October 3-4, 1861 in Chicamacomico, North Carolina
Union Forces Commanded by Col. Rush Hawkins
Confederate Forces Commanded by Col. A.R. Wright
Conclusion: Confederate Union Victory
On August 27, 1861, only four and a half months after a secessionist militia unit from Beaufort seized FORT MACON, a Union task force attacked and captured two hastily constructed and lightly armed Confederate forts protecting Hatteras Inlet.
When Forts Hatteras and Clark fell, the Confederates also abandoned their forts on Ocracoke and Oregon inlets, and removed their remaining troops to Roanoke Island, about 50 miles north of Hatteras, to await, with considerable trepidation, the next move on the part of the Federals.
It should be pointed out that this successful Union incursion on the Outer Banks occurred a full five months before the much larger Burnside Expedition arrived on Hatteras Island.
Safeguarding this Federal toehold on the Outer Banks were about 900 infantry of the 9th and 20th New York Volunteers under the command of Colonel Rush Hawkins. They were later reinforced by about 600 men of the 20th Indiana and a company of the 1st U.S. Artillery. The Federals also had the support of five, mostly small, armed naval vessels. These forces did not imbue Col. Hawkins with much of a sense of security, as he was convinced that the Confederates on Roanoke Island were assembling a larger force with which to recapture their lost forts.
In order to thwart what he believed to be the enemy’s plans, Hawkins ordered Colonel W.L. Brown to move the 600 men of his Twentieth Indiana Regiment to just north of the Outer Banks village of Chicamacomico, near the present day location of Rodanthe. This move would provide an early warning of the expected Confederate attack, and would make it more difficult for them to organize their assault on Hatteras.
Two days after the Indiana regiment arrived at Chicamacomico, the Federal tug Fanny was sent from Hatteras with supplies, equipment, and rations for the troops of the 20th Indiana. Aboard the Fanny was a precious supply of drinking water, which was in very short supply on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
On the opposing side, Confederate Colonel A.E. Wright was in command of the North Carolinians and the recently arrived Third Georgia Regiment. For naval support, the Southerners had their “Mosquito Fleet” of five shallow draft steamers. These were mostly side-wheel river boats with only minimal armament and no trained gunners. The Mosquito Fleet was under the command of Commodore W.F. Lynch, a former U.S. Navy Captain.
Colonel Wright was quite certain that the Federals, with what he believed was their greater strength, were preparing to attack his position on Roanoke Island. When the Confederate commander heard that a small Union vessel was in the area, he “determined at once to intercept and capture her, and if possible to learn the intention of the enemy, who were evidently meditating some hostile movement upon his position.”
What ensued could not exactly be described as a titanic battle between great warships. Three vessels of the Mosquito Fleet, including the former canal tug boat Junaluska, descended upon the Fanny with guns blazing. After a half-hour chase and about two dozen shots, one shell managed to land on the deck of the Fanny. This was sufficient to cause the Captain and crew of the Fanny to take to their small boat, leaving behind some forty soldiers to take care of themselves as best they could. The capture of the Fanny was the first capture of a Union warship by Confederate arms anywhere in the Civil War. The equipment on board the Fanny had an estimated value of $150,000. But nothing on board would have been of more value to the Union troops ashore than the supply of drinking water which she carried. It was only after the prisoners from the captured Fanny were questioned that Col. Wright learned of the enemy force at Chicamacomico. This served to confirm his worst fears. But to his credit, he and Commodore Lynch decided to strike the first blow.
The Confederate plan was quite ambitious for such an inexperienced force. Using all available vessels, including towed launches and barges, the 3rd Georgia Infantry would be landed to the north of the Federals at Chicamacomico, while Colonel Henry Shaw’s 8th North Carolina Regiment would be landed to the south, thereby cutting off the Union escape. After eliminating this enemy concentration, the Confederates could then march south to destroy the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and recapture Forts Clark and Hatteras.
After three days of preparation, the Confederate expedition embarked after midnight in the early hours of October 5, 1861. After steaming down Pamlico Sound, the little fleet arrived off of Chicamacomico just after sunrise. It was at this point that the comedy of errors began.
The Confederates should have been landed a couple of miles above the Union camp so that they could assemble and organize their assault in good military order. Instead, they had to wade ashore through more than a mile of shallow water while in full view of the Union forces, who were lined up in battle formation on the beach. At this critical moment, Col. Brown, the Union commander, observed half of the invading fleet continuing to steam south, apparently intending to encircle and trap his forces.
Had Col. Brown been more experienced, and his Indiana troops more seasoned, he might have exulted in the opportunity to wipe out the disadvantaged Georgia regiment struggling through the water. He would then have the remaining Confederate troops trapped between his own forces and the Union reinforcements which he had sent for when the approaching Mosquito Fleet was first observed. But instead, Col. Brown ordered his men to withdraw all the way to Fort Hatteras. Thus began the famous “Chicamacomico Races.”
Col. Brown no doubt expected his men to withdraw in good military order. But the scene that followed was one of hundreds of men fleeing in disarray and in various degrees of terror. The Indiana soldiers had more than a hostile enemy to contend with. It was a hot, cloudless morning and most of the men had empty canteens. Before long, their heavy woolen uniforms and most of their equipment were discarded as the men struggled through the soft sand.
The Georgia troops were in hot pursuit, attempting to fire at their fleeing opponents as they ran. The gap between the two forces widened somewhat when many of the Georgia troops paused to pillage the abandoned Union camp before resuming their pursuit. The Confederates were deriding the Yankees for discarding their uniforms, but before the day ended they were doing the same thing.
Mixed in with the fleeing Hoosiers were dozens of civilians who had taken an oath of loyalty to the Union, and were fearful of being hung as traitors if captured by the Confederates. One of the Indiana soldiers later described the scene:
“The sun was shining on the white sand of the beach, heating the air as if it were a furnace. The first ten miles was terrible. No water, the men unused to long marches, the sand heavy, their feet sinking into it at every step. As the regiment moved along, man after man would stagger from the ranks and fall upon the hot sand. Looking back, I saw our Colonel trudging along with his men, having given up his horse to a sick soldier. But the most sorrowful sight of all was the Islanders leaving their homes from fear of the enemy. They could be seen in groups, sometimes with little carts carrying their provisions, but mostly with nothing, fleeing for dear life; mothers carrying their babes, fathers leading along the boys, grandfathers and grandmothers straggling along from homes they had left behind. Relying on our protection, they had been our friends, but in an evil hour we had been compelled to leave them.”
The same soldier went on to describe the maddening thirst as the morning and afternoon wore on: “In every clump of bushes I would find men utterly exhausted. The enemy’s vessels were now nearly opposite, steaming down the Sound to cut off our retreat. I would tell them this, but they would say ‘they did not care, they would die there’, so utterly hopeless did they seem.”
By late afternoon, the Confederate fleet had gotten far enough south of the fleeing Federals to attempt a landing of Col. Shaw’s 8th North Carolina Regiment. But the vessels had run aground far out in the Sound, and the soldiers were not able to wade ashore because much of the intervening waters were too deep. Thus, the planned Confederate trap was never sprung. The fleeing Yankees were unaware of this development because the very sight of the Rebel fleet had caused most of them to move over to the ocean side of the banks and out of sight of the aborted landing.
The 3rd Georgia Regiment was also unaware of this development. They continued their pursuit, dragging two howitzers through the soft sand, expecting that the North Carolina regiment would soon intercept the fleeing Yankees. Occasionally they would encounter stragglers. Several who resisted were killed or wounded, while about forty others were taken prisoner. The Georgia soldiers continued the chase until darkness fell.
The retreat of the 20th Indiana continued until midnight, when they finally reached the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. There they found a supply of water, and the lighthouse itself became a fortified refuge. The exhausted soldiers had covered more than 23 miles since their “strategic withdrawal” began that morning.
The 3rd Georgia had made camp for the night about nine miles from the lighthouse, still unaware that Col. Shaw’s regiment had not closed the trap. At dawn they resumed their pursuit. Believing that the enemy would by that time have been stopped by the North Carolinians, the Georgians were anxious to be there when the Yankees were forced to surrender. As they approached the lighthouse after several hours of marching, they first learned of the failure of the North Carolinians to effect a landing. This unwelcome news caused Col. Wright to order his men to begin a withdrawal back to Chicamacomico.
At about this time, the Ninth New York Regiment, which had been sent from Fort Hatteras in response to Col. Brown’s urgent message of the previous day, had arrived at the lighthouse. They now began to chase the retreating Georgians! The 3rd Georgia, although moving with alacrity, presented a more orderly sight than did the Indiana troops of the prior day. However, that picture was soon to change. An officer of the 3rd Georgia described what happened:
“After marching only a few miles upon our return, a Federal steamer anchored off the coast and opened upon us with shell, shot, and grape shot. They fired the first gun at 5 minutes after 1 o’clock, and continued to fire until dark, throwing by Commodore Lynch’s count 441 shot. It was a miracle that numbers of us were not killed. One man of the ‘Burke Guards’ and Clay Moore of my company were slightly wounded. We marched 18 miles to reach our camp, after marching at least half that distance in pursuit of the enemy during the morning. It was severe, I assure you. We marched upon the Sound side of the beach and of course a great part of the way, across the little inlets, through water 2 and 3 feet deep, I marched till mired down, then I took off my pants, shoes and socks — which made me much lighter. Most of us did this, and most of us can walk with difficulty yet because of sore feet. Those that took it barefooted stood the march the best. It was said to be the Monticello that attacked us. Of course we could offer no resistance, for they kept 3 or 4 large sized guns belching forth death and destruction at us without any compunctions and we had to march down the beach and take it.”
Apparently the combination of a rolling ship, inexperienced gunners, moving targets, and intervening sand dunes prevented any serious casualties among the Georgians in spite of the large number of rounds fired. With all of the shot and shell that were fired, the Union gunners would have found it inconceivable that they had done so little damage to the enemy. Perhaps the smoke in their eyes from their own guns caused the Federals to be blinded. For whatever reason, they reported to higher headquarters that, “several officers were killed, and the shore for a distance of four miles was strewn with killed and wounded.” This made for good reading in the Northern press.
The Georgians managed to reach the waiting Mosquito Fleet ahead of their pursuers with little lost but their clothes and their pride. Not only did the Confederates abandon Chicamacomico, but soon afterwards so too did the Federals, who returned to Fort Hatteras to regroup. Thus the “Chicamacomico Races” ended with everyone back where they started. Each side felt they had foiled a major enemy offensive, and had succeeded in spite of being outnumbered by no less than two to one by their opponent.
During the remainder of 1861 the two sides eyed each other warily, but avoided contact. It was not until the following February that Roanoke Island would be attacked by the newly arrived forces of the Burnside expedition.