Roanoke Island History

During the Civil War, Roanoke Island was once again brought to national attention. The island was secured by the Confederacy, while neighboring Hatteras Island had been seized by the Union in 1861 By the end of 1861, the Union had undertaken a mass effort to build a coastal division that would target the Confederate's hold on the valuable coastline. In early 1862, that division was ready and had its sights on Roanoke Island. While it may seem like the 17 square mile island was an insignificant conquest for the North, the Confederate controlled Roanoke Island was able to protect the channel through the Albemarle Sound. If the Union was able to access this channel, they would have an opportunity to attack and seize a number of important confederate ports, and would be in a position to attack the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Confederate's forces on Roanoke Island were limited. Commanded by General Henry Wise, the island was guarded by 3,000 men and a small fleet of 7 gunboats. In contrast, the union force, led by General Burnside, had 12,000 men and 16 larger and fully armed gunboats.

Burnside's troops entered the sound between mainland North Carolina and Roanoke Island on February 4th, 1862. The Confederate troops immediately began firing at the fleet, but realized quickly that they were sorely outnumbered. Burnside's troops landed onshore by the end of the day, and Wise, realizing he didn't have nearly enough men to match Burside's numbers, hoped that the marshy swamplands that surrounded his fort would hold off the Union forces. He was wrong, however, and the Union Infantry chased the confederates to the northern part of the island, where the Confederate troops surrendered. (Wise himself managed to escape, but his son was fatally wounded.)

The taking of Roanoke Island gave the Union control over the majority of the North Carolina Coastline, and over the next few months, Burnside was able to capture and take control of Elizabeth City, New Bern, South Mills, and Fort Macon. Later in the war, the Union Army established an official freedman's colony on the island as a refuge for the families of black soldiers. Revolutionary for its time, the colony focused on education, and brought in educators from New England to teach both the children and adults at the camp.

The island prospered after the war, and the population on Roanoke Island and along the barrier islands of the Outer Banks continued to grow. In 1870, the county of Dare was formed, and the county seat and courthouse were established along Shallowbag Bay on Roanoke Island, and this government center became known as "Manteo" three years later in 1873 when a post office was established as well. The town was officially incorporated in 1899, and at this point, it had grown into a thriving community with a good number of businesses and residents.

Roanoke Island appeared on the national radar once again in the mid 80s, while the country was celebrating its 400th Anniversary. Because it played such a key role in the initial colonizations, the downtown of Manteo was renovated into a lovely waterfront collection of shops, historical building and restaurants, and the Elizabeth II, a replica of the ship the colonists used to come to Roanoke in the late 1500s, was constructed and situated in Shallowbag Bag on the Manteo Waterfront.

On July 13th, 1984, the Elizabeth II was dedicated at a ceremony attended by a number of celebrities and people of prominence, included her Royal Highness Princess Anne.

In 1999 the Town of Manteo celebrated its own centennial birthday with a number of events, the publication of a coffee-table history book, Manteo, A Roanoke Island Town by Angel Ellis Khoury, and the establishment of a centennial clock on the corner of Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh streets downtown.

Today, Manteo and Roanoke Island is a popular tourist destination, but retains its charm and long history as one of the cornerstones of early American history.

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