Portions of the NC Squadron and the Coastal Survey Ship Corwin engaged in three skirmishes late in the fall of 1861. Why was an armed coastal survey ship at Hatteras Inlet?
The first engagement occurred on 28 October 1861. Commander Thomas T. Hunter, commanding the CSS Curlew, went on a reconnaisance of Ocracoke and Beacon Island. Finding no activity, he continued on to Hatteras Inlet. There he found four ships at anchor: the Corwin, the USS Stars & Stripes, an unidentified small steamer, and a merchant vessel. The Curlew approached within four miles of the anchorage and opened fire. The Corwin and Stars & Stripes returned fire. Neither side sustained any damage. In his official report, Hunter mistakenly identified the 330 ton sidewheel Corwin as the Revenue Cutter Harriet Lane.
On the second occasion, Flag Officer Lynch led a flotilla of five vessels on a reconnaisance of Hatteras to ascertain if any damage had occurred to the defenses at Hatteras Inlet during the recent nor’easter. Leading the Curlew, Ellis, Fanny, and Forrest, Lynch’s flagship Sea Bird fired two shots at the ships anchored there before continuing on towards Ocracoke.
The third engagement involved the Curlew again. On 14 November 1861, all three Union gunboats stationed at Hatteras Inlet were absent down the coast, leaving the Corwin as the only ship in the harbor. The Curlew was spotted about one o’clock in the afternoon as she stood in around the outer bulkhead buoy. Hunter opened fire on the Corwin with his heavy rifled 32-pdr cannon. The Corwin replied with her two 6-pdr. howitzers. Her second shot struck within a few yards of the Curlew.
Following this close call, the Curlew steamed westward for about ten minutes, then returned to resume the conflict. The Corwin responded with three more close shots that passed over or near the Curlew. The Curlew steamed out of range and up the sound. The Corwin elevated her howiters to 25 degrees and continued to fire on the retreating Curlew until four miles separated the two ships.
What was the Corwin doing there?
At the beginning of the Civil War, Lt. Thomas S. Phelps was attached to an expedition sent to the relief of Fort Sumter. Later he was sent to prepare a survey of the Potomac River for the Union Army and Navy. In September 1861, he was transferred to the steamer Corwin for “secret service”, examining the five inlets near Cape Hatteras.
Phelps was responsible for selecting the route for an expedition being planned into the interior waters of North Carolina: Burnside’s Expedition. He surveyed and buoyed Hatteras Inlet in November prior to the invasion the following January.