A couple of weeks ago, I printed out a county map of North Carolina. It is a modern map, with all 100 present-day counties. I’ve taken a highlighter and marked in the five that I have completed. Boy, I have a lot of work to do.
I thought we would stay in the east today, with a look at Dare County.
The historical period of North Carolina’s history begins in present day Dare County in 1587. That is twenty years before the settlement of Virginia, and thirty-three years before settlers landed at Plymouth Rock in present-day Massachusetts. In 1587, settlers landed on Roanoke Island and established a colony. Their ships returned to England, leaving the colonists. When the ships returned, the colonists were gone.
Dare County was not created until 1870, taken from parts of Currituck, Hyde, and Tyrell Counties. The name Dare comes from Virginia Dare, the first child born of English parents in America, who disappeared along with her family and the other Roanoke Island settlers. Since Dare was not an official county during the War, we will suspend with the votes for president and secession.
Present-day Dare County saw quite a bit of action during the war. Following secession, Southerners began constructing two forts along Hatteras Island, in an attempt to protect Hatteras Inlet. These forts were known as Hatteras and Clark and were largely constructed on sand. A third, smaller fort, named Oregon, was constructed at Oregon Inlet. Fort Hatteras had twelve 32-pounder cannons. Fort Clark was armed with five of the same, and “two smaller guns.” Fort Hatteras was first attacked by the USS Harriet Lane on July 10, 1861, with no damage reported. I am going to hazard a guess here: the firing on Fort Hatteras was the first attack on North Carolina since the state left the Union.
These forts, along with another (Fort Morgan) on Beacon Island further down the Outer Banks, helped protect not only North Carolina’s coastal towns, but also a fledgling navy of privateers. The side-wheeled steamer Winslow captured “at least sixteen Union prizes, including a bark, three brigs, and several schooners…”
The Federal government soon determined that these had attacks had to stop. And, the flow of goods into North Carolina ports had to end. In late August 1861, a joint navy and army attack was launched against the defenses at Hatteras Inlet. The naval bombardment succeeded, and the Confederates retreated to Roanoke Island, where they commenced to build new works. In October 1861, a group of Confederates launched an attack against the Federals at Chicamacomico, pushing the Federals back down the beach to Cape Hatteras. The Federals counter-attacked the next day, pushing the Confederates back. This small bit of history today is known as the Chicamacomico races.
To protect Roanoke Island, three forts were constructed on the northern end of the Island, overlooking Croatan Sound. Other smaller works were constructed on the Island, and obstructions were sunk. The Federals, under the command of Ambrose Burnside, finally attacked on February 10, 1862. The battle was a Union victory. You can read a detailed account of the battle on the NPS site here.
A colony of ex-slaves soon established themselves on Roanoke Island. There is a marker on the Island, at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, and it bears this inscription:
A year after the Civil War began, Roanoke Island fell to Union Forces. Word spread throughout North Carolina that slaves could find "safe haven" on the Island. By the end of 1862, over a thousand runaway slaves, freed men, women and children found sanctuary here. This colony, precursor to the Freedmen's Bureau, was to serve as a model for other colonies throughout the South. Once again this small Island, site of the first English attempt at permanent settlement in the New World, became a land of historic beginnings.
The Freedmen's Colony encompassed unoccupied, unimproved lands from Manteo to the north and west shores, including some of the land today known as Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. A sawmill, hospital, a school with black female teachers and homes were established. Able-bodied men were offered rations and employment to build a new fort. They also enlisted to form the First and Second North Carolina Colored Regiments. The colony could not remain self-supporting without men and became a refuge for three thousand women, children, aged and infirmed.
Upon the war's end, the federal government discontinued rations and supplies to colonists and returned land to original owners. Reminiscent of early English efforts, the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony was abandoned by 1867. Many freed people remained, and their descendants would become respected local residents. Others settled in communities throughout the region and would become an integral part of eastern North Carolina culture.
There are numerous markers in the area telling the story of the war and Dare County. Beside the Freedman’s Colonel marker on Roanoke, there are markers about the Chicamacomico Races (on the Outer Banks near Rodanthe), and a marker about the first attempt at reunification on Hatteras. This marker reads:
"Orchestrated by Union Col. Rush C. Hawkins, the Hatteras Convention was held on Nov. 18, 1861. The state's secession was declared null and void, Hatteras was proclaimed the capitol and Marble Nash Taylor became provisional governor. Taylor called for a special Congressional election held Nov. 28 but, Charles Henry Foster's unanimous election by the four island precincts was ignored by the 37th U.S. Congress. Abraham Lincoln's May 28, 1862 selection of Edward Stanley as military governor effectively ended all claims to any local government."