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Home North Carolina Hertford County City of Winton Historical Markers Burning Of Winton

Burning Of Winton

King St, Winton, NC, USA

Latitude & Longitude: 36° 23' 43.818", -76° 56' 2.7888"
  North Carolina State Historical Marker
    North Carolina State
Historical Marker
    Marker Text:
"A detachment of United States troops burned Winton on February 20, 1862. The first town in N.C. to be burned during the Civil War."
     Winton, a small village of about 300 inhabitants overlooking the Chowan River, became the first North Carolina town burned by Union forces during the Civil War. On February 19, 1862, six Federal gunboats under the supervision of Commodore S. C. Rowan, accompanied by the 9th New York Infantry, a Zouave regiment led by Col. Rush Hawkins, and a few companies of the 4th Rhode Island Infantry, steamed down river to Winton, intent on destroying the Norfolk and Weldon Railroad bridge near town.

     As the gunboats neared the village, Hawkins spotted an African American woman on one of the docks waiving a handkerchief at them. Assuming she was guiding them in, Hawkins asked the vessel commander to move closer. Just then, Hawkins spotted Confederate infantry on the bluffs above the wharf. The Confederates, six companies of the 1st Battalion of North Carolina Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William T. Williams, two companies of North Carolina militia, as well as a Virginia artillery battery and a Virginia cavalry company, immediately opened fire upon the vessels. Their aim, however, was high, and despite riddling the wheelhouse of the lead gunboat, the USS Delaware, the volley did little damage.

     The Delaware steamed just past the town, moving out of musket range, and then began shelling the village. At about the same time, the second gunboat in the fleet, the USS Perry, began firing, allowing the Delaware to return and rejoin the Union forces. That night the Union fleet anchored seven miles south of Winton, and Federal officers decided that the town would be burned.

     At 11:30 the following morning the fleet returned to find the town almost completely abandoned. Six companies of the 9th New York, a unit which most recently had participated in the Battle of Roanoke Island landed and took possession of Winton. Hawkins managed to capture Martha Keen, the slave woman he had seen waving to them just prior to the ambush. Upon interrogation she said that her master had ordered her to do so in order to draw the Union forces in, and that the Confederates planned “to kill every one of them.” Hawkins used her statement, as well as his assertion that the entire town had been used as quarters by the Confederates, as his justification for burning the village.

     Hawkins later estimated that he had burned over $10,000 worth of military goods, along with several houses that had housed Confederate soldiers. He did not report that he also had burned the $30,000 county courthouse, or that his men had ransacked the houses before engulfing them in flames. Having destroyed Winton, the Union forces found the upper reaches of the Chowan River “blockaded by the falling of trees across it at its narrowest parts,” and abandoned the idea of burning the railroad bridge, instead returning to the Federal base at Roanoke Island. The Union commander of the Department of North Carolina, Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside, blamed the wanton destruction on mother nature, claiming that the fire was initially set only on military sites, but that “the wind shifted after the fire was started and caused the destruction of some few houses.”

     Word of Hawkins’s actions spread fast in both newspapers, North and South. Southern editors fueled public outrage at Hawkins’s actions. The Norfolk Day Book on February 21 proclaimed the action a “vile incendiary,” a sentiment echoed by the Hillsborough Recorder on March 5. In the North, newspapers were much more contrite about the situation. The front page of the New York Times on February 25 gave coverage to the story, and the New York Herald chief editor actually blamed the “act of vandalism” on the retreating Confederates.

     Nevertheless, many Northerners were ashamed at the actions of the 9th New York. Just prior to the arrival of word concerning the Winton expedition, a funding drive had begun to raise money for medals honoring the 9th New York’s actions at Roanoke Island. When New York newspaper editor George Wilkes announced that the Zouaves “had stripped the peaceful inhabitants of their property, they fired the houses over their heads” the fund simply dried up. Hawkins’s actions, nonetheless, provided a precedent for the practice of “total war” practiced throughout the remainder of the conflict.

Thomas Parramore, “The Burning of Winton,” North Carolina Historical Review (Winter 1962): 18-31
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. IX (1883)
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963)
Richard Allen Sauers, The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina (1996)
John Stephen Carbone, The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina (2001)
Related Themes: C.S.A., Confederate States of America, Confederacy
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Burning Of Winton North Carolina