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In 1862 a Boston Journal correspondent described the Washington as an agreeable town of about 2,500 residents “some two thirds of whom have seen fit to leave for the interior.” When forces under Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside, arrived on March 21, the remaining citizens “met the troops with every expression of welcome.” So prevalent were the Union sentiments that Burnside stationed troops from the 24th Massachusetts Regiment and several gunboats at the town, effectively occupying Washington.
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In March of 1863, Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill launched an attack on the federal garrison at Washington in an attempt to reclaim the city. Confederates seized one battery and fortified others with the intention of launching an artillery bombardment. In the Pamlico River, piles that were cut off below the water line and other sunken impediments made for perilous river travel. Union General J. G. Foster and his men had made it into Washington just prior to Hill’s placement of troops along roads to prevent federal reinforcements from reaching the garrison. The armies engaged in artillery attacks off and on for until mid-April when the Escort, a Union steamer, ran past the Confederate batteries twice. The arrival of supplies and reinforcements having bolstered the federal garrison, Hill withdrew his troops from Washington.
Washington remained under federal control until April 26, 1864 (the present marker states incorrectly that the Confederates held Washington from March until November), when, as a result of the Confederate victory at Plymouth, Brigadier General Edward Harland was ordered to withdraw from the town. For four days the evacuating troops pillaged Washington, destroying what they could not carry. As the final detachments were preparing to leave Washington on April 30, a fire started in the riverfront warehouse district, spreading quickly, until about one half of the city was in ashes.
General Robert F. Hoke entered Washington finding “a ruined city…a sad scene—mostly…chimneys and Heaps of ashes to mark the place where Fine Houses once stood, and the Beautiful trees, which shaded the side walks, Burnt, some all most to a coal.” Hoke left the 6th North Carolina to defend Washington and to assist its citizens. A reversal of fortune would come in November 1864. Following the Union’s recapture of Plymouth, Washington and the whole sound region, again fell under federal control.
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963)
William R. Trotter,Ironclads and Columbiads, The Civil War in North Carolina: The Coast (1989)
Richard A. Sauers, The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina (1996)