Roanoke Island sits a couple miles off the North Carolina coast in the Outer Banks. The island is 8 miles long and two miles wide. Looking at the island on a map, it doesn’t seem very impressive or important, yet it’s the home of America’s first English speaking settlement which is shrouded in mystery. It’s also the home of one of the first major Union victories in the Civil War.
The first English speaking settlement was established on Roanoke Island in 1584. Over 100 English settlers built a fort and settlement on the north end of the island. After a harsh winter, problems with the local Indians and a lack of supplies, the fort and settlement was abandoned in 1595.
A second attempt to colonize Roanoke Island was made in 1587 when 110 English men, women and children arrived on the island in July. One of those women, Eleanor Dare was very pregnant upon their arrival on the island and on August 18, she gave birth to a daughter, Virginia Dare. Virginia was the first English speaking person in America.
Supplies were low so Captain John White, Virginia Dare’s grandfather, returned to England for needed supplies. However, at the time, England and Spain were at war and White was prevented from returning to Roanoke Island until 1590. When he arrived, he was shocked to find no sign of any of the colonist. There was also no evidence that a settlement had ever been built. Every sign of the people he had left behind had vanished off the face off the face of the earth, except a few letters carved into a tree. White searched neighboring islands and the mainland but found not a single trace of his family and the others. The mystery of what happened to the settlement remains today and is often referred to as the Lost Colony. The island, nearby islands in the Outer Banks and the peninsula off the mainland now make up Dare County, named after Virginia Dare.
Later in the mid-1600s, Roanoke Island was eventually colonized with permanent settlements and part of the State of North Carolina.
On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, located on Charleston Harbour in South Carolina. Although much of the Civil War took place inland, the eastern coast was vital to both sides. The Confederacy relied heavily on their ports for valuable supplies.
The Union understood this and set out to blockade some of the ports and fight for control of others. Four months into the war, Union forces had started their push down the coast, capturing two forts located in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Next they set their sights on Roanoke Island where a contingent of about 1,900 Confederate troops led by General Henry Wise, former Governor of Virginia were stationed.
On January 11, 1862, Union General Ambrose Burnside set off for Roanoke Island with 80 ships and 15,000 troops. Under cover of a severe winter storm. On January 13, Burnside was forced by the bad weather to hold up in the Hatteras Inlet. Finally, on February 7, Burnside reached Roanoke Island and invaded it with 10,000 of his troops. At the onslaught of the Union attack, Confederate Colonel Henry Shaw withdrew his troops to the north end of the island.
However, on this day, February 8, 1862, Colonel Shaw surrendered his troops to General Burnside. The victory at Roanoke Island cost the Union 37 men with another 214 wounded. The Confederacy lost 23 men with 62 wounded.
Union forces managed to maintain control of Roanoke Island for the duration of the war. It also provided a pivotal location later on to help launch the attacks on the capital of the Confederacy in Richmond to the north. The victory at Roanoke Island was one of the early victories for Union forces and helped provide hope for future victories.
Incidentally, sideburns were named after General Ambrose Burnside who was known for his mutton chop sideburns.