Who planned the defenses at Roanoke Island?

Whoever made the plans for defending Roanoke Island did a lousy job.

The first defenses on the Croatan Sound were midway of the island at Pork Point. Fort Bartow, located there, mounted 9 guns total, 3 en barbette. The Union gunboats approaching from the south hugged the shore, making the 3 en barbette guns the only ones that could be trained on them as they approached.

The sound was four miles wide there. The plan was to block the sound so that the enemy had to pass on the east side, under the guns of the 3 forts built on Roanoke Island. Piles had been driven and hulks sunk east and west of Fulker’s Shoals, but 1700 yards had not been completed opposite Fort Bartow at the time of the battle.

There was a naturally narrow passage through an area referred to as the Roanoke Marshes about 6 miles south of the point chosen for the obstructions. A series of low islands limited the passage of ships to a narrow channel several hundred yards wide near the mainland side of the sound. In the amout of time available, piles could have been driven and enough hulks sunk to have completely closed the passage with 3-4 rows of obstructions.

The two floating batteries that comprised Fort Forrest could have been positioned to cover the area in a cross fire with their combined 7 guns from points well within their range instead of the chosen position almost 1 1/2 miles from the channel they tried to defend. The mosquito fleet could have been brought in to fire from close range at the marshes as the Federals lined up to file through the narrow channel. Few Federal guns could have been trained on the Confederate ships to return fire.

There were no good landing points at the southern end of the island. One of the best landing points available, Ashby’s Harbor, was 3 miles south of the chosen spot for the nearest defensive works. The only defenses placed there were 200 raw infantrymen and 2 ancient field pieces with no horses to pull them. The commander of these forces withdrew with little resistance to ensure that the field pieces, being moved by hand, were not captured. Placing the obstructions at the marshes 4 miles south of that point and building a defensive work on Sand Point beside Ashby’s Harbor would have denied the Union forces this prime landing place.

The three forts built had no defenses to the landward side. The only defensive work protecting their rear was an 80 yard long earthwork astride the causeway leading to Ashby’s Harbor and points south. D.H. Hill had ordered the work extended across the entire width of the island, but the order was countermanded when command of the island was moved to the District of Norfolk. There was only room for about 400 troops behind the earthwork. The earthworks were flanked, the troops retreated, and the backs of all three forts were exposed and had to be abandoned. The 2000 Confederate troops were trapped at the north end of the island by more than 10,000 Union troops. They had no choice but to surrender. Blunder after blunder opened the back door to Norfolk.


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