Saturday, April 30, 2022

Hatteras Inlet Assault 1861 Patriotic Envelope

     Taking a casual glance at this patriotic envelope and seeing General Butler along with mention of the Navy and the picture of a Confederate fort being bombarded by naval ships as troops storm it, the first instinct is to think of the capture of New Orleans in April & May 1862 where Benjamin Butler, "The Beast", gained his infamous reputation for draconian control.  But wait, was Commander Stringham the naval hero in the New Orleans assault?  Nope, it was another man, Admiral David Farragut.  So What's going on here?

Our Army & Navy US 23 Patriotic Envelope
(pictured is enlarged to show details; actual envelope size is the normal 5 1/2" by 3 3/8")
    Well, on the back side of the envelope is the printer's details:  S.C.Upham, Philadelphia, copyright 1861.  That information sends us on a quest to discover what Union battle involving both army and navy personal this envelope is celebrating since it's now obviously is not the seizure of New Orleans in 1862.
    Upham is celebrating the successful capture of the Confederate coastal forts protecting the Cape Hatteras Inlet in North Carolina (Aug.28-29, 1861).  This battle was part of the Union Atlantic Blockage Campaign to cut off Southern trade and stop their commerce-raiding of Northern shipping.  Despite the Union blockade of Norfolk, VA. the South still had access to trade via the North Carolina sound through the barrier islands coast.  The Hatteras Inlet was the most traveled and the most vulnerable to Union attack because it was deep enough for sizeable warships.
    When North Carolina seceded, they began the construction of Fort Clark and Fort Hatteras at the southern end of Hatteras Island to control access to Pamlico Sound.  Fort Clark faced east out to sea, with Fort Hatteras protecting the inlet the ships would sail through.  Fort Hatteras had only about ten 32-pounder smoothbore mounted guns when the assault came.  Fort Clark only had five.  Compared to the Union ship's guns, these were of limited range for coastal defense.  Nor was there really sufficient manpower at both forts to hold off a determined Union assault.
    The Union plan from Navy Secretary Gideon Welles was to sink old ballast-laden ships in the channels going through the outer banks along the North Carolina coast to block them so the South could no longer sail ships in and out.  Silas H. Stringham, commandant of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron did not believe this approach would work since he believed tidal currents would sweep away the wrecks or rapidly scour out new channels.  For Stringham the southern forts would have to be taken and held by Union forces to effectively shut the channels down.  This would need the cooperation of Army personnel along with the Navy assault.  General John E. Wood at Fort Monroe organized an infantry force of 880 troops to assist Stringham's ships and put Major-General Benjamin F. Butler in charge.
    Some of the Union ships arrived off the Hatteras inlet late Aug.27th and commenced bombarding Fort Clark the next morning on the 28th.  Stringham kept his ships moving in a loop, delivering a broadside against the fort, then moving back out of range to reload.  This tactic prevented the fort artillery from adjusting their aim as they fired against the fleet, and so reduced the traditional advantage of shore-based guns over attacking ships.  Mid-day the infantry troops began to attempt to land.  Only about a third of the Union soldiers were able to land on the beach a few miles east of Fort Clark because increasing winds caused the waves to surge higher and higher making troop transport impossible.  Shortly after noon the Confederate forces in Fort Clark ran out of artillery ammunition, so they spiked the guns and abandoned the fortification, heading for Fort Hatteras.  Colonel Max Weber, commanding the Union troops who had managed to get ashore, realized this and sent his men in to occupy Fort Clark.  The Union troops got their ships to cease the bombardment of the fort by waving the American Flag, signaling that it had fallen to Union control.
    Stringham then had his ships move to begin bombarding Fort Hatteras.  Because the Confederate forces were conserving ammunition, they only returned limited fire.  Stringham thinking it may also have been abandoned, sent a shallow-draft gun boat into the inlet to take possession of the fort.  Now the Confederate forces opened up with a full volley of fire, forcing that Union ship to flee back out to sea while the other Union ships again opened fire.
    With night coming and threatening weather, Stringham ceased bombardment and pulled his ships back out to deeper water until the next morning.  At dawn on the 29th, the Union ships steamed back in and anchored just out of range of the Confederate guns to renew their bombardment of Fort Hatteras.  Union ships were able to prevent Confederate transport shops from bringing in more troops to reinforce the fort garrison.  By 11:00 am the Confederates realized their hope of holding out was fast fading.  As they were preparing to spike the guns and withdraw, a shell hit and ignited the fort's magazine, forcing Commander Samuel Barron to raise a white flag.  Butler insisted on unconditional surrender.  Barron complied and the 700 Confederate troops and officers were taken prisoner.
    The taking of the Hatteras Inlet was a great morale boost for the Union after a summer of failure and defeats like First Bull Run.  It was said that when his staff woke President Abraham Lincoln up in the middle of the night to tell him about this victory, that he danced a jig in his nightshirt.
   Now we can better understand why Upham printed this envelope celebrating the Hatteras Inlet victory.  The picture of the soldiers storming the fortification and the ships bombarding it makes more sense when we understand the historical context.  And we have a better understanding of why Butler and Stringham are the two leaders on this patriotic cover.  Note that the Confederate flag pictured on the fort being attacked is the Stars and Bars first national flag, and not the battle flag which has become the one most people today would recognize as a Confederate flag.  Also note on the envelope picture that the flag pole is being shattered by the attacking Union forces.  This patriotic cover celebrates much needed good news for the Union cause in late 1861.

    I admit that when I bought the original patriotic cover years ago at a military antique show, I bought it for two reasons.  First, because I saw Gen. Butler's picture on it, I just assumed it was celebrating the famous capture of New Orleans.  Secondly, since I had seen very few envelopes celebrating the Navy, I wanted to have one to reproduce for reenactors to use for variety in their letter writing and also in their displays for spectators to see.  Now obviously I was wrong about which battle victory it was celebrating.  But I don't regret buying it and reproducing it, because now I can say it shows an aspect of history that was important in that time.  And I also get to say that doing research is important in learning about history.

Children's Project:   Explore why the Union blockade of Southern ports was a good war strategy for the North and a harmful one for the South.  Although the Hatteras Inlet assault was only one part of the overall strategy, look at a map of the area to see how controlling it would help hurt the Southern shipping.  Also discuss how after a summer which produced little "victory" for the North, an actual victory would be good news to people supporting the Union cause.

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