One major problem facing the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War was the defence of its coastline. On both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts too few defenders had to cope with the danger of overwhelming attack at any point on the coastline. Many Confederate ports were vulnerable to effective blockade by the occupation of places distant from the port, and hard to defend.
Large parts of the coast of North Carolina were vulnerable to this sort of attack. For two hundred miles a series of long narrow barrier islands run just off-shore, restricting sea-going vessels to a few inlets between the islands. The biggest of these was Hatteras Inlet. If that inlet was blocked then just about every port in North Carolina other than Wilmington would be blocked. The inlet was in frequent use by blockade runners, as well as by privateers that posed a serious threat to Union shipping.
A joint army and navy expedition was launched at the end of August 1861. Its mission was to occupy Hatteras Island, and by doing that block the inlet. The expedition consisted of a fleet of seven ship commanded by flag-officer Silas Stringham and an army 900 strong commanded by Major-General Benjamin Butler. A idea of the problems facing the Confederacy can been seen by the speed with which this expedition arrived at its destination. It sailed from Newport News, Virginia on 26 August, and reached Hatteras Island later on the same day!
The island was defended by Forts Hatteras and Clark and a garrison of 670 Confederate soldiers. Conventional wisdom maintained that one land based gun was worth five in a wooden warship. However, this was only true if those guns were of equal quality. Unfortunately for the defenders of Hatteras Island, this was not the case. The Union fleet was armed with enough longer range rifled guns to be able to bombard the two forts from outside the range of their own smoothbore guns. Stringham also tried a new method of bombardment, made possible by steam power. If sailing ships wished to bombard land fortifications they had to take up a position in front of the fort and stay there for as long as possible. Stringham’s steam ships were able to keep moving, allowing them to sail into range, fire, and then sail back out of range while reloading. The same tactic would be used later be used by Commodore DuPont in the attack on Port Royal, with as much success.
The bombardment began on 28 August. At the same time an attempt was made to land Butler’s soldiers, but only 318 of them could be landed. For the rest of that day they were theoretically at risk of attack by the larger Confederate force on the island, but by then those troops were pinned in the two forts. It was becoming increasingly obvious inside the forts that further resistance was pointless. By noon on 29 August they had raised the white flag. For the loss of one man lightly wounded, the combined operation had captured 670 men along with all of their arms and ammunition, and now had possession of the two forts, closing Hatteras Inlet to Confederate ships.
One attempt was made to recapture the island. On 4 October a Confederate force landed further along the island. The small Union garrison near their landing place retreated back towards the forts until it met the main Union force coming the other way. The next day the Confederates retreated back up and then off the island. The capture of Hatteras Island caused a panic along the North Carolina coast. Every port along the coast suddenly realised that it was vulnerable to capture. However, no more moves were made against them until the launching of the Burnside expedition early the next year.