Monday, September 9, 2013

Oxford: "THE CIVIL WAR ON HATTERAS: The Chicamacomico Affair and the Capture of the U.S. Gunboat Fanny"

[The Civil War on Hatteras: The Chicamacomico Affair and the Capture of the U.S. Gunboat Fanny by Lee Thomas Oxford (The History Press, 2013). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:194/256. ISBN:978-1-60949-989-6 $21.99]

Students of the Civil War in eastern North Carolina have been blessed with a consistent stream of excellent scholarship, among the best examples are campaign histories by Richard Sauers (the Burnside Expedition) and Paul Branch (Fort Macon), Judkin Browning's social historical assessment of the Union occupation, and community studies by Barton Myers (Pasquotank County), Gerald Thomas (Bertie County), and Christopher Meekins (Elizabeth City)1. However, this exemplary body of literature typically begins with the 1862 Burnside Expedition, only lightly passing over events from 1861, which includes Benjamin Butler and Silas Stringham's successful joint operation against Hatteras Inlet and the following pair of events discussed in Lee Thomas Oxford's The Civil War on Hatteras: The Chicamacomico Affair and the Capture of the U.S. Gunboat Fanny.

After his capture of Forts Clark and Hatteras on August 29, Butler returned to Fort Monroe, leaving a small garrison behind under the overall command of the 9th New York's Colonel Rush C. Hawkins. Hawkins, who, according to Oxford, was very solicitous of the welfare of the island's Unionist populace, sent the newly arrived 20th Indiana 40 miles north to Camp Live Oak near Loggerhead Inlet, securing the entire barrier island between that place and Hatteras Inlet. The Confederates were not content to allow this movement to pass unopposed, however, and launched a combined operation of their own. On October 1, a CSN squadron captured the USS Fanny, which was ferrying supplies and reinforcements to the 20th Indiana's camp. On October 4, this was followed by a planned three-pronged amphibious landing (only two actually hit the beaches) by parts of three Confederate regiments from Roanoke Island under the overall direction of Colonel Ambrose R. Wright of the 3rd Georgia. Although Wright failed to force the 20th to surrender en masse, a total of 73 men were captured on the Fanny and during the 20th's long October 4-5 retreat to Hatteras Lighthouse (which became known as the Chicamacomico Affair, named after a town near Camp Live Oak).

Hawkins's insubordinate and unconvincing self-justifications aside, author Oxford makes a strong case that the lion's share of the blame for Chicamacomico should rest on the colonel's shoulders. Hawkins's ordering of the 20th to an unsupported position without securing the full cooperation of the navy was reckless. On the other hand, some amount of responsibility belonged with the navy, which, despite its disingenuous protestations that the Fanny was an army vessel, was caught unprepared during a command transition. Similarly, the army's high command, even though it sent a stream of general officers to Hatteras to relieve Butler [first John F. Reynolds (who didn't even make it there before being recalled), then Joseph K. Mansfield and Thomas Williams], dropped the ball, managing to have no officer of that rank actually present and in charge at the time of the events in question.

Oxford also argues that the events in his book deserve more recognition because they represent a pair of Civil War "firsts". According to the author, the capture of the Fanny marked the first instance of an armed U.S. warship being lost to Confederate forces in combat during the Civil War. Additionally, the amphibious landings on Hatteras were the first of their kind on the Confederate side2.

In documenting such comparatively small scale military events, Oxford's narrative is unusually lengthy and densely detailed, the accompanying notes and bibliography indicative of a highly diligent search and discovery of available source materials. The degree of scholarship is impressive, with depth surpassing that found in most local histories. In his quest to learn more about his 20th Indiana ancestor's service, Oxford has also uncovered a wealth of material on the regiment's officers and men. This is presented in both the main text and in the appendices. Future 20th Indiana regimental historians will surely want to pick up a copy of this volume on those grounds alone. The book also contains a fine collection of photographs and newspaper lithographs. The maps, which superimpose atop 1852 Coastal Survey maps the relative positions and movements of the various contending ships and land units, are fine representations of the actions described in the text. The Civil War On Hatteras really does everything quite well. In addition to being one of the best Civil War Sesquicentennial series volumes to date, the book ranks among the finest available histories of coastal North Carolina Civil War military campaigns and events.

1 - Full titles and links to site commentary and reviews:
* A Succession of Honorable Victories: The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina by Richard Sauers (Morningside, 1996).
* The Siege of Fort Macon by Paul Branch, Jr. (Griffin and Tilghman, 2002 revised and expanded ed.).
* Shifting Loyalties: The Union Occupation of Eastern North Carolina by Judkin Browning (University of North Carolina Press, 2011)
* Divided Allegiances: Bertie County during the Civil War by Gerald W. Thomas (North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1996).
* Executing Daniel Bright: Race, Loyalty, and Guerrilla Violence in a Coastal Carolina Community 1861-1865 by Barton A. Myers (Louisiana State University Press, 2009).
* Elizabeth City, North Carolina and the Civil War: A History of Battle and Occupation by Alex Christopher Meekins (The History Press, 2007).

2 - These kinds of claims often rest on debatable issues of scale and definition, but both appear to be good candidates. The Confederate amphibious landing and assault on Santa Rosa Island occurred a few days later on October 9, 1861, and I can't really think of any other Confederate amphibious operation of similar scale. Earlier operations, like the capture of Ship Island and Fort Massachusetts in the Gulf, were basically unopposed. As for the Fanny (which may or may not have been put in formal commission by the navy), I can't think offhand of something that could definitively overturn the claim. I believe some armed revenue cutters were captured earlier by state or Confederate forces, but those were Treasury Department vessels and did not belong to the USN.

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