Encounter Civil War Stories Along the Coastal Sounds

Encounter Civil War Stories Along the Coastal Sounds

Living history programs and reenactments are popular at the Fort Branch Civil War Site

You’ll find some of North Carolina’s most intriguing Civil War stories when you zigzag over land and water to visit towns on the Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. There are state parks, historic sites and waterfront towns to explore. Artifacts and re-enactors bring the Civil War to life, and you’ll walk in the steps of those who made history by fighting for their beliefs.

4-Day Itinerary

Day 1: Follow a route that escaping slaves ran and visit a replica of one of their colonies when you explore Great Dismal Swamp.

Day 2: Retrace the waterfront battle in Elizabeth City, and then head to Edenton, detouring to see a rare monument.

Day 3: Glimpse the pre-war plantation life of a Confederate general, watch a replica of the ironclad CSS Albemarle fire its guns and see Plymouth from a sniper’s point of view.

Day 4: Stand where Confederates searched the Roanoake River for Union gunboats before walking through the remains of the Union’s fiery retreat from Washington.

Day 1: Great Dismal Swamp

Slaves dug the 22-mile canal that runs along the eastern edge of Great Dismal Swamp by hand, connecting the Albemarle Sound and Chesapeake Bay, two strategic waterways. Some slaves used it as an escape route. Spend the day following their footsteps by paddling the canal or hiking or biking the paved Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, which starts at the Dismal Swamp Canal Visitors Center in South Mills. You can rent canoes, kayaks and mountain bikes at Dismal Swamp State Park, which has a display depicting a colony of runaway slaves — maroons.

A 20-minute drive will put you in Elizabeth City, where Grice-Fearing House, a bed-and-breakfast that’s on the National Register of Historic Places, is a good place to spend the night. For dinner, try Montero’s, which also serves Sunday brunch, or Cypress Creek Grill, where you can see the Pasquotank River from every table.

Day 2: Elizabeth City and Edenton

In 1862, the Union Navy chased a Confederate fleet to Elizabeth City and sank or captured all but two vessels. As it turned its sights to Elizabeth City, residents fled in fear and set fires in spite as the Rev. E.M. Forbes waited on the waterfront to surrender the town and spare more damage. Visit the Mariner’s Wharf monument that honors him, and then grab a Main Street Commercial District map and tour downtown, visiting more than a dozen antebellum structures, including Forbes’ church. Civil War Trails markers note the fires and fights. You can see more artifacts from the battle in the Museum of the Albemarle’s “Our Story” exhibit, including the bullet-riddled smokestack from the ironclad CSS Albemarle.

On your 30-mile drive to Edenton, take a short detour to one of the few monuments to U.S. Colored Troops. In Edenton, you can stay at the Athol Plantation, and dine on classic American cuisine at 309 Bistro. But before saying goodnight, walk the Harriet Jacobs Trail. A runaway slave, she hid in an attic for seven years before escaping. Her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, became an influential abolitionist document. The Historic Edenton State Historic Site’s self-guided tour directs you to 13 places significant in her life. The first stop is Barker House, where you’ll find St. James, a cannon cast from bells for the Edenton Bell Battery, a North Carolina Light Artillery unit.

Day 3: Somerset Place and Port O’Plymouth Museum

Cross Albemarle Sound at St. Johns and you’ll be at Somerset Place State Historic Site, which preserves plantation life on what was one of the largest plantations in the Upper South. Tour the restored manor house and reconstructed plantation hospital and slave houses. Explore more of the original Somerset Place and Bonarva plantation by hiking the old carriage road at Pettigrew State Park, named for Confederate Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew, who led Pickett’s Charge, only to die during the retreat, and whose family owned Bonarva. The family cemetery is still there.

Plymouth, recaptured by the Confederates in 1864 with help from CSS Albemarle, is a short drive west. Port O’Plymouth Museum has thousands of battle artifacts, including a shell fired from CSS Albemarle and a Union flag. Outside, watch a 63-foot replica ironclad sail the Roanoke River and fire its guns. A walking tour will take you to historic downtown buildings that date to 1810. The Ausbon House, where you can count 30 bullet holes, scars from a sniper skirmish, is one more to see.

Spend the night at the Holiday Inn Express, and eat lunch or dinner at Garden Spot Café or Creswell Café, which offers breakfast, too. Or you can drive 40 minutes to Williamston, giving you a head start on Day 4. Stay at Big Mill Bed-and-Breakfast and eat at Sunnyside Oyster Bar, which stays true to the old shellfish saying by only opening in months with an “r” in their names.

Day 4: Fort Branch and Washington

Follow the Roanoke River west to Fort Branch Civil War Site and stand on the bluff where Confederates watched for Union gunboats. Confederate troops destroyed the fort as they departed. Recovered artifacts — including seven cannons — are there for you to see, along with living history programs.

It’s about 40 miles to Washington, where Down on Main Street is a good lunch stop and Civil War Trails signs recount 1862 and 1863 battles. In 1864, Confederates forced Union officers to evacuate, igniting a fire that destroyed much of the town. You can visit surviving structures, including one used by Mayor Isaiah Respess, who was wanted by the Confederacy for associating with Union officers and the federal government for smuggling tobacco, on the self-guided downtown walking tour. The Pamlico Inn, which is close to the waterfront, is a popular place to stay. For dinner, try Bank Bistro & Bar, which has an extensive menu in an antebellum building.

Pete Anderson is a Gastonia-based writer who says lakes, race tracks and barbecue joints are his favorite places to enjoy North Carolina.

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