The Short Battle of Elizabeth City, NC

February 10, 1862 (Monday)

In the two days since Union General Ambrose Burnside’s victory at Roanoke Island, the small Confederate Mosquito Fleet of converted warships had retreated up the Pasquotank River. Commodore William Lynch, commander of the Rebel ships, hoped to find much-needed ammunition in the town.

With little ammunition to be found and an attack by the Union naval fleet a certainty, Lynch decided to defend the city, even imploring its citizens to fight to the last. He could have, if he so chose, steamed north through the Dismal Swamp Canal to Norfolk. That would, of course, would have handed over Elizabeth City and the entire coastal region to the Federals.

Somehow or another, Lynch procured enough fuel and ammunition to supply two of his six vessels, and distributed it evenly amongst them. With enough for a small, sharp battle, he arrayed his ships in line of battle, placing his own opposite a small fort at Cobb Point. Lynch must have believed that between the fort and his own ships, the enemy would be raked by a deadly crossfire.

As dawn rose over the Pasquotank River, Commodore Lynch received word that the Union warships were approaching. He arrived at the fort to ready it for battle and found it empty but for eight citizens (seven of them untrained militiamen, the other just a random fellow). Amazingly undaunted, Lynch decided to make do with what he had and personally took command of the fort and its four 32-pound guns, garrisoning it with the crew and ammunition from one of his ships.

Here, at this nameless fort, they would make their stand. The Union ships had to pass by the guns to get to the Mosquito Fleet, and in passing, hoped Lynch, they could destroy them. This, as the Commodore was finding out, was not his day.1

Union Commander Stephen Rowan had been ordered to take thirteen ships up the Pasquotank River, towards Elizabeth City, in pursuit of the Rebel Mosquito Fleet. They steamed upstream at moderate speed until, around 8:30am, they discovered the Rebel ships drawn up behind the fort, arranged diagonally in front of the city for its protection.

As the Union flotilla entered into the longest range of the Rebel guns, they came under fire from the fort. Commander Rowan, however, refused a reply, opting instead to steam silently and slowly onward. With shots falling all around them, they drew closer and closer, until, at three-quarters of a mile out, Rowan signaled “dash the enemy” and the entire fleet, with throttles thrown open, quickly steamed towards the Rebel Mosquito Fleet, all but ignoring the fort.2

Seeing that the fort was passed and rendered useless, the militiamen manning two of the guns skedaddled. And with the Federal vessels’ bearing down upon the Mosquito Fleet, the Rebel sailors did the same.

Before the battle, Commodore Lynch ordered his commanders to make their escape once the ammunition was expended. The Federals came so quickly, however, that there was little they could do as the Union fleet smashed into the Rebels. One Federal ship, the Commodore Perry, rammed the Confederate Seabird, sinking her. The CS Ellis was captured, while another ship was purposely run aground and set afire to avoid the same fate.3

Two ships made good their escape from the battlefield, but several Union vessels followed. When they reached Elizabeth City, the Federals could see that a Rebel officer was inducing the citizens to set their town ablaze.4

Some of the Union sailors disembarked amid throngs of cheering blacks – probably slaves hoping for their freedom. The Federals raided the Rebel commissary storehouse and later blew up the fort at Cobb’s Point.

The Union fleet lost two killed and seven wounded,5 while the Rebels lost four killed6.


Grant and Donelson are Reinforced

Since the fall of Fort Henry, along the Tennessee River, General Grant had been reorganizing his growing force and planning his attack upon Fort Donelson, twelve miles east. Though at first he wasn’t certain, he wished for gunboats to accompany his troops as they attacked the fort. He ordered four ships to start for Donelson.

This trip would entail steaming down the Tennessee River, up the Ohio and then up the Cumberland to reach the fort. Knowing they could make it in time, Grant also ordered his attack force to be ready to step off on the 12th. They would not be taking tents or baggage, just forty rounds of ammunition and a couple days’ rations.7

Grant wasn’t the only one receiving reinforcements. The Rebel numbers at Fort Donelson were also being bolstered. General Gideon Pillow had arrived and taken command, while General John B. Floyd had moved 12,000 to nearby Clarksville, feeding some into the defenses around Donelson. The mood, however, was one of gloom due to the fall of Fort Henry.

In Clarksville, Floyd and General Simon Buckner had begun to formulate a plan. They would fortify Donelson with only as many troops as needed, but not a single man more. The rest of the force would be centered at Cumberland City to avoid being cut off from Nashville by Grant’s superior numbers. This position would also allow them to play upon Grant’s line from Henry to Donelson.

The next morning, General Buckner would leave for Donelson to inform General Pillow of the plan.8

  1. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p595-596 (Lynch’s Report). []
  2. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p607. (Rowan’s Report). []
  3. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p597 (Lynch’s Report). []
  4. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p608. (Rowan’s Report). []
  5. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p621. []
  6. Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p597 (Lynch’s Report). []
  7. Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams. []
  8. Forts Henry and Donelson by Franklin Benjamin Cooling. []
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