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Editor’s note: In the light of the violence at Charlottesville and the attention being paid to Confederate Civil War monuments and the legacy of slavery, this seems like a good time to visit Hyde County’s own Civil War history. A later article will look at the story of Hyde County’s freed slaves, how they fared after the War and their participation in the Civil Rights movement.
By Pat Garber
Driving along the quiet lanes of mainland Hyde County today it is hard to envision what it must have been like a little more than150 years ago in 1862 and ’63 when Union troops occupied Eastern North Carolina during the Civil War.
Confederate forts near Hatteras Island (then part of Hyde County) and Ocracoke had been captured or burned early in the war, and there is little evidence of Civil War activity on the Outer Banks thereafter.
According to Hatteras Island historian Daniel Pullen, when the Union navy won the battle at Cape Hatteras, gaining access to the Pamlico Sound, Hatteras and Ocracoke men joined the Union.
Mainland Hyde, however, was subject to Union raids from the time when General Burnside captured New Bern and Washington in 1862. Many of the local men were gone, having enlisted in the Confederate Army. Most had joined Company F of the 33rd Regiment, “the Dixie Invincibles.” Others joined the 17th Regiment.
Residents formed several county troops to protect their crops and other possessions, including “Spencer’s Rangers” and the “Partisan,” or “Hyde Rangers,” both formed in the winter of 1862-63. They also assisted in getting food and provisions out of the county past the federals to Confederate troops.
Spencer’s Rangers, led by Captain William H. Spencer, operated in Hyde and nearby counties. He and 27 of his men were captured in late February1864 near Fairfield, and that fall, the remaining men joined Col. George Wortham’s command in Plymouth.
In his book “Hyde’s Yesterdays,” Morgan H. Harris said Union forces “burned or destroyed everything they could find” in their march around Fairfield to Swan Quarter in March 1863 and engaged in battle with local men led by Capt. Colin Richards. At least one Swan Quarter man was killed.
Federal troops also burned Germain Town, leaving only one house standing, that of Dr. Thomas Smith. It is believed that his home was spared because he was a member of the Masons, as was the commanding federal officer. There are many other stories about similar encounters.
While many Hyde County residents supported the Confederacy, there were some who still believed in the Union. These people, referred to locally as “buffaloes,” were “loyal to the South by day and to the North by night.”
These Union loyalists, standing up for what they believed, nonetheless fared poorly during the War, according to reports: despised by their neighbors and distrusted by the occupying forces.
Three stories recorded in Harris’ book bring up the interesting possibility that the famous Confederate general, Stonewall Jackson, was accidentally shot and killed by a Hyde County soldier. One Hyde county resident claimed that his great-grandfather knew the man who shot him and that his brother was one of the first soldiers to get to the General. Another claimed that he was with Jackson when he was shot, and another that he had sold oysters to the man who had accidentally killed General Jackson.
Harris recorded other stories, including one by Leslie Clayton about his grandmother pouring boiling soup on approaching Yankee soldiers, and another about a man, Jim Ed Gurkin, who did not want to enlist and spent the war years hiding in a giant cypress tree near Oyster Creek.
The tragedy of the Civil War, which divided families and communities and states even as it ended the odious institution of slavery, was brought home to me as I perused a copy of “Hyde County History.”
Published by the Hyde County Historical Society in 1976, the book contains a roster of more than 600 Hyde County soldiers, many still boys, who fought in the War. Many were killed, some in their own county. Each account is heart-rending.
There is a monument at Middleton honoring the Hyde County Confederate soldiers who fought with the 33rd and died in the War. It is a reminder of the sad events which took place here 150 years ago.