Washington on the Tar River (click image to enlarge)Washington on the Tar River (click image to enlarge)

Because of its significance as a port, the Confederates made several attempts to unshackle Washington from its Union occupiers.Thursday, September 6, 2012 marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Washington, the second attempt by the Confederate Army to liberate the town.

At day break on September 6, 1862, Confederate Maj. Stephen D. Pool, who previously directed the defense of Fort Macon, led 1,000 North Carolina Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillery troops against a Union garrison of 1,200 men. The Confederates surprised Union pickets stationed on the west side of town near the Elmwood Plantation which today is the area west of Washington Street from the Tar River north to U.S. 264. After a brief skirmish, the North Carolina troops charged down Second Street while the cavalry rushed down Market. At the corner of Second and Bridge Streets, a Union battery was captured and the troops advanced further into town. Though surprised, the Union forces regrouped and attacked west down Main, Second, and Third Streets pushing the Confederates back as far as Bridge Street.

Meanwhile the Union gunboats, Picket and Louisiana, anchored abreast the town in the Tar River, engaged the Confederates by shelling the west end of town. Unexpectedly, the Picket’s shell magazine exploded, sinking the gunboat and killing the captain and 19 of the crew. Today the remains of the Picket lie just west of the U.S. 17 Business bridge on the bottom of the Tar River.

After more than 2 hours of hard fighting, the Confederate forces withdrew. Confederate casualties were 31 killed, 30 wounded, and 24 taken prisoner, while the Union lost 26 killed, 55 wounded, and 12 captured. There were some reports of civilian casualties. Following the encounter, the union garrison was forced to strengthen the defenses around the town allowing them to maintain the occupation until they withdrew from Washington on April 30, 1864.