Fort Branch went through two construction periods. The first was in February of 1862 after the Federals took control of the northeastern North Carolina coast including the mouth of the Roanoke River. Federals captured Elizabeth City, destroying the Confederate fleet there. The next day they captured Edenton. Winton was burned. Word spread that Union troops were raiding homes. Panic set in. Confederate troops were quickly moved to Weldon to protect the railway bridge over the Roanoke, a weak spot in the Confederate supply line from Wilmington to Richmond. More troops were sent to Hamilton.
February 24, 1862: A Confederate engineer, Captain Richard Kidder Meade, was sent to Hamilton to construct "scientific defenses" on the river. He requisitioned slaves and provisions from area planters and bought lumber locally, immediately beginning construction. Meade's construction consisted of a lower battery for two guns and an upper battery for three with a magazine between the sections.
March 14, 1862: Colonel Collett Leventhorpe's 34th Regiment with approximately 450 men was reported on the Lower Roanoke, to prevent the boats of the enemy ascending that stream. The 34th was reinforced by about seventy cavalry troopers and Nichols' Virginia light battery of artillery. This group assisted Capt. Meade in constructing a defense at Rainbow Banks but was ordered away by General Robert E. Lee before it was completed.
July, 1862: Three ships of the Federal fresh water navy left Plymouth and headed upriver mostly, it is believed to, show the flag and encourage allegiance. The ships were the Commodore Perry, the Shawsheen and the Ceres. Near Poplar Point, the ships came under fire from the riverbank above. The ships returned fire from small arms and big guns and proceeded upriver past the deserted battery at Rainbow Bend. The Union gunboats successfully landed in Hamilton, sending about 100 men ashore with one field howitzer. They were there only briefly but the trips success alarmed locals and Confederate officials and it was decided that better defenses were needed.
Confederate officials determined they needed a fort capable of preventing or at least slowing down any further raids.
September, 1862: Lt. J. Innis Randolph, an engineer officer appointed by the District of Columbia, was sent to find a suitable site on the Roanoke. In his report to superiors, Randolph had this to say about Meade's defenses:
"There are several points which might be fortified to resist the passage of gunboats, but none, in my judgment, so suitable as Rainbow Bend. This is an excellent point".There is a battery already constructed there, located, I understand, by Capt. Kidder Meade (R.K. Meade), C.S. engineer. The battery is well located and arranged for five pieces. It is not, however, well constructed. The parapet is not more than 14 feet thick; not enough, in my judgment, to stand heavy artillery at a half-mile range. The soles of the embrasures have not slope enough to admit a sufficient depression of the guns and the magazine, while it is the most conspicuous point in the work as viewed from the river, is very weak both on top and at the sides. The flooring of one of the platforms is gone, and the hillside should be cut away farther, as it limits the fire of one of the guns".
October 9, 1862: The Confederate Engineer Bureau in Richmond assigned Colonel Walter Gwynn to examine navigable waters in eastern North Carolina for defense against a naval or land attack. Strong obstructions in the channels and batteries on the banks were planned to block the Neuse River as low as Kinston, the Tar River as low as Greenville and the Roanoke River as low as Hamilton.
October 14, 1862: Lt. Walter G. Bender is ordered to assist Colonel Gwynn. Materials were made ready. Laborers are to arrive on Nov. 3rd. Gwynn is advised that 100 hands have been ordered to assemble at Hamilton for work and Gwynn has called on local planters for 500 slaves with two weeks provisions to start work on the 3rd. A joint raid by Federal Army and Navy troops (Foster's Raid) caused a hasty evacuation of Hamilton. Some of Lt. Bender's papers regarding construction of the fort were discovered by Union forces and the U.S. Navy vessel I.N. Seymour was dispatched to demolish the battery. Efforts stopped short when a badly handled explosion killed one and injured another of its crew. The magazine was blown up and the western end of the battery burned as well as damage done to the timbers in the embrasure.
February 9, 1863: Construction was completed and guns were installed.
May 13, 1863: Brigadier-General J.G. Martin inspected the fort and reported satisfaction with his findings. "If properly garrisoned and provisioned, it can repel any attack of the enemy by land or water less than a regular siege. The supply of ammunition is good, and provisions for 1,000 men for thirty days are being placed in as rapidly as present circumstances permit. Coniho Creek, of which the general spoke to me, will be a very serious obstacle to a land attack on Fort Branch."
Pen & ink drawings by Stephen McCall
Credits Excerpts and summaries from:
Fort Branch Civil War Site
NC Hwy 125/903 at 2883 Fort Branch Road - PO Box 355, Hamilton, North Carolina 27840
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