Monday, June 1, 2015

Smith: "THE HISTORY OF FORT OCRACOKE IN PAMLICO SOUND"

[The History of Fort Ocracoke in Pamlico Sound by Robert K. Smith, ed. by Earl O'Neal Jr. (The History Press, 2015). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:193/268. ISBN:978-1-62619-903-3 $19.99]

The 1861-62 Confederate defense of eastern North Carolina was hampered by obsolete coastal artillery, a command structure that critically delayed important decisions over issues of state vs. national responsibility, and the inescapable fact that the region possessed far too much coastline and key points along it for the South's limited resources to adequately defend. There was certainly no lack of recognition on either side of the military and economic value of the North Carolina ports, forts, islands and sounds. What the Confederates needed most was time. Barely able to set up sand forts and batteries at key inlets (Oregon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke) before the arrival of the Union army and navy, the swift fall of Forts Hatteras and Clark initiated a snowballing panic that led to the Confederate abandonment of strong positions at the other two barrier island inlets to Pamlico Sound.

The History of Fort Ocracoke in Pamlico Sound begins with a maritime history of Ocracoke inlet from the early Colonial period through the beginning of the Civil War. Early settlers utilized the passage to facilitate shipping and trade, and a fort was built on Beacon Island (a strategically located piece of land on Pamlico Sound situated a few miles inside Ocracoke Inlet and commanding the passage) to ward off Spanish raiders during the early 1700s. The nearby town of Portsmouth was also founded during this period. During the Revolutionary War, privateers used the inlet to dart out to sea and prey on British shipping and the Continental Navy built war galleys and brigs to defend regional trade. The British navy also targeted the North Carolina coast during the War of 1812, looting Portsmouth at one point.

The book carefully documents the construction, arming, and garrisoning of Fort Ocracoke (a.k.a. Fort Morris) on Beacon Island between May 1861 and its abandonment without a fight in late August and early September. Using a plethora of period maps and a host of newspaper articles and official and private documents, the author meticulously describes the fort's design, construction, armament (20 guns, a mixture of old 8-inch Columbiads, 32-pounders, and 8-inch seacoast howitzers) and supply needs. Six North Carolina infantry companies were assigned to Beacon Island and the town of Portsmouth, with some of the most useful source material coming from members of Capt. Thomas Sparrow's Washington Grays.

According to Smith, work on the fort continued up until the surrender of forts Hatteras and Clark on August 29. Even though it was noted that the waters around Fort Ocracoke were too shallow for the heaviest armed Union gunboats, the controversial decision was immediately made to destroy the fort and evacuate Beacon Island. Unfortunately, in the hasty Confederate withdrawal, the guns could not be saved and were rendered inoperable instead. It would be more than two weeks before Union forces actually landed on Portsmouth and Beacon Island, completing the destruction of fort, guns, and lighthouse.

Identifiable traces of the fort itself were washed away over time, accelerated by a series of storms and hurricanes common to that part of the country.  Today, only a raised mound of sand remains to mark the location of Fort Ocracoke. A large portion of the book is devoted to the 1998 underwater archaeological survey of the presumed site, which uncovered a host of artifacts (the drawings and photos of many are reproduced in the book). Author Robert Smith is a diver, archaeological technician, and founder of SIDCO, a non-profit diving organization dedicated to the study of shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological sites in North Carolina waters. It was this team that conducted the Ocracoke survey.  Project methodology, remote sensing technology, and artifact location mapping are discussed in several well illustrated chapters.  Appendices include a full roster of the Washington Grays and a complete artifact register. The History of Fort Ocracoke in Pamlico Sound is recommending reading for anyone interested in the early stages of the war in North Carolina, Civil War fortifications and ordnance, and the emerging presence of battlefield archaeology in the Civil War literature.

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