The Battle for Hatteras Islands

The Search for Fort Clark

The following article is from: "Ephemeral Traces in the Sand: The Archaeological Search Fort Clark" by Charles L. Heath, Jr., 1999; Paper presented at the Hatteras Island Civil War Conference, Buxton, North Carolina.


Fort Clark was a defensive work constructed by North Carolina’s Confederate troops and both free and enslaved African-American laborers in the summer of 1861. The earthworks fort, erected near Hatteras Inlet, was the smaller sister fortification to Fort Hatteras. Both complexes were constructed to defend the Tidewater region of North Carolina from invasion by Union warships and seaborne troops, via Hatteras Inlet. Fort Hatteras, now long since inundated by the waters of the Pamlico Sound, was the inlet's primary fortification. Fort Hatteras was positioned on the northeast side of Hatteras Inlet, while Fort Clark was positioned near the center of "Inlet Peninsula" to both defend the rear of Fort Hatteras from land attack and to engage enemy warships before they could penetrate the inlet.

The inlet fortifications were not yet completed and only mounted a portion of the available artillery pieces when the Confederate defenders were attacked by a Union expeditionary force on August 27, 1861. The forts were shelled for two days by powerful gun batteries mounted onboard seven Union frigates and gunboats. On the first day of the engagement, Fort Clark’s gunners expended their ammunition stores with little effect on the distant warships and were forced to abandon the work when they could no longer return fire. By late morning on the second day of battle, the desperately outgunned Confederate forces inside Fort Hatteras succumbed to the hail of high explosive shrapnel that rained down on their exposed gun positions. While the Confederate gunners attempted to return fire, their cannon powder was damp from months of storage in the humid environment of Hatteras Inlet, and their outdated smoothbore artillery pieces were not particularly effective against the warships of the Union fleet. With Union forces on the beaches, and Fort Clark occupied by Federal troops, a white flag was raised over the ramparts of Fort Hatteras late in the morning of August 28th and the garrison was surrendered by the Confederate commander.

While a seemingly minor engagement in the greater scheme of the American Civil War, the outcome of the battle at Hatteras Inlet was certainly significant to military operations in eastern North Carolina. Although the Union Army’s role in the attack was largely a bungled affair, the Hatteras forts were the first land fortifications to be reduced into submission by the US Navy through the use of naval gunfire alone. The lessons learned by Union military leaders at Hatteras Inlet would later be used to successfully overwhelm Confederate fortifications on waterways and ocean shores throughout the South. More significant at the time, was the fact that Hatteras Inlet was, geographically and strategically speaking, the "key to the Albemarle Sound region." After the subsequent Union Army occupation of Hatteras Island in late 1861, Hatteras Inlet became one of the primary inland waterway entry points into North Carolina for Union invasion forces. As the historian D. H. Hill later observed, the capture of Forts Hatteras and Clark "...was the first step in the loss of about one-third of the state’s territory." The subsequent abandonment or capture of other North Carolina coastal fortifications (e.g., Fort Ocracoke, Fort Oregon and Fort Macon) after the fall of Hatteras, greatly enhanced the US Navy’s ability to blockade or capture Confederate blockade runners and privateers that attempted to make for North Carolina’s inland ports after 1861.

Hatteras Island, with its sheltered anchorage and military facilities located near the inlet, was the primary staging area for Brigadier-General Ambrose Burnside’s 1862 expeditions against Roanoke Island, New Bern, and other key Tidewater cities in eastern North Carolina. The island was continuously occupied by Union forces from 1861 until 1870 and the inlet fortifications were perpetually improved upon throughout the war years. After the Civil War, the sprawling military complex located near Hatteras Inlet fell into obscurity. Although Fort Clark was officially abandoned by the US Army in 1864, Fort Hatteras was occupied by a token, Reconstruction era garrison through the late 1860s.

During the late nineteenth century, it is most probable that the fortifications and associated quarters buildings were thoroughly salvaged by local residents of the island. While wood and other useful building materials were recycled by the ever resourceful islanders, the sand and marsh sod parapet walls and other unsalvageable remains quickly succumbed to the forces of nature. Over the last century, the specific location of Fort Clark and its associated facilities have been lost to living memory. While several historians and archaeologists believe that the two fort sites washed into the Atlantic Ocean many decades ago, at least one observer claimed that some remains of Forts Hatteras and Clark were still visible from the air in the early 1950s. Topographic map data, however, indicate that Fort Hatteras, in fact, eroded into the Pamlico Sound at least 100 years ago. Local sport divers have apparently relocated the inundated site of Fort Hatteras and regularly recover intact artillery projectiles and other Civil War period artifacts from the sound bottom near the Hatteras-to-Ocracoke Island ferry channel.

In the mid 1990s, an interest in the Civil War history of Hatteras Island led Mr. Melvin Covey of Buxton to undertake a private research project with the aim of relocating the site of Fort Clark. He studied historic documents, maps, aerial photographs and other materials and determined that the site of the old fort may be intact and well inland of the present day ocean shoreline. After conducting field reconnaissance work, Mr. Covey located an area in the barrier meadow on the southwest end of Hatteras Island where a small scatter of mid-nineteenth century artifacts was visible on the surface. He further located an unusual sand dune formation near the artifact scatter that appeared on aerial photographs of Hatteras Island made as early as the 1940s. The large rectangular dune is perpendicular to the natural sand dune line and seems to be, due to its size and orientation, of possible human origin. Mr. Covey determined that the anomalous dune feature was positioned near a nineteenth century map location of Fort Clark and believed that the landform was a possible a remnant of the fort. His initial research was the genesis of a subsequent archaeological investigation conducted by archaeologists from East Carolina University’s Coastal Archaeology Office in the Spring of 1998.

Since the suspected fort site lies within the boundaries of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the appropriate archaeological investigation permits had to be obtained from the National Park Service. Funding for the project was provided through a research grant from the Civil War Committee of the Hatteras Island Business Association. The archaeological testing for Fort Clark was undertaken as part of a series of cooperative research ventures related to the relocation and study of potentially significant Civil War period sites on Hatteras Island by the Hatteras Island Business Association and the Coastal Archaeology Office at East Carolina University.

During the fieldwork phase of the project, the project archaeologists were supported and assisted in the field by many volunteers from the local area. Without the time and effort generously expended by these volunteers the project could not have been adequately accomplished. The primary purpose of the archaeological investigation was to test the odd dune feature, potentially the last visible vestige of Fort Clark originally located by Mr. Covey. As the fieldwork progressed with the hard work of many indispensable volunteers, additional testing of the overall project area was accomplished over a four and one-half day period in April of 1998.

The general investigation area on Inlet Peninsula was divided into two sub-areas, which I will refer to as Area-A and Area-B. The dune anomaly is located in Area-A, while the locale of the historic artifact scatter is located in Area-B. A wet depression with extremely thick vegetation separates the two research areas. To investigate potential archaeological features related to Fort Clark and its associated barracks complex, two stratigraphic test trenches were cut into the sand dune that we suspected to be a wall remnant of the fort. An intensive metal detector and shovel test survey was conducted in both sub-areas and six 3x3m test squares were excavated, one in Area-A and five in Area-B.

The testing project yielded important archaeological data related to the former Civil War fort site, but the investigation was both rewarding and disappointing. The research, to date, as with any archaeological endeavor, has provided both answers and questions. Based on the data recovered during the project, there is no doubt that some portion of the Fort Clark fortification and barracks complex has been re-located. Unfortunately, the soil characteristics of the tested sand dune anomaly in Area-A do not definitively indicate that the feature is undoubtedly a partial remnant of the fort. However, based on the dune’s geographic position and direct relationship with the nearby Civil War site investigated in nearby Area-B, we concluded that the presently visible landform most likely represents a highly altered and disturbed portion of Fort Clark’s rear parapet wall.

The investigation in Area-B was more productive, and the materials recovered indicate that we successfully re-located some portion of the camp and barracks complex that was located outside of the fort walls. Hundreds of Civil War era military, civilian, and architectural artifacts were excavated from the site, and at least one decayed wooden post, possibly from a post-in-ground type building frame, was recorded. Although there are notable exceptions, the majority of the artifacts recovered from Area-B are either of mid-nineteenth century or Civil War period origin. The metal detector survey and test unit excavations produced over 400 artifacts.

In general, the artifact assemblage from both project sub-areas is reminiscent of other archaeological collections recovered from Civil War military encampments in the South. There are personal items (e.g., clothing buttons, modified lead bullets; liquor bottle fragments and coins), military items (e.g., minie bullets, musket balls, artillery shell and fuze fragments, and weapons accoutrements), and architectural items (e.g., brick and stone fragments, nails, spikes, and window glass). Some artifact classes that are commonly represented on other Civil War sites, such as ceramic tableware and metal table utensils, are not represented in the recovered artifact assemblage. Other than ammunition and weapons related artifacts, few of the materials from the site are of specific military issue. This pattern is somewhat puzzling, especially when one considers the diverse range of military issue artifacts that have been recovered from other Civil War military sites in the South.

Since Federal forces, including local Union volunteers, occupied the Fort Clark complex for over four years, standard issue US Army buttons and uniform insignia, were expected, but not recovered. The omission of US Army uniform parts is puzzling, but the phenomena may simply be a vagary of limited sampling. While the project area was intensively scoured during the metal detector survey, the total area covered, approximately 2-acres, was relatively small, particularly when compared to the apparent acreage actually occupied by both Fort Clark’s permanent buildings and early war period tent encampments.

The results of this initial testing project clearly indicate the need for further testing outside the boundaries of the 1998 investigation area. The sheer density of Civil War period materials observed in the limited boundaries of Area-B is likely indicative of a lengthy military occupation in the project area. As the original buildings and tent encampments associated with the Fort Clark garrison were apparently spread over a large area, it cannot be presently determined which section of the complex is represented by the archaeological site investigated during this project. The full archaeological potential of the Fort Clark site, as well as other peripheral camp areas, such as Camp Wool on Hatteras Island, has not yet been realized. Since the general locale of Inlet Peninsula was intensively occupied from 1861-1865, other Civil War related archaeological deposits and features no doubt remain.

The Fort Clark site is subject to environmental extremes unique to the barrier island environment. Reviews of historic map data, regional soil erosion studies and aerial photographs all indicate the general site locale is presently threatened by continuing shoreline and hurricane overwash erosion. Beyond natural threats to the preservation of this and other related Civil War sites on Hatteras Island, relic hunters are another potential source of site destruction.

While archaeological sites located within the borders of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore are ostensibly protected by Federal law from construction development and illegal artifact recovery, cultural sites cannot be readily protected from looting and destruction from natural processes that impact North Carolina’s barrier islands. In fact, the site that we tested in 1998 was partially looted while we were conducting our investigations. Hatteras Island’s Civil War sites that lie outside the boundaries of the National Seashore are subject to similar negative impacts with the additional problems of the commercial and residential development of private lands. The results and conclusions of this study readily demonstrate that further archaeological investigations to locate and assess significant Civil War period sites on the North Carolina Outer Banks are needed.

Archaeological resources, whether they be of prehistoric or historic nature are nonrenewable resources. Once sites are destroyed by whatever processes, even archaeological investigations, they are gone forever. Many researchers have observed that Civil War resources in the American South are being destroyed at an alarming rate. It is imperative that such cultural sites be preserved and studied for future generations. As perhaps America’s most defining national event since the American Revolution, a fuller comprehension of the Civil War will help us to both understand who we are as a culture today and to gain a better understanding of who we might be in the future.

Copyright 2000

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