Battle of Elizabeth City

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Battle of Elizabeth City
Part of the American Civil War
USS Commodore Perry (1864).jpg
USS Commodore Perry's guns, 1864
Date10 February 1862 (1862-02-10)
Location Camden County /
Pasquotank County,
near Elizabeth City, North Carolina
Result United States victory
Flag of the United States (1861-1863).svg  United States Flag of the Confederate States of America (1861-1863).svg  Confederate States
Commanders and leaders
Stephen C. Rowan William F. Lynch
13 gunboats Land:
~34 men
4 artillery pieces
5 gunboats
1 schooner
Casualties and losses
2 steamers damaged
2 killed
7 wounded
1 steamer sunk
1 armed tug captured
1 steamer scuttled
1 armed tug scuttled
1 schooner scuttled
5 killed
7 wounded
34 captured

The Battle of Elizabeth City of the American Civil War was fought in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Roanoke Island. It took place on 10 February 1862, on the Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The participants were vessels of the U.S. Navy's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, opposed by vessels of the Confederate Navy's Mosquito Fleet; the latter were supported by a shore-based battery of four guns at Cobb's Point (now called Cobb Point), near the southeastern border of the town. The battle was a part of the campaign in North Carolina that was led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and known as the Burnside Expedition. The result was a Union victory, with Elizabeth City and its nearby waters in their possession, and the Confederate fleet captured, sunk, or dispersed.

American Civil War Civil war in the United States from 1861 to 1865

The American Civil War was a war fought in the United States from 1861 to 1865, between the North and the South. The Civil War is the most studied and written about episode in U.S. history. Primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people, war broke out in April 1861 when secessionist forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina shortly after Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as the President of the United States. The loyalists of the Union in the North proclaimed support for the Constitution. They faced secessionists of the Confederate States in the South, who advocated for states' rights to uphold slavery.

Battle of Roanoke Island Battle of the American Civil War

The opening phase of what came to be called the Burnside Expedition, the Battle of Roanoke Island was an amphibious operation of the American Civil War, fought on February 7–8, 1862, in the North Carolina Sounds a short distance south of the Virginia border. The attacking force consisted of a flotilla of gunboats of the Union Navy drawn from the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, commanded by Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, a separate group of gunboats under Union Army control, and an army division led by Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside. The defenders were a group of gunboats from the Confederate States Navy, termed the Mosquito Fleet, under Capt. William F. Lynch, and about 2,000 Confederate soldiers commanded locally by Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise. The defense was augmented by four forts facing on the water approaches to Roanoke Island, and two outlying batteries. At the time of the battle, Wise was hospitalized, so leadership fell to his second in command, Col. Henry M. Shaw.

Pasquotank River river in the United States of America

The Pasquotank River is a coastal water-body in Northeastern North Carolina in the United States. Located between Camden and Pasquotank counties, the Pasquotank connects directly to the Albemarle Sound and is part of the Intracoastal Waterway via Elizabeth City.



The Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City, site of battle of 10 February 1862 ElizabethCity.jpg
The Pasquotank River near Elizabeth City, site of battle of 10 February 1862

At the outset of the American Civil War, the Union sought to implement its Anaconda Plan to isolate and defeat the Confederacy. The crucial first step was to blockade the Confederate coast to prevent access to Europe; this was relatively easy, as the pre-war navy was almost entirely from the Union states. The Union then sought to use its naval advantage to advance the rest of the Anaconda Plan by cutting parts of the Confederacy off from one another.

Union (American Civil War) United States national government and the 20 free states and five border slave states

During the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Union, also known as the North, referred to the United States of America and specifically to the national government of President Abraham Lincoln and the 20 free states, as well as 4 border and slave states that supported it. The Union was opposed by 11 southern slave states that formed the Confederate States of America, also known as "the Confederacy" or "the South".

Anaconda Plan U.S. Union Army outline strategy for suppressing the Confederacy at the beginning of the American Civil War

The Anaconda Plan is the name applied to a U.S. Union Army outline strategy for suppressing the Confederacy at the beginning of the American Civil War. Proposed by Union general-in-chief Winfield Scott, the plan emphasized a Union blockade of the Southern ports, and called for an advance down the Mississippi River to cut the South in two. Because the blockade would be rather passive, it was widely derided by a vociferous faction of Union generals who wanted a more vigorous prosecution of the war, and who likened it to the coils of an anaconda suffocating its victim. The snake image caught on, giving the proposal its popular name.

Confederate States of America (de facto) federal republic in North America from 1861 to 1865

The Confederate States of America, commonly referred to as the Confederacy and the South, was an unrecognized country in North America that existed from 1861 to 1865. The Confederacy was originally formed by seven secessionist slave-holding states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—in the Lower South region of the United States, whose economy was heavily dependent upon agriculture, particularly cotton, and a plantation system that relied upon the labor of African-American slaves.

Elizabeth City lies near the mouth of the Pasquotank River, where it flows into Albemarle Sound from the north. North of the city is the Dismal Swamp Canal. To the east is the southern segment of the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal, separated from the Pasquotank River by only a narrow neck of land. [1] Much of the food and forage delivered from North Carolina to southeastern Virginia was transported along these two canals. In particular, Norfolk, Virginia depended upon continued access to the canals for its subsistence. So long as the North Carolina Sounds remained in Confederate hands, Norfolk could be well supplied despite the blockading efforts of the Union Navy at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Albemarle Sound An estuary on the coast of North Carolina, United States

Albemarle Sound is a large estuary on the coast of North Carolina in the United States located at the confluence of a group of rivers, including the Chowan and Roanoke. It is separated from the Atlantic Ocean by the Currituck Banks, a barrier peninsula upon which the town of Kitty Hawk is located, at the eastern edge of the sound, and part of the greater Outer Banks region. Roanoke Island is situated at the southeastern corner of the sound, where it connects to Pamlico Sound. Much of the water in the Albemarle Sound is brackish or fresh, as opposed to the saltwater of the ocean, as a result of river water pouring into the sound.

Dismal Swamp Canal

The Dismal Swamp Canal is located along the eastern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina in the United States. It is the oldest continually operating man-made canal in the United States, opened in 1805. It is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, an inland route, which parallels the east coast and offers boaters shelter from the Atlantic Ocean from Manasquan Inlet, New Jersey, to Brownsville, Texas. The route runs through bays, lakes, rivers, streams, and canals, and includes the Intracoastal Waterway running from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Florida Keys.

Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal

The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was built by a corporation in 1856-1860 to afford inland navigation between the Chesapeake Bay and the Albemarle Sound. It is really two canals, thirty miles (50 km) apart, one eight and one-half miles (13.7 km) long, connecting the Elizabeth River with the North Landing River in Virginia, and the other five and one-half miles (8.9 km) long, connecting the Currituck Sound with the North River in North Carolina.

That changed, however, in early February 1862. In a battle fought on 7–8 February, the joint operation of a Union Army division under Major General Ambrose E. Burnside and a naval flotilla under Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough captured Roanoke Island, a position in Croatan Sound that had previously shielded the sounds from Federal encroachment. Earlier, Union ships trying to enforce the blockade on the canals would have had to enter Pamlico Sound through Hatteras Inlet, then pass several Confederate batteries on Roanoke Island before they could get into Albemarle Sound. With the elimination of the batteries, however, all that stood in the way of the Union Navy was the Mosquito Fleet of the Confederate States Navy. [2]

In the United States Army, United States Marine Corps, and United States Air Force, major general is a two-star general-officer rank, with the pay grade of O-8. Major general ranks above brigadier general and below lieutenant general. A major general typically commands division-sized units of 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers. Major general is equivalent to the two-star rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy and United States Coast Guard, and is the highest-permanent rank during peacetime in the uniformed-services. Higher ranks are technically-temporary ranks linked to specific positions, although virtually-all officers promoted to those ranks are approved to retire at their highest earned rank.

Louis M. Goldsborough United States Navy admiral

Louis Malesherbes Goldsborough was a rear admiral in the United States Navy during the American Civil War. He held several sea commands during the Civil War, including that of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. He was also noted for contributions to nautical scientific research.

Croatan Sound is an inlet in Dare County, North Carolina. It connects Pamlico Sound with Albemarle Sound, and is bordered to the east by Roanoke Island; Roanoke Sound is on the other side of the island. Its name comes from the Croatan Indians who once inhabited the area. The Croatan Sound is crossed by two bridges, the older William B. Umstead Bridge, and the newer Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge, which carries U.S. Route 64.


Defense: the Mosquito Fleet

The first shots of the Burnside Expedition were fired on 7 February 1862, in the Battle of Roanoke Island. On that first day of the two-day battle, a force of 19 Union gunboats bombarded, rather inconclusively, four Rebel forts facing Croatan Sound and eight ships of the Confederate States Navy. The Federal ships were parts of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, commanded by Flag Officer Goldsborough. The Confederate vessels were drawn from a unit led by Flag Officer William F. Lynch, termed the Mosquito Fleet, intended to serve on Albemarle Sound and nearby waters. Two vessels of the Mosquito Fleet were not present: CSS Appomattox had been sent away to Edenton for supplies and did not return in time for the battle, and schooner CSS Black Warrior was left out, presumably because she lacked the mobility that steam power gave the rest of the fleet. [3]

William F. Lynch United States Navy officer

Captain William Francis Lynch, was a naval officer who served first in the United States Navy and later in the Confederate States Navy.

Mosquito Fleet

The term Mosquito Fleet has had a variety of uses around the world.

CSS Appomattox was a small propellor-driven steamer used early in the war by the Confederate Navy to defend the sounds of northeastern North Carolina. After participating in the battle for Roanoke Island it was burned to prevent capture on February 10, 1862, near Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

The gunnery duel lasted from noon until sunset. The only significant casualty among the fleets was the loss of CSS Curlew, holed at the waterline and beached to avoid sinking; when Roanoke Island was surrendered the next day, she was burned in order to keep her out of Federal hands. One other ship was damaged, but not by enemy action: CSS Forrest damaged her screw by running on a submerged obstacle, and was thereafter unable to move under her own power. The remainder of the Mosquito Fleet suffered only minimal damage. They had to retire at the end of the day, with Forrest in tow, solely because they had nearly run out of ammunition. [4]

CSS <i>Curlew</i>

CSS Curlew was an iron-hull North Carolina Sounds paddlewheel steamboat that was taken into the Confederate Navy in 1861. It was run aground at Fort Forrest and burned in the battle for Roanoke Island on February 8, 1862. Its wreck was discovered in 1988 and archaeologically investigated in 1994.

CSS Forrest was a wooden-hulled Confederate gunboat that saw action in the North Carolina sounds in 1861 to 1862. Despite being considered "worn out", she saw continuous service until destroyed after the battle of Elizabeth City in February 1862.

Flag Officer Lynch took his fleet to Elizabeth City, to resupply and to repair Forrest. Failing to find ammunition to replenish his magazines, he sent Commander Thomas T. Hunter, former captain of CSS Curlew, to Norfolk. He later sent CSS Raleigh up the Dismal Swamp Canal for the same purpose. Hunter returned with enough to resupply only two ships; Lynch divided it among all of his remaining serviceable ships. Raleigh, however, was not able to return in time. [5]

No further changes of status affected the Mosquito Fleet. On the eve of battle, Lynch had at his disposal six ships in the water, each with only enough shot and powder to be able to fire ten times. [6] His flagship, Sea Bird, carrying two guns, was a converted sidewheel steamer. [7] Three of his other vessels were former tugs: Appomattox [8] and Ellis, [9] each with two guns, and Beaufort, [10] with only one. Fanny, [11] with two guns, had been a transport vessel used by the United States Army until she was captured by Confederate forces near Cape Hatteras. The last vessel, CSS Black Warrior , a schooner that had been pressed into service only four days before the battle, was armed with two 32-pounder guns. [12] In addition to the eleven guns of his fleet, Lynch counted on the four guns of the Cobb's Point battery for support. [13]

Offense: the Union fleet

USS Hetzel as she appeared at the time of her civil war service. USS Hetzel.jpg
USS Hetzel as she appeared at the time of her civil war service.

The surrender of Roanoke Island on 8 February included all the Rebel forts that had faced on Croatan Sound, so they would no longer be able to prevent passage of Union ships from Pamlico into Albemarle Sound. Flag Officer Goldsborough therefore ordered his gunboats to pursue the Mosquito Fleet and destroy it. Although none of his vessels had been seriously hit in the bombardment of the preceding day, some were damaged enough that he decided not to include them in his order. Fourteen ships remained, however, and they carried a total of 37 guns. Goldsborough himself did not accompany the pursuit; in his stead was Commander Stephen C. Rowan. [14] The fourteen were all, like their Confederate counterparts, converted from civilian vessels in the first days of the war. Rowan's flagship Delaware, Hetzel, Isaac N. Seymour, John L. Lockwood, Ceres, and General Putnam [15] had all been sidewheel steamers before being acquired by the navy. Shawsheen was also a sidewheel steamer, and like two of her opponents was a former tug. Two other sidewheel vessels, Commodore Perry and Morse, had been ferries. The remaining five ships, Louisiana, Underwriter, Valley City, Whitehead, and Henry Brinker were screw steamers. [16]

If Captain Lynch had known that the Federal fleet faced a shortage of ammunition very much like his own, he perhaps would have altered his tactics, although the outcome would likely have been the same. As it was, Rowan ordered the captains in his fleet to conserve their ammunition. They were told to use ramming and boarding, so far as was possible, to disable or capture the enemy ships. [14]

On 9 February, Rowan's gunboats passed the now-silent guns of Croatan Sound and crossed Albemarle Sound. Darkness fell as they approached Elizabeth City, so they anchored for the night. [17]


CSS Ellis after her capture CSS Ellis.jpeg
CSS Ellis after her capture

Lynch used the time that the Union flotilla was anchored to arrange his own ships for the coming battle. He decided to base his position on the battery of four guns at Cobb's Point, placing schooner CSS Black Warrior opposite the point, and his five remaining steamships in line across the river a short distance upstream. He took this position because he expected the Union to try to reduce the battery before proceeding, as they had done three days previously in the opening phase of the Battle of Roanoke Island. His final instructions to his captains included the order not to let the ships fall into enemy hands; if all else failed, they should try to escape, or else destroy their vessels. [18]

At dawn on 10 February, Lynch made his first visit to the Cobb's Point battery, to coordinate its defense with his fleet. He found it manned by only seven militiamen and a single civilian. Because the battery was the strong point of his planned defense, he was constrained to order Lieutenant Commander William Harwar Parker, captain of CSS Beaufort, to come ashore with most of his crew to man the guns. He left only enough on the ship to take her up the canal. With the additional men, only three of the four guns could be manned. When battle was joined, the militiamen promptly deserted; henceforth, only two guns could be used against the enemy. [6]

The battery turned out to be irrelevant. Because his ammunition was low and his mission was to destroy the Rebel fleet, Rowan ordered his ships to bypass the battery. Parker and his men got off a few wild shots that did no harm, but they found that their guns would not bear once the Federal fleet was upstream. They therefore could only watch as their ships were destroyed by the attacking Federal fleet. [19]

First of the Confederate fleet to be lost was schooner Black Warrior. She was fired on by the entire attacking force as they passed the Cobb's Point battery, so her crew abandoned her and set her afire. Likewise, Fanny was run ashore and burned. [20] A boarding party from Ceres captured CSS Ellis in hand-to-hand combat. Her captain would have blown up Ellis but a coal heaver discovered the charges and revealed them to the boarding party. CSS Sea Bird attempted to escape, but was run down and sunk by Commodore Perry. CSS Beaufort and Appomattox made good their escape into the Dismal Swamp Canal. There, Appomattox was found to be 2 in (5.1 cm) too wide to pass through a lock, so she was burned. CSS Forrest, on the stocks to repair the damaged screw she had sustained on 8 February, was burned, along with an unnamed and uncompleted gunboat. CSS Raleigh was still at Norfolk, so she was not harmed. [21] She and Beaufort were the only vessels in the Mosquito Fleet to escape either capture or destruction.

Casualties were modest. The attacking Federal fleet lost two men killed and seven wounded, while the Rebels lost in all four killed, six wounded, and 34 captured. [22]

Quarter Gunner John Davis was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on board the Valley City during the engagement. [23] [24]


When they learned of the destruction of their fleet and the surrender of the Cobb's Point battery, Confederate troops retreating from Roanoke Island set fires in Elizabeth City, acting under orders from Brigadier General Henry A. Wise to destroy the town. About two blocks had been consumed when sailors from the Union flotilla arrived and were able to save the rest. [25]

The Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal was blocked near its entrance at the North River. The retreating Rebels started the obstruction. It was completed by the victorious Federal forces, acting under the orders of Flag Officer Goldsborough. [26]

CSS Albemarle CSS Albemarle.jpg
CSS Albemarle

The town of Edenton was taken without bloodshed on 12 February by four of Commander Cowan's gunboats. Two schooners were captured and another destroyed, and eight cannon were seized. [27] More generally, there was no longer a Confederate presence on Albemarle Sound. It remained so for most of the rest of the war; the only significant challenge to Union dominance was the short-lived experiment of CSS Albemarle in the summer of 1864.

Although Norfolk was not attacked, it was isolated and increasingly worthless to the Confederate Army. In May, the city was abandoned.

Order of battle

CSS Sea Bird, sidewheel steamer, flagship
CSS Fanny, steamer
CSS Appomattox, tug boat
CSS Ellis, tug boat
CSS Beaufort, tug boat
CSS Black Warrior, schooner

USS Delaware, sidewheel steamer, flagship
USS Hetzel, sidewheel steamer
USS Isaac N. Seymour, sidewheel steamer
USS John L. Lockwood, sidewheel steamer
USS Ceres, sidewheel steamer
USS Shawsheen, sidewheel steamer
USS Commodore Perry, sidewheel steamer
USS Morse, sidewheel steamer
USS Louisiana, screw steamer
USS Underwriter, screw steamer
USS Valley City, screw steamer
USS Whitehead, screw steamer
USS Henry Brinker, screw steamer


Abbreviations used in these notes:

ORA (Official records, armies): War of the Rebellion: a compilation of the official records of the Union and Confederate Armies.
ORN (Official records, navies): Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.
  1. The Dismal Swamp Canal begins a little less than 9 mi (14 km) from Cobb's Point as the crow flies, but almost twice that measured along the river. From Cobb's Point to the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal is 12 mi (19 km) in a straight line, almost three times that by water.
  2. Trotter, Ironclads and columbiads, pp. 75–88.
  3. Campbell, Storm over Carolina, pp. 66–67.
  4. Campbell, Storm over Carolina, pp. 71–75.
  5. Campbell, Storm over Carolina, pp. 76–77.
  6. 1 2 ORN ser. I, v. 6, p. 596.
  7. "Sea Bird". Archived from the original on 8 February 2004. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  8. "Appomattox". Archived from the original on 26 February 2004. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  9. "Ellis". Archived from the original on 4 November 2012. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  10. "Beaufort". Archived from the original on 26 February 2004. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  11. "Fanny". Archived from the original on 8 February 2004. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  12. "Black Warrior". Archived from the original on 5 December 2011. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  13. Trotter, Ironclads and columbiads, p. 88.
  14. 1 2 Browning, From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, p. 28.
  15. Because of engine trouble, General Putnam was not able to take part in the battle.
  16. See the article for each ship in DANFS. Also ORN ser. II, v. 1, pp. 54, 64, 73, 101, 102, 106, 114, 129, 151, 207, 228, 230, 239, 241.
  17. ORN ser. I, v. 5, p. 607.
  18. Browning, From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, pp. 28–29.
  19. Trotter, Ironclads and columbiads, p. 89.
  20. "Capture of Elizabeth City". US Civil War. Retrieved 22 March 2016.
  21. Browning, From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, p. 29. ORN ser. I, v. 6, pp. 607–608.
  22. Browning, From Cape Charles to Cape Fear, p. 29. Trotter, Ironclads and columbiads, pp. 89–90. ORN ser. I, v. 6, p. 621.
  23. "USS Valley City". Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  24. "US People-Davis, John, Quarter Gunner, USN". 27 April 2006. Archived from the original on 25 May 2009. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
  25. ORA ser. I, v. 9, pp. 191–193.
  26. ORN ser. I, v. 6, p. 635.
  27. ORN ser. I, v. 6, p. 637.

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Coordinates: 36°16′27″N76°08′32″W / 36.2742°N 76.1421°W / 36.2742; -76.1421