Union Navy, Army and Marines Attack Cape Hatteras!

Wednesday, August 28, 1861

The Union Navy fleet arrived off the coast of Cape Hatteras the day prior. The night was passed readying the troops for the War’s first beach landing. General Butler left the flagship USS Minnesota to oversee the infantry operation from the Harriet Lane. The entire mission was under Navy Flag Officer Silas Sternham.

Butler commanded 915 troops, made up of infantry, artillery, Union Coast Guard and a company of Marines. All were put aboard iron-bottomed transport ships and were moved to close range of the Cape. Just then, the winds picked up, which threatened to scatter the plans of the foot soldiers.

As three steamers, including the Harriet Lane, covered the landing, the Minnesota led the rest of the ships in attacking a battery of guns just north of Fort Clark. The Rebels manning the artillery stepped lively for higher ground, abandoning their pieces and retreating to Clark.

Meanwhile, Butler’s landing had to be abandoned after only 315 soldiers made it ashore before the winds were too strong to risk more. Fifty artillerymen with two howitzers, along with fifty-five Marines, were among the few able to land. They moved south, past the abandoned battery and closed in on Fort Clark, which was now in a desperate duel with the Union warships.

After an hour or so of bombardment, it was seen that neither Forts Clark nor Hatteras were flying Rebel flags. Clark seemed to have been abandoned altogether. By 12:30pm, thinking that the Rebels had surrendered, Flag Officer Stringham ordered all firing to be stopped. Cautiously, the landing party advanced to the fort and by 2pm, a Union flag was snapping in the strong winds over Fort Clark.

One of the ships with the Minnesota was ordered to advance up the inlet, past the possibly-surrendered Fort Hatteras. When she pulled to within firing range, the Rebel fort opened upon her. In response, five other Union ships raked the fort with cannon shot.

Unable to move closer to the fort, the bombardment, which lasted until dusk, was ineffective. Butler’s landing party had withdrawn from Fort Clark and had moved close to where they landed, bivouacking for the night.

While the attack didn’t completely dislodge the Confederates from Cape Hatteras, it was clear that a Union victory would come the next day.1


General Grant Ordered to Cape Girardeau, Missouri

General Ulysses S. Grant, who had been commanding a brigade at Ironton, Missouri, was ordered by General Fremont in St. Louis to take command of operations at Cape Girardeau, along the Mississippi River. Fremont had received reports that 4,000 Rebels were holding Benton with another 1,500 near Commerce, opposite Big Island. Grant’s old command, along with the Union troops at Giradeau, were to join forces and destroy the Rebels.

Other Union troops were to occupy Charleston and eventually Columbus, Kentucky.2

Near Rolla, Missouri, a train traveling west from St. Louis was stopped by a forty pound keg of gunpowder placed under the tracks by Rebels. As the engine passed over it, it triggered the explosion, which sent the tender and baggage car behind it up in a ball of fire. The blast somehow injured nobody and caused the tracks no damage at all. It was later found that two sections of track had been removed close to the attack in another attempt at sabotage.3

  1. The Navy in the Civil War by Daniel Ammen, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1883. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p141-143. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p465-466. []
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4 thoughts on “Union Navy, Army and Marines Attack Cape Hatteras!

  1. Interesting that the train passing over the keg triggered the explosion, as opposed to a well-timed fuse blowing up the train at just the right moment. Is this a case of an early form of land mine? Any more information on this event and the device involved?

    1. The only report of this that I could find is a brief mention in the OR.

      “As soon as the train was stopped it was ascertained that a keg or part of a keg Qf powder had been put upon the track, and so arranged with combustibles as that it would explode when the train went over it. It did explode, but most fortunately without injuring any person or damaging the track in the least.”

      Maybe my assumption of a triggering mechanism was a bit too high tech for the times, but I’m not really sure of another way to do it. It doesn’t appear that it was fused.

      Steam trains *do* drop hot ash and are very hot, so it’s possible that a sort of fuse was made that was lit by the train itself.

      I think, at first, I assumed it was weight or maybe friction, but I’m not sure now. That would be very complicated.


      1. Hmmm. I think the key term is “so arranged with combustibles as that it would explode when the train went over it”. The way I’d do it would be to have an opening in the top of the powder keg with a heap of gunpowder on it. Basically a firing pan like you have in a flintlock. The heat and cinders would then light it. You could heap some flints on top too that would strike the steel underbelly of the locomotive and send out sparks, setting off the powder.

        1. Well, that makes the most sense to me. You certainly don’t want to be there when it explodes, and since trains are late and fuses are short, this seems like a very likely way.

          I wonder how hit or miss this method was. It certainly wasn’t 100%. Black powder is moody and locomotives not uniformly hot.

          And what a strange way to go about this. Why not just blow up a bridge or two? As stated in the OR, it didn’t even damage the track and seemed to do little damage to the train, since it didn’t hurt anyone.

          Here’s the whole entry about the incident (which I should have posted in the original comment).

          “As the train from Saint Louis was approaching this place last evening, and when within 7 miles, a terrible explosion was heard immediately under the tender of the engine and the baggage car of the train.

          As soon as the train was stopped it was ascertained that a keg or part of a keg of powder had been put upon the track, and so arranged with combustibles as that it would explode when the train went over it. It did explode, but most fortunately without injuring any person or damaging the track in the least.

          I immediately dispatched 40 of my best-mounted men to the point, with orders to re-enforce the guards already on the road and to arrest any suspicious persons they might find. A messenger is just in from them, and informs me they have found two places where the rails have been removed from the track, evidently with the intention of destroying the train with troops which was to have left here at 3 o’clock this morning.

          As soon as it is light enough to admit I shall start the train, on which is embarked the Second Kansas Regiment and some good track-repairers, and I trust there will be but little delay in getting through. The receipt of this will enable you to judge.”

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