Miles Creef’s family has plucked seafood from the brackish sounds of North Carolina’s Outer Banks for generations, scooping up oysters, shad and larger fish within sight of vacation homes. From mid-April to mid-June, fishermen net female “soft shell” Blue crabs, a delicacy often served up on sandwiches.
Creef’s great-great-grandfather, Nathaniel Shannon, made his living by farming and fishing.
Like many residents of Roanoke Island, Shannon felt a kinship with shipping centers along the East Coast.
“It was easier to sail to Baltimore than to get to Raleigh,” said Sarah Downing, assistant curator of the Outer Banks History Center, located on an island best known as the location of Sir Walter Raleigh's "Lost Colony" in the late 16th century.
The family’s quiet way of life was disturbed in February 1862, when an expedition under Union Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside (below) sailed to the sparsely-populated island, beginning a bombardment (above) of a much smaller Confederate force.
Nathaniel Shannon, a widower with a boy and girl, decided to act.
“To avoid the fighting, he was forced to move out of his house. Family lore said he carried my great-grandfather (John) in his arms across the island,” said Creef, who lives in Wanchese, on the south end of Roanoke.
Creef’s ancestors are among those featured in an exhibit, “The Civil War Comes to Roanoke Island: Fishers, Fighters, & Freedmen,” which opened earlier this month at the history center in Manteo and runs through Dec. 30.
It aims to tell the stories of local watermen and farmers, sailors
and soldiers, and thousands of blacks who flocked to the island for protection during the Union occupation.
Burnside's expedition had several Confederate installations as objectives, including Roanoke.
“The Confederates were fortifying the island. They knew how important it was to control the island and waterways,” Downing told the Picket.
Burnside had about 7,500 troops at his disposal for the landing. They were pitted against forces under Brig. Gen. Henry Wise, former Virginia governor (left).
The Federals, following a bombardment, landed Feb. 7 on the southwestern side of Roanoke Island in an amphibious operation.
“The next morning, supported by gunboats, the Federals assaulted the Confederate forts on the narrow waist of the island, driving back and out-maneuvering Wise’s outnumbered command,” reads a National Park Service summary of the battle. “After losing less than 100 men, the Confederate commander on the field, Col. H.M. Shaw, surrendered about 2,500 soldiers and 32 guns. Burnside had secured an important outpost on the Atlantic Coast, tightening the blockade.”
Union losses were 37 dead, 214 wounded and 13 missing, for a total of 264. The Confederates suffered 23 dead and 58 wounded before the surrender.
Among those in the Confederate force was Creef’s great-great uncle, a member of the 8th North Carolina Infantry.
Roanoke Island, and several other islands and cities on the Outer Banks, remained under Union occupation for the balance of the war. “The Union commandeered all the housing for their officers,” said Creef.
During that time, Roanoke Island became home to thousands of blacks, both free and former slaves, who flocked to the area for protection during uncertain war times. Some of the land used for the colony was taken from local fishermen.
“Representatives of the national Freedmen’s Bureau, assisted by northern missionaries, worked at settling, educating and employing the freedmen, in one of the greatest social experiments of its time,” according to the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.
Labeling the slaves as “Contraband of War”, the Union Army emancipated them, offering a new start on the island, the park service says. As many as 4,000 former slaves lived on the island.
They assisted the Union troops in rebuilding forts on Roanoke and Hatteras Islands as well as New Bern and other strategic areas in North Carolina. They also served as cooks, woodcutters, teamsters, longshoremen, carpenters, and blacksmiths. The colony, however, never became truly self-sufficient. (National Park Service photo below of typical Freedmen's Colony school)
Descendants of many freedmen live on Roanoke Island and neighboring communities today.
Nathanial Shannon never did move back to his old home when the war ended. Years after the war, the Southern Claims Commission awarded him $100 in restitution, although Creef, 57, does not know whether it was for the home the family lost or for timber or other farm products.
Creef has spent several years studying his family’s genealogy.
“Every bit of the history intrigues me," he told the Picket.
Downing said the small exhibit includes farming artifacts and items from the Battle of Roanoke Island, including bullets, buckles and artillery rounds. It also features a film and examples of camp life.
The Outer Banks History Center, more of an archives and research center than a museum, reaches out to both tourists who flock to nearby beaches and residents.
“So many visitors had no idea any Civil War activity took place in this area," Downing said.
Bombardment illustration and map courtesy of Outer Banks History Center collections. The free exhibit is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week, 1 Festival Park Boulevard, Manteo, NC 27954.
• Outer Banks History Center