Hero Pastor Remembered
By Jeff Hampton
© November 9, 2009
This story was originally published Feb. 9, 2002.
It was 140 years ago Sunday that Union ships charged into the harbor here and finished off a tiny Confederate fleet, quickly ending a battle noted for making a hero of a diminutive minister, producing the Navy's first Medal of Honor winner and leaving behind one of the nation's best preserved cannon carriages.
The significance of the Battle of Elizabeth City was that it was part of the Union's early efforts to blockade port towns in the South and cut off trade, said Don Pendergraft, exhibit designer for the Museum of the Albemarle. Elizabeth City was a busy port then.
“They couldn't finance the war against the North,” Pendergraft said.
On Feb. 10, 1862, 13 Union ships commanded by Capt. Stephen Rowan sailed up the mouth of the Pasquotank River, intent on securing the city and destroying the Mosquito Fleet, a flotilla that had harassed Union ships along the coast.
The account of the battle comes from the books "Ironclads and Columbiads" by William R. Trotter and "The Civil War in North Carolina" by John Barrett and from articles in Civil War magazines provided by local historian Alex Leary. Commodore William F. Lynch had withdrawn the Mosquito Fleet from the battle of Roanoke Island two days earlier to get supplies in Elizabeth City. But he found only enough for two of his seven ships. He loaded the Seabird and the Appomattox and sent the Raleigh up the Dismal Swamp Canal to Norfolk.
Leaving the other ships behind, Lynch sailed toward the Albemarle Sound to return to the Roanoke Island fight only to hear that it had already fallen. So he returned to the Pasquotank to set up a defense of Elizabeth City.
Lynch placed the Black Warrior near the Camden shoreline and lined the others across the river as a defense. On the Pasquotank County shore he hoped a small fort at Cobb's Point would help fire on approaching Union ships.
The Union gunboats began their charge at about 9 a.m. on Feb. 10. Lynch was ashore as the battle began. The inexperienced militiamen manning the four-cannon fort ran for their lives.
Considering the fort vital to the defense, Lynch ordered the Beaufort crew to send men to Fort Cobb to man the cannons. But the gunners got off shots from only two cannons and did no damage.
Meanwhile, the Black Warrior was badly damaged by enemy fire and the crew scuttled it. A Union gunboat, the Commodore Perry, rammed the Seabird and sank it. The Confederate crew on the Ellis, commanded by Capt. J.W. Cooke, battled a Union crew. Cooke was wounded and taken prisoner.
The Fanny was shelled until it caught fire. The crew ran it aground. The Beaufort escaped to Norfolk. The Appomattox tried to escape to Norfolk, but it was too wide for the canal and it was scuttled.
With the capture of the town imminent, many people in Elizabeth City set fire to their homes and buildings to keep them from falling into the hands of Union troops, according to accounts in Pasquotank Historical Society yearbooks.
Articles and letters from the time describe a scene of panic.
In the midst of that, the Rev. Edward M. Forbes, 5 feet tall and 100 pounds, put on his robes in hopes the Union troops would respect his position while he tried to persuade them not to destroy the town. Not only didn't the Union forces destroy the town; they helped put out the fires set by the locals. Only the courthouse and the home of a prominent family were destroyed.
In 1995, local resident Ann Hughes organized an effort to honor Forbes, including placing a monument at Mariner's Wharf at the end of Main Street in Elizabeth City. Every year since, Hughes has held a small ceremony near the anniversary of the Battle of Elizabeth City. Forbes was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church. This year the ceremony will be held March 14.
During the battle in the Pasquotank River, John Davis, a gunner's mate aboard the Union's Valley City, became the Navy's first Medal of Honor winner when he sat on a keg of powder while others extinguished a magazine fire, according to A.A. Hoettling's book ``Damn the Torpedoes.'
Cooke, captured when the Ellis fell, was later exchanged for other prisoners. In the battle of Plymouth two years later, Cooke commanded the Ram Albemarle. Capt. C.W. Flusser, commander of the Commodore Perry in the Battle of Elizabeth City, also fought in the Battle of Plymouth. During that battle, Flusser fired a shell on a 10-second fuse at the Ram Albemarle. But the shell bounced off the heavy oak and steel hull of the Ram Albemarle and back to where Flusser was standing on his ship, Leary said. The shell exploded and killed him.
The Black Warrior's remains still rest in the muck at the bottom of the Pasquotank River near the Camden shoreline. Last summer, underwater archaeologists raised one of the cannon carriages. The carriage is one of the best preserved the archaeologists had ever seen, Pendergraft said.
It now sits in a tank of sugar water. In a complicated process, the sugar fills hollow cells within the wood and hardens, strengthening the carriage. Eventually the carriage, 4 feet wide and 5 1/2 feet long, will sit in the new Museum of the Albemarle under construction on the Elizabeth City waterfront, Pendergraft said.
The cannon itself is still underwater, he said, but archaeologists hope to someday find it.