Pamlico’s Past: The Siege of Washington

Published 11:35 am Sunday, April 7, 2013

In 1857, Washington was idyllically described in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine” as follows: “It is a flourishing place … an exterior view of the town presents nothing but a few steeples, peering out from a thick grove of trees, and the street views only continuous archways of verdure. In fact, its modest white wooden houses are completely buried in trees.”

But by late March 1863, the winds of war had swept over Washington and the view presented a much starker picture. Union occupation of the town had been in place for just over a year. Commerce with the outside world had virtually ceased to exist. Those that could have fled up the Tar River to Confederate occupied territory, living with kinfolk and friends. A member of the 44th Massachusetts Infantry described the scene as he disembarks at the town wharf: “the houses in the town still bore the marks of the raid made upon it the autumn before by the enemy; one house was pitted all over with a stand of heavy canister-shot; another had two eight-inch shot-holes through it.” Union soldiers and “contrabands,” or African-American fugitives, have swelled the population of Washington to about 4,000 souls. Many of the male citizens of fighting age had left to join the Confederate Army or Navy. Of the few that remained, some had decided to remain loyal to the Union and join the North Carolina Union Volunteers. Mothers without husbands had been forced to find the means to feed and care for their families. As explained by a Massachusetts soldier: “many of the women, with gingerbread and fruit for sale, drove a roaring trade.”

For those who remained, life under Yankee occupation was about to get even harsher. Confederate Gen. D. H. Hill stood ready to lay siege to the town with a force of more than 9,000 men. Hill had been given three objectives by Robert E. Lee: harass the Yankees, forage for supplies and create a diversion.

Opposing forces prepare

Occupying Washington were soldiers under the command of Union Gen. John G. Foster. Forces under his command consisted of boys from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York as well as the North Carolina Union Volunteers. These units, along with a force of about 550 “contraband” soldiers, numbered between 1,200 and 1,500 men. Additionally, the Union gunboats Louisiana, Eagle and Commodore Hull lay in the river.

In preparation for the siege, Foster set about strengthening fortifications around Washington. When the work was completed, earthworks and a ten foot ditch ringed the town. Log blockhouses and cannons anchored the fortifications, with the largest, Fort Washington, located in the vicinity of Ninth and Van Norden streets. From the earthworks out to a half mile, all trees and vegetation had been cleared so as to present an unobstructed line of fire on assaulting troops.

The Confederate forces went about encircling Washington with artillery. To the north of town were several batteries on the high ground north of 15th Street that included the areas around Oakdale Cemetery and Vidant Beaufort Hospital. Opposing the Union gunboats on the south shore of the river were Confederate artillery batteries lying opposite of town and eastward to Rodman’s Point.

The siege begins

On March 31, 1863, the siege began in earnest. For 16 days, the Confederates harassed the Union forces, lobbing shells toward the fortifications and trading shots with the gunboats. Not only did projectiles fall upon the forts, but also rained down upon houses in town. A citizen described the sensation of the unrelenting shower of shot and shell “as if a score of spinning-wheels were running upon the roof of the house” and the constant firing of guns like continuous claps of thunder.” Annie Sparrow remembered as a little girl sharing the shelter of a neighbor’s cellar during the siege: “The firing began at dawn and ended at sunset, so we felt secure at night. As we could, the ladies of the two families cooked enough to last during the day, and as early as possible, we repaired to our underground retreat, where with rugs, chairs, books, and sewing, and dolls for the children, we managed to while away the days.”

Annie’s mother, in preparation for spending the day in the cellar, experienced a cannon ball crashing through the front of the house, into the bedroom and scarcely missing Annie’s 3-year-old brother before passing through the back wall and landing in the backyard. This house still stands today along Water Street across from the N. C. Estuarium with a symbolic cannon ball lodged in its side.

Urgently, the Union attempted to relieve the besieged forces by river but Rebel guns at Hill’s Point and Rodman’s Point down river from town presented a significant problem for the Union ships. Underwater obstructions in the Pamlico River off Hill’s Point and the close approach of the ship channel to Rodman’s Point allowed the Confederate gunners to zero in on passing ships. Several unsuccessful attempts were made by Yankee forces to silence both threats. An early effort involved a force of local North Carolina Union Volunteers and “contraband” volunteers under the command of Capt. Charles Lyons. After sunset, Union forces approached Rodman’s Point by boat and were ordered to hold it at all costs. At 10 p.m., Lyons’ men were attacked by Confederate forces and driven back to the river. Fighting lasted until dawn when the North Carolinians retreated to their flatboats to escape the heavy musket fire. Their escape is credited to an African-American fighter known as “Big Bob” who jumped into the water to push the boat off a sandbar and declared as he received several fatal shots, “Somebody’s got to die to get us out of this, and it may as well be me!”

The siege comes to an end

The Confederates continued the onslaught for almost three weeks until Hill was ordered to withdraw his men. Lee was preparing his army to take the war north of the Mason-Dixon Line so he recalled his North Carolina troops back to Virginia. Hill failed to capture the town but did manage to keep Union forces occupied long enough to allow foraging Confederates to secure more than 35,000 pounds of bacon and large quantities of corn and potatoes. By April 20, 1863, Hill’s army had abandoned its positions around the town.

Life in Washington continued under Union occupation until the disaster of April 30, 1864, when a significant portion of the town was burned to the ground by a fire caused by retreating Yankees.

Washington commemorates the siege

Be sure to place April 12-13 on your calendar, as Washington will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Siege of Washington with a living-history weekend. Activities include re-enactors, lectures, walking tours and music. Among the presenters are Kevin Duffus, who will tell the story of the “The Lost Light: A Civil War Mystery” and “Where Parting Is No More, One Soldier’s Story in the Siege of Washington” and the Phoenix Historical Society will tell the story of “Big Bob,” the African-American hero of the skirmish at Rodman’s Point.