The Civil War on Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands

by Earl W. O’Neal, Jr.

Even before the outbreak of hostilities, it was obvious to both sides that the inlets of the Outer Banks of North Carolina would be critical in moving materials to and from the state and the Confederacy, just as it had been during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Ocracoke Inlet, separating Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands, and Hatteras Inlet, separating Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, were to be the most important of these. Since the arrival of the first English colonists to coastal Carolina, Ocracoke Inlet had been the main point of entry for ships from abroad and an outlet to the sea for inland North Carolina ports. Ocracoke had been declared a port of entry in 1806.

By 1828 Customs Collector Joshua Taylor (or Tayloe) had attracted a physician to Portsmouth Island and rented a small house in which to treat sick and ill mariners. In 1842 The Committee on Commerce of the United States Congress reported:

However, by 1846 Oregon and Hatteras Inlets had opened up along the Outer Banks which shifted some of the shipping routes there and Portsmouth Island began a slow decline.

Ocracoke Bar including Shell Castle, by Edmund M. Blunt, NY, 1809

Also, in 1842 a Federal building project on the Banks was to better succor sick and disabled mariners. The makeshift hospital started by Customs Collector Taylor had never been satisfactory. The United States Congress appropriated $8,550.00 in 1842 for a new hospital building which was completed in 1847.

Marine Hospital at Portsmouth Island completed in 1847, side elevation
(Courtesy of North Carolina Medical Journal)

In 1818 the old Ocracoke Lighthouse, a fifty-five foot high wooden pyramid, was actually on Shell Castle, a privately owned island shaped like a crooked snake, and located just inside Ocracoke Inlet. This Lighthouse was struck by lightning and burned in 1818. The Congress appropriated twenty thousand dollars in 1822 for a new light on Ocracoke Island. The new Ocracoke Lighthouse, sixty-five feet tall to the level of the light, was erected and illuminated in 1823. Keep in mind the U.S. Government owned the hospital at Portsmouth and the Lighthouse on Ocracoke and were under their control.

Ocracoke Island Lighthouse

Most Outer Bankers, including Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands, were independent and not that interested in the war. One such case was Captain James Horatio Williams aboard the Paragon, a two-masted schooner from Ocracoke had unloaded her cargo in Charleston, South Carolina, but was unable to find a return cargo for the Charlestonians had other things on their minds. When Horatio Williams applied on April 12 to the harbor authorities for clearance, he was told he could not leave Charleston. "The Yankees will get you outside the harbor if you sail now, and besides, we may need your vessel." Captain Williams went to his ship to consider the matter. The firing on Fort Sumter began on the same day and settled the matter in the captain’s mind. In his stubborn manner, he decided the Yankees nor the Charlestonians were going to get the Paragon. The weather that night was right, moon dark, gusty wind, drizzling rain and even some fog. He pulled his crew out of their favorite tavern, hoisted anchor and sails and silently left the harbor. The boom and flash of the guns helped guide them out to sea. The gray dawn revealed no land and no ships. Williams sailed north and completed his plans as he steered for Ocracoke Inlet. Not needing a pilot, he threaded the Paragon through the inlet, past the anchorage at the island, and across Pamlico Sound. When the crew asked questions, he told them he was keeping the Paragon safe from the war. The Paragon was built at Ocracoke in 1838. Just before the war, Jobey Wahab who owned the vessel had decided to work ashore and sold half interest in the Paragon to Williams. They continued up the Pamlico Sound into the Albemarle Sound and up the Roanoke River which was where the white oak planking used in her construction had come from. He and his crew removed the sails, spars and barrels and hid them ashore in the woods. Then they sank the Paragon in the fresh water of the river where she would remain neutral during the remainder of the war. They then traveled overland to Washington, NC where they boarded a fishing sloop bound for Ocracoke. Williams then went back to being a farmer.

Captain James Horatio Williams
(Photograph taken in Philadelphia, PA in 1887)

The Outer Banks got invaded twice, once by the Confederacy and then by the Union Armies. Unlike Hatteras, Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands did not undergo any bombardment or violent battles. Most of the descriptions are of Ft Ocracoke and the non violent invasions.

The Confederacy, after realizing the importance of the Outer Banks and protecting their supply routes, North Carolina’s Adjutant General John F. Hoke ordered Colonel Ellwood Morris who was an experienced engineer to proceed with design and building the fort. One month later on May 28, 1861, work had begun. Fort Ocracoke was sometimes called Fort Morris by the men in honor of its designer.

Though North Carolina didn’t secede from the Union until May 20, 1861, Portsmouth Island was already under Confederate jurisdiction. An advance party from the Washington Grays had been sent ahead with supplies to prepare for the rest of the troops. They went ashore at night, having to anchor offshore and wade across the shoals with the equipment, in water up to their waist. On their first trip ashore they seized the Marine Hospital which was under the Union control, then spent the rest of the night and the next day bringing ashore the supplies, at which time a guard was stationed at each gate and at the door of the building.

On the same day that North Carolina seceded the rest of the Washington Grays were sent to Beacon Island along with a procession of steamers and schooners bringing building material, arms and supplies. Upon their arrival the troops began construction of Fort Ocracoke, and despite the hardships involved had the fort almost completed when Brigadier General Gwynn visited the site 10 days later. The General reported to Governor Ellis that the fort now had five guns mounted and twelve more to be mounted within the next few days.

The following Troops were mustered into the State Service at Fort Ocracoke on July 13, 1861:

By mid-August 1861, Captain James Leith with his company, the Hyde County Rifles, and Captain James Swindell with a company raised in Chocowinity, Beaufort County, were ordered to join Colonel Martin's Seventh (17th) Regiment at Portsmouth, which they did. They were then sent to Fort Ocracoke on Beacon Island, for the defense of Beaufort.

A letter, Morris to Military Board, September 5, 1861 describes Fort Ocracoke and considered it the most impregnable fortification on the northern section of the coast, was on Beacon Island. It could not be approached within five miles by the heavy ships of the enemy and could not be attacked only by vessels of light draft and inferior power. It was inspected on August 23, 1861 by Colonel James A. J. Bradford. He described the fort as a square redoubt with epaulments, constructed of moist sods twenty four feet thick and capable of resisting any bombardment directed against it. The middle of the terreplein was occupied by an earth bomb-proof mound, covering the cistern of eighteen thousand gallons capacity and two spacious galleries for the storage of munitions. The Armament of the fort at that time consisted of two eight-inch Columbiads and seven thirty-two pound cannon. The remainder of its guns, nine in all, were lying on their platforms waiting for their carriages to arrive from New Bern. Four guns were also lying on the beach near Portsmouth. Bradford found that the supply of powder, shell, shot, friction primers, fuses, was wholly inadequate.

Four companies from Portsmouth Island and Fort Ocracoke (Ft Morgan) were moved to Fort Hatteras during the battle of August 28, 1861. This left fort Ocracoke with only a skeleton force and the fort had not received all requested supplies as noted only two weeks earlier on August 11, 1861 where Sergeant William Eberstain, Ordinance Officer, at the fort was requesting Captain Sparrow, Commander of the troops at Ft. Ocracoke to order supplies and ammunition. The small forces remaining at Fort Ocracoke under command of Captains J. H. Swindell and Jas. J. Leith heard of the capture of their comrades at Hatteras, they abandoned the fort which had been built with so much care and armed under so many difficulties and they retired to Washington, NC. After they made the decision to evacuate, one of the captains seized two schooners from Portsmouth in which they made their get-away leaving the flag behind. A sergeant, engineer and four black workers remained long enough to destroy the guns and all supplies before taking down the flag and reluctantly leaving for New Bern.

Per Naval records, as soon as the news of the fort abandonment got to Union Commander S. C. Rowan of the U.S.S. Pawnee, stationed at Hatteras, he sent the steamer Fanny, accompanied by an armed launch, to Ocracoke with Lieutenant J.G. Maxwell, commanding the U.S.S. Fanny.

U.S.S. Pawnee
(O.R.N. S.1; V.4; p.492)

A report by Lieutenant Maxwell of the U.S.S. Pawnee on September 18, 1861 (Rebellion Records 1860-61) he stated, in compliance with your orders of the 16th, I started for Ocracoke on that day in the Fanny, towing the Pawnee’s Launch. Lieutenant Eastman had charge of the latter, with twenty-two men and six marines from the ship and twenty pound howitzer, and I had on board six men and sixty-one soldiers of the Naval Brigade under Lieutenants Tillotson and Roe. The Fanny grounded on a shoal at 11:00 a.m. while approaching the Fort. While we were searching for the channel a sailboat with two men from Portsmouth put off to cross the sound. One gun shot from the Fanny brought them along side and they piloted us to within a hundred yards of the fort. The fort is located on the seaward side of Beacon Island and was entirely deserted. I landed the men at half-past one o’clock, and commenced breaking off the trunnions of the guns. While this was going on, Lieutenant Eastman in the launch went ashore at Portsmouth, where he found three eight-inch navy shell guns lying on the beach and one mounted on a carriage. All had been spiked. There was no battery erected at this time. There had been a camp on Portsmouth, Camp Washington, but a portion of the troops were sent to Fort Hatteras when it was attacked on August 28, and the remaining retired to the mainland. Portsmouth Island which had contained four hundred and fifty inhabitants, was nearly deserted, but the people are expected to return. Those remaining seem to be Union men, and expressed satisfaction at our coming. There were no entrenchments nor guns at Ocracoke. The fisherman and pilots, who fled after our attack, have generally returned. Lieutenant Eastman assured them that they would not be molested by the government and that they might return to their usual occupations. They destroyed or disabled all the guns in the fort and on Portsmouth and then gathered all the burnable materials into the bomb-proof and set fire to the pile and entirely destroyed it. Also, near by was a lightship which had been used as a store ship, and which had been run aground with the intention of towing her off and arming, which we set fire to. After the fort was destroyed two schooners loaded with stone were sunk in Ocracoke Inlet, closing it completely to confederate commerce and raiders.

From the book, The United States Marine Corps in the Civil War, The First Year, by David M. Sullivan which states, "Two weeks after the surrender of Hatteras Inlet, USS Susquehanna, and Pawnee, with the tugboats Fanny and Tempest cruised south to Ocracoke Inlet, the next break in the chain of islands off the North Carolina coast. The tugs took the route close to the mainland through Pamlico Sound, towing launches containing Marines and seamen from USS Pawnee, commanded by Lt. James Maxwell, USN, while the deep draft warships steamed beyond the islands. Confederate forts had been erected in the vicinity of Ocracoke Inlet. The mission of the Union forces was to destroy them."

USS Susquehanna on left
U.S. Naval Historical Center

"Coming up to the inlet on the morning of September 17, Marines and sailors from Susquehanna landed on Beacon Island and joined those the tugs had already put ashore. 1st Lt. Philip R. Fendall led the Marines. The landing party found the fort empty, its guns spiked and everything of value taken off. To destroy the fort, the landing party pushed every bit of flammable material up against the guns, packed gunpowder in strategic places, and laid a powder trail. After igniting the trail, the landing party took to their boats and rowed out in the channel to watch the fireworks. The Beacon Island fort soon went up with a roar and a sheet of flame. The Marines and sailors then rowed to Portsmout Island and marched to the hamlet of Portsmouth, a few miles to the south where they found a four-gun battery, also deserted. It, too, was torched. The expedition returned to their ships on the morning of September 18th."

Ft. Ocracoke burning with U.S.S. Fanny in the foreground
(Courtesy of NC Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC

On the Confederate side, in reply to a legislative inquiry for information as to the abandonment of the fort, Governor Clark answered that his only information on the subject was that the fort was left in charge of Captains Leith and Swindell with their companies, or portions of them, and that they left the next day. A court of inquiry on the conduct of these officers was ordered by General Gatlin. The findings of this court, which are not on file, were submitted to Governor Clark in December, and he suggested that the two officers should resign. Captain Leith must have retained General Gatlin’s confidence, for he was again elected captain on the reorganization of the regiment, and was killed while actively and bravely engaged in the battle of Newport in February, 1864.

The people of the Outer Banks did not feel that this was their war, and wanted very little to do with it. Other than dismantling the lighthouse (which was done by the Confederates), the only damage recorded at Ocracoke was the burning of two schools and a few homes. The Federal troops who made a quick survey of Ocracoke Island after the capture of Hatteras are credited with this destruction. The Union occupied one home near the old Ruth Bragg home, which no longer exists, but was located in the down point area on the south side of Cockle Creek. The Union troops that stayed in this house were the guards for the Ocracoke Lighthouse. The local men from Portsmouth who served in the Confederate States Army served for quite a long time and through many battles in North Carolina and Virginia. Where as the local men from Ocracoke served in the Confederate Armies for a short time in most cases. When the Union troops took New Bern on March 14, 1862 in which most of the Ocracoke soldiers took part, it was on this date that all local men with Co. H deserted or left the 33rd Regt with which they were serving. Their 1st Lt Wilson Tilmon Farrow, also of Ocracoke resigned on the same day. This raises the question; did he resign because all the local men deserted or did all the local men leave because he resigned. By mid 1862 the Union forces had control of all the coastal counties with their headquarters in New Bern.

Quite a few men from Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands swore allegiance to the U.S. and joined the 1st Infantry Regiment, Union Volunteers, probably to keep their homes and property from being destroyed. These troops were called buffaloes since they were Southern born and serving with the Union forces. Most were used as peace keepers and guards. Several of these men had served also in the Confederate States Army. Another point of interest, with all the experienced Pilots and seamen on the islands, we have only found one man from Portsmouth, Joseph Lupton who served in the 1st Infantry Regiment, Union Volunteers as a Corporal and then in 1864 transferred to the U.S. Navy. One man from Ocracoke, Christopher Thomas O’Neal, Jr. a Private with Company H, 33rd Regiment North Carolina State Troops, reported AWOL on March 14, 1862. Returned to duty in March 1863 and was present and accounted for until transferred to the Confederate States Navy about April 3, 1864. Another man, Augustus Dudley from Portsmouth, we have not found where he served in the military, however his claims against the government show he had one schooner destroyed by the Union Forces while it lay at a Shipyard in Washington, N.C. On February 21, 1864 while Union forces at Washington, N.C. were being threatened by the Confederates, another of his schooners, the Annie was taken and used as a gun boat, with soldiers, artillery and ammunition on board. Augustus Dudley was put in command of her. It is a known fact that many of the men worked on the light ships but does not show up in the records during the Civil War. For instance according to family history, the writer’s Greatgrandfather Willis Williams O’Neal lost his leg near the start of the Civil War while working on a Light Ship, he fell down into the hole of the lightship when the Conferates invaded the islands and were dismantling the Lighthouse on Ocracoke and the Lightships.

Over all these years it is of interest to note how Ocracoke Inlet has maintained its self with the violent storms and wind and when blocked in one path will open another. As stated earlier in this text, in late 1861 the Inlet was blocked with two schooners loaded with rocks and submerged in the channel by Union Forces. In a Union letter to Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Commanding Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina, in the Field, from I. N. Palmer, Brigadier-General, Commanding, Headquarters District of North Carolina, New Bern, N.C., May 31, 1864. A portion of the letter reads:

About eighteen months after the war was over the afore mentioned Captain Horatio Williams got tired of farming and decided it was time to raise the two masted schooner Paragon which he sank on April 12, 1861 up the Roanoke River. He contacted his co-owner of the sunken vessel for approval and help. William’s former partner Jobey Wahab had died and his son and heir, Henry, was running a cotton gin at Germantown across in Hyde County. Williams and Henry Wahab, with a few well-chosen helpers, sailed up the Roanoke River to the Paragon’s underwater storage site. The captain’s son, Horatio Williams, Jr., told of the raising in his later account.

They sailed the Paragon right down the Roanoke and put her in trade again.

Around 1867 Captain Williams and his partner sold the Paragon to Tilmon Farrow of Ocracoke. After selling the Paragon in 1867, Captain Williams went back to sea as Captain of the Annie Wahab another Ocracoke schooner.

Another story that reflects the stubbornness and the lack of desire to be part of the war was obvious when Captain Horatio Williams of the sunken schooner Paragon now turned farmer, cultivating truck crops, raising hogs, and running cattle on the island’s range. He supplied the local demand and was occasionally able to ship pork and beef across the sound for sale on the mainland. Williams was not neutral in the war - he was still a Southerner - so he did not deal with the occupying forces. He avoided Union soldiers as much as possible and had not been "drug to Hatteras by no damn Buffalo." The Federal soldier who caught Horatio Williams was a lieutenant sent to buy cattle, who brought with him a sergeant and a squad of men. The lieutenant’s purpose was buying, not recruiting, so he informed Williams that the army needed some of his cattle.

Horatio answered, "I don’t sell to Yankees."

The lieutenant told Williams that he was authorized to buy cattle and pay a fair price. If the owner would not sell, the lieutenant said, he had authority to take the cattle.

Williams repeated, "I don’t sell to Yankees!" Then, "If ye’ git ‘em, ye’ll have to take ‘em." He wheeled around and stalked off.

The lieutenant kept his temper as he directed his sergeant to have the men cut out and halter six of the best beeves. Mrs. Martha O’Neal Williams, Horatio’s wife had witnessed the confrontation. She addressed the Yankee, "You heard what the captain said. He won’t sell to you. If you can pay, leave the money under that ballast rock by the porch." She pointed to it.

The lieutenant, a fair man, did leave the greenbacks under the rock. Mrs. Martha Williams, her patriotism tempered with pragmatism, waited until the Yankees left, picked up the money, and went into the house. The writer being their great grandson, has no idea if she ever told the captain.

After a hundred and thirty five years the remains of Ft Ocracoke have been found, submerged on Beacon Island between Ocracoke and Portsmouth Islands. Based on Information from Ms. Ellen F. Cloud, Chester Lynn and Donald Austin (all of Ocracoke) given to the Surface Interval Diving Company (SIDCO) led to its discovery. The remains, apparently were above water until the 1933 hurricane when it became submerged. (See SIDCO's web site on Fort Ocracoke)

Today there is a monument honoring the men from Ocracoke & Portsmouth who served during the U.S. Civil War on either or both sides with their names and a picture of Fort Ocracoke. It is located in the vicinity of the Ferry Terminal building near the Pamlico Sound shore in sight of Beacon Island. It is also diagonally across the parking lot from the Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum. The Museum also, has a Civil War Exhibit with Artifacts and a VCR video tape that have been donated by SIDCO. The artifacts are on loan to the museum from the State of North Carolina, Cultural Resources.

The monument lists the following names from Ocracoke Island

Holloway Ballance
William Redding Ballance
William B. Bragg
Fabius Fenilton Dailey
Isaac Littleton Farrow
Wilson Tilmon Farrow, Jr.
Josephus Fulcher, Jr.
Benjamin Joseph Garrish, Sr.
Robert W. Gaskill, Sr.
William B. Gaskill
George Jansen Gaskins
Robert C. Gaskins
Alonzo Howard
James Hatton Howard
Robert Howard
Thomas G. Howard
* George W. Jackson
Henderson Francis Jackson
James G. Jackson
Benjamin F. O’Neal
Christopher Thomas O’Neal, III
Christopher Thomas O’Neal, Jr.
Francis W. O’Neal
Tilmon W. O’Neal, Sr.
Simon H. O’Neal
John C.(R) Simpson
William Joseph Simpson
Andrew Somers Spencer, Sr.
Elijah Styron
Dallas Wahab
James Howard Wahab, Sr.
George W. Williams
Tilmond Farrow Williams
* George W. Jackson
John F. O’Neal
Alpheus W. Simpson
* - different people

The following names are from Portsmouth Island

Zephiniah Burgess
Anthony Dennis
William C. Dixon
George W. Gaskill
William H. Hill
Edward Mayo
Edward D. Mayo
William R. Roberson
David W. Roberts
John S. Roberts
Samuel C. Roberts
Stephen Gaskill Roberts
Spyers Singleton (Dr.)
Ambrose J. Styron
Christopher T. Styron
William S. Styron
Joseph Lupton
James Mason
James E. Roberson
Augustus Dudley
Fort Ocracoke Civil War Monument
Dedicated July 9, 2000

See also The Civil War on Hatteras Island by Drew Pullen.
See also: The Battle for Hatteras Island by Charles L. Heath, Jr.


Portsmouth The Way it Was by Ellen Fulcher Cloud; Published in Association with Live Oak Publication, Ocracoke, North Carolina, 1996.

Old Salt by Ellen Fulcher Cloud; Publihed in Association with Live Oak Pulication, Ocracoke, North Carolina, 1995.

The Civil War on the Outer Banks by Fred M. Mallison; McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 1998.

North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (1894 - 1922).

Copyright 2000

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