Civil War Workboats and Watermen Exhibit Opens in Manteo

A new exhibit honoring local watermen, their workboats, and their place in Civil War history is showing this summer in Manteo.

Workboats and Watermen in the Civil War’ honors the State of North Carolina’s Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the Civil War, and can be seen daily inside the Marshes Lighthouse on the Manteo waterfront through September 4. 

Pen and Ink by Edwin Graves Champney. Image courtesy of the Outer Banks History Center.

Pen and Ink by Edwin Graves Champney. Image courtesy of the Outer Banks History Center.

The Battle of Roanoke Island, fought on February 8, 1862, was part of the Burnside Expedition. Confederate and Union forces quickly realized the importance of regional expertise and need for local flat-bottomed workboats as the Civil War reached coastal North Carolina. The Union used Roanoke Island as a base of operations to advance on coastal towns such as Plymouth, Elizabeth City, New Bern, and Beaufort. 

The Union secured forts at Hatteras and Clark in August, 1861, and used local knowledge to inform their attack on Confederate forces onRoanoke Island. On February 7, 1862, with the logistical advice of Thomas Robinson, a formerly enslaved refugee from Roanoke Island, Union officers ordered the transport of ten thousand Union troops from Hatteras Island toRoanoke Island. The Union Navy, piloted by at least a dozen local pilots, towed a variety of sixty flat bottomed boats to Ashby’s Harbor, located on the western side of the island.

Confederate defeat was swift without the reinforcements previously requested by Brigadier General Henry Wise to hold Roanoke Island. The Report of the Roanoke Island Investigation Committee states Roanoke Island “was the key to all the rear defense in Norfolk. It unlocked two sounds… eight rivers… four canals… and two railroads.”

Roanoke Island was essential in controlling North Carolina’s port cities and the coastal railway. Capturing the coast would not have been possible without the use of local boats and pilots to provide supplies, reconnaissance and transportation. 

Local boats and their pilots were vital to military strategy. As the Civil War continued, the local population served the Union Army as enlisted soldiers, pilots and suppliers with several types of workboats.

Surf and pilot boats, skiffs, kunner log canoes, ferries and steamers were common types of transportation in coastal northeastern North Carolina where rivers ands sounds connected communities. The boats’ flat bottoms and shallow draft design reflected the area’s shifting shallow water. Although Confederate andUnion navies outfitted civilian ferryboats, steamers and tugboats for use in battle, they required flat bottom and shallow draft boats to transport soldiers ashore. 

Confederate and Union forces utilized local pilots familiar with the channels, shoals and inlets to ferry supplies. George Washington Creef, designer of the shad boat, stated in a pension investigation report that, “I was employed by the U.S. Army freighting coal in my own vessel.” Pilots employed by the Union included formerly enslaved refugees, mariners and fishermen. 

Letters and formal reports illustrate that many locals aided the Union, but were not compensated for their efforts. In a United States Pension Claims, Wallace B. Austin claimed he served as a pilot in the Navy aboard the Ranger and Picket for $2.00 per day. He was denied pension because he was considered a civilian employee of the Quartermaster’s Department. 

 Both free-born and formerly enslaved African American watermen were pilots for theUnion. Starting with the Union victory on Hatteras, many enslaved people throughout coastal North Carolina sought freedom behind Union lines. Among them were watermen who risked their lives to transport themselves and others, at times using boats commandeered from slave owners. Once on Hatteras, the formerly enslaved offered their boating skills and knowledge of the area to Union forces.

Charles F. Johnson, 9th New York, was stationed on Hatteras Island. In his biography, The Long Roll, he recalled how, Ben, a formerly enslaved man, provided the information and guidance for a reconnaissance mission. Three officers and three soldiers of the 9thNew York, disguised as fishermen, surveyed Roanoke Island in a kunner log sailing canoe based on Ben’s expertise. Support from African American watermen continued after the Battle of Roanoke Island. Before invading Beaufort, Corporal George Allen, from the 4thRhode Island, credited their success to, “…colored fishermen, who were thoroughly conversant with these waters, and were faithful guides.” 

The ability to utilize local workboats and pilots influenced success in battle. With regional pilots at the helm and local boats in tow, the Union reclaimed northeastern North Carolina.

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