
Words from another: Last night was the worst I ever saw. I could not sleep for I had as much as I could do to hold myself in my bunk. Reynolds got thrown out of his…8 am Window in stern got stove in the night…water was three or four inches deep. Shoes, guns, knapsacks…floating round in fine style.
Then, on a stormy New Years Eve in 1862 the ironclad warship, the Monitor, sank in 300 feet of water almost 200 miles off Cape Hatteras, losing 16 of her crew. She had performed extraordinarily well in service.
The first ever duel between ironclad warships took place near the mouth of the James River when the smaller Monitor clashed with the formerly wooden frigate Virginia. The Virginia had previously sunk, then was raised and re-outfitted as an ironclad and rechristened the Merrimack.
The Confederacy hoped to use the Merrimack to break the Union blockade, and before the Monitor arrived, she had already destroyed two wooden Union ships.
The battle ended inconclusively; the blockade remained. But the clash between two ironclads marked a major turning point in the history of naval warfare, and the two ships are memorialized in the names of Hampton Roads tunnels.
The Union and Confederacy had both developed steam-powered ironclads because ships built from wood could no longer withstand fire power from late-model heavy artillery. European countries took note of this battle and immediately stopped construction of wooden ships.
The Monitor’s location is a watery historic site, and the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA tells the story of that time through exhibits and artifacts.
Only a few months before the Monitor sank, the Merrimack was blown up by her Confederate commanders as Union troops approached Norfolk to tighten the blockade. She was heavily salvaged, so few remnants remain as relics.
There was only one major battle fought on Albemarle Sound, a year before the end of the war. Three confederate warships, including the Albemarle Ram, an ironclad built in a cornfield, and eight Union gunboats faced each other. The battle ended indecisively at sunset.
(During the Civil War, much action in the Albemarle centered on the rivers and towns north of the Sound. These details will be available as we post the profiles of these rivers.)
Left with a shattered economy and a broken society — devalued land, bearish cotton prices, a crumbled plantation system, destroyed homes and businesses — citizens began to find ways down new paths.
The social fabric of the community had been frayed. Soldiers came back wounded, or they didn’t come back at all. Families were broken by death and disease. Livelihoods were cobbled together by every member of the family.
Going to school would not put food on the table. Money was so tight that the personal surety bond, a sign of trust that was used regularly before the war, was replaced by the mortgage.
The country store and gristmill, many now in disrepair, had offered antebellum farmers more than essential goods and services. Along with churches, they had been the nucleus of community life. Rural folk, whether landowner or tenant, free black or white, converged to purchase supplies, have their corn ground, or simply visit with neighbors and friends.
The structure of county government changed. Instead of Justices being appointed to manage affairs, county commissioners were elected to govern, a more democratic process that allowed for participation by blacks, who now voted and began to hold county offices.
Heavily in debt, Albemarle’s county governments struggled to provide aid to the poor, repair bridges, roads and ferries and restore public schools that had been closed early in the war.
Loss of labor, unstable race relations, and an uncertain political future reduced the wealthy to poverty. The Capeharts of Scotch Hall whose plantation had been bringing in $100,000 a year were left with $1200. Still, that was a tidy sum compared to assets of most people.
Class and color remained strong points of division throughout the century. Planters had trouble accepting the new equality enjoyed by blacks, and especially the idea of blacks holding public office. Blacks aligned with republicans, putting democrats in the minority.
The Perquimans Record opined in 1892 that the white element in the Republican party is the best class of our people, wealthy, Intelligent and refined.
Democrats worked very hard to gain the majority, presupposing that once in power they could reduce the Negro to his former subservience. The rise of Populism that attracted many farmers, slowed them down, but by the 1900’s they were firmly entrenched with a racist agenda.
Cotton and corn crops were good that first year after the war. They fetched high prices. People were optimistic. But rains brought poor cotton crops the next couple of years, and there was barely enough corn for bread.
The 1870 census revealed devaluation of farm acreage, livestock and crop yields. Cash value of farms dropped by half or more.
Freed slaves and poor whites lacked the money to purchase even devalued farmland and supplies to start them on a new life. Planters were so deeply in debt that they could not pay workers up front, so they divided up their property and worked out a system of sharecropping or tenancy.
Tenant farmers rented the house and the land they tilled. They had control over what crops they grew and how they were sold. Out of the cash they received they paid the planter and any merchants the money due for rent and supplies and kept the rest.
Sharecroppers seldom owned anything. They rented the land and the house they lived in, along with all supplies needed for farming. They were told what to plant and had no control over sales. After harvest the planter took what was owed to him and paid what was left to the sharecropper.
Most bought supplies from local merchants on credit with the hope that they could pay off their debts after harvest. For many it was an endless cycle of debt and poverty, reminiscent of the miner in the country-western song, Sixteen Tons, who owed his soul to the company store.
Sharecropped farms occupied about 35 percent of farmland north of Albemarle Sound, much less in counties along the south shore. Easing the penury were gifts from Sound and rivers, the dependable, annual running of herring and shad that could be freely taken.
The prosperity of antebellum years never returned to the Albemarle. Post-war industrialization elsewhere in the country did not reach here and farmers still planted their crops and watched the weather.
Those swamps, managed to keep the world away. A low population and lack of an industrial base protected the environment from smokestacks and warehouses. This watery oasis was not seen as a destination for building a bustling metropolis.
Even inroads wrought by Union armies could be and were repaired. Future threats would come along and would-be moguls would try to exploit the environmental wealth, but they did not succeed with any permanence, even in the twentieth century.
This lack of commerce and industry created some of the poorest counties in the state. Yet there was not a vast exodus of African Americans from the Albemarle during either wave of the Great Migration during the twentieth century.
Families with long lineage here, black and white, close-knit and close-by, have given support and comfort to each other through centuries, and a relatively benign climate eases life.
Lack of heavy commerce maintained a relaxed pace of life that allowed for neighborliness, deferential respect, and time-honored values of God, family and country. In fine weather or flood, people count on each other for help.
Whatever hurt remained from the war, every spring communities could look forward to those heady days when the fish swam up rivers. And they knew that life in the Albemarle would be sustained for yet another year.