Dugout canoes once traveled the vast coastal waterways as woodland Native Americans journeyed between the mainland and surrounding islands. These Native Americans participated in the Tuscarora wars against colonists in 1711 and 1713. Hostilities continued from hideouts around Bear Island until the middle of the 18th century when the Native Americans migrated northward.
Dugout canoes soon gave way to pirate ships. The inlets along the coast and the shallow waterways behind the barrier islands were havens for pirates. Here they could prey upon merchant vessels and hide while repairing their ships. Among the pirates who frequented the area was the notorious Blackbeard. Spanish privateers also terrorized the colonists. For protection, the colonists built several forts, including one near Bear Inlet, which was erected in 1749 and has since disappeared.
Due to its location, Bear Island has often played a role in the protection of the mainland. During the Civil War, Confederate troops on the island defended it against Union forces occupying Bogue Banks. The island again assumed military importance nearly a century later when, during World War II, the Coast Guard used it to secure the coast and monitor German U-boat activity.
Early in the 20th century, Dr. William Sharpe, a neurosurgeon of New York, came to Bear Island to hunt. His love of the island prompted him to acquire it for his retirement. Sharpe intended to will the property to John Hurst, his longtime hunting guide and friend, but Hurst persuaded him to donate it to the North Carolina Teachers Association, an organization of African American teachers. In 1950, the group assumed the deed to Bear Island and attempted to develop the property. Limited funds and the island's remoteness rendered their efforts unsuccessful. In 1961, the association donated the island to the state of North Carolina for a park. Initially planned as a park for minorities, Hammocks Beach State Park opened for all people following the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Huggins Island, located just east of Bear Island in the mouth of Bogue Inlet, is a 225-acre island visible from downtown Swansboro. The island consists of 115 acres of upland area surrounded by 96 acres of lowland marsh. The island's varied natural habitats and cultural resources contributed to the its inclusion in the state parks system.
Huggins Island is home to a maritime swamp forest, which is listed as a Globally Rare and Significant Area. Huggins Island has a rich history, from Native American fishing and hunting grounds, to being home to a Confederate six-cannon battery in 1861-62. Its commanding view of Bogue Inlet and the town of Swansboro was an obvious strategic value. For visitors familiar with Hammocks Beach State Park, Huggins Island's thick, dense maritime forest is a stark contrast to Bear Island's sandy beach and open dunes bursting with sea oats.
Bear Island is an unspoiled barrier island with more than three miles of beach, large mobile sand dunes, a maritime forest and salt marsh. Glimmering off the coast of North Carolina near Swansboro, it has a long but sparsely recorded history. The following timeline offers insight into what is known about the island.
Ocean levels drop 90 feet and Bear Island comes into being, rising above the sea. During this time span, Native Americans probably visited the island to hunt and fish, but did not stay for long periods of time. The lack of fresh water made long stays impossible and pottery, which could carry fresh water, had not yet been developed. No burial grounds from this period were found to suggest settlement.
The development of dugout cypress canoes offers a form of transportation for the Neusiok and Coree Indians to come to Bear Island. Pottery has now been developed to carry fresh water. Arrowheads made of jasper suggest trade with people west of the coastal plain. The abundance of sea turtles, shellfish, and fish make farming for food unnecessary at this point.
The Neusiok and Coree are forced to flee north into Algonquin territory as the British take possession of the island. The island receives its first name - Bare Island - due to the lack of vegetation here. Eventually, the spelling changes to Bear Island.
During this time, local legend holds that Blackbeard the Pirate used Bear Island and other coastal islands for get-a-ways while he terrorized traders. Tobias Knight, a wealthy colonist and government official who acquired the island in 1713, lets Blackbeard (whose real name is Edward Teache) use the island for a share of the spoils. Mr. Knight later resigns his government posts because of scandals involving his deals with Blackbeard.
Spanish privateers begin to prey on English merchant ships. One ship was attacked off Bear Island, killing all on board.
The Spanish continue their reign of terror on English merchant ships during this time known as the Spanish Alarm. They attack the island twice, so the British decide to build a fort to protect their holdings. The location of this fort is not known today.
During this time span, the island becomes part of a plantation owned by the Starkey family. John Starkey, a representative in the Colonial Assembly, is a populist leader representing the economic rights of local people. His son Edward eventually becomes speaker of the North Carolina House of Commons in 1783.
Daniel Heady, a sea captain, and four generations of his family hold title to the island and build a house and whale processing station which operates until the Civil War. They never actively hunted whales, but there were enough whale strandings to support a small processing station.
Bogue Inlet & The Civil War: North Carolina's coast was of great strategic importance to the Confederacy. Its well-protected coastline offered a perfect refuge for privateers who attacked and seized many Union merchant vessels. Due to the success of this strategy in the early days of the war, maritime insurance companies in the North went into a panic, forcing the Federalist Government to mount a military expedition against Cape Hatteras.
North Carolina's coastal counties and the state's coastal railroad system were vital to the feeding and re-supply of Robert E. Lee's army.
The Union Blockade of Bogue Inlet: January 1862 U.S.S.Albatross, destroyed British blockade runner York near Bogue Inlet, where York had been run aground.
March 1864 A closely coordinated Army-Navy expedition departed Beaufort, North Carolina, on board side-wheel steamer U.S.S.Britannia. The aim of the expedition was the capture or destruction of two schooners used in blockade running at Swansboro, and the capture of a Confederate army group on the south end of Bogue Island Banks. Arriving off Bogue Inlet late at night, the expedition encountered high winds and heavy seas which prevented landing on the beach. Early on the morning of the 25th, a second attempt was made under similarly difficult conditions, but a party got through to Bear Creek where one of the schooners was burned. Bad weather persisted throughout the day and the expedition eventually returned to Beaufort on the 26th with its mission only partially completed.
Confederate Defense of Bogue Inlet: November & December 1861 Confederate authorities found it necessary to begin construction of a number of earthwork fortifications in Eastern North Carolina, one of which was the Huggins Island Battery at the mouth of the White Oak River. The hope was to secure against Union attempts to advance inland from the coast. Company B of the 36th North Carolina Regiment (2nd North Carolina Artillery) “Bladen Stars” Commanded by Captain Daniel Munn (4 Officers and 64 Men) are posted at the 6 gun battery on Huggins Island
February 1861 orders were issued for Captain Munn to withdraw his company from Huggins Island. The guns and ordinance were to be transported to Morehead City from which they could be sent to New Bern.
HUGGINS ISLAND & THE CIVIL WAR: The Civil War did not escape Swansboro and Huggins Island. The town of Swanboro was an important confederate port for exporting goods and it is geographically located at the mouth of the White Oak River. With the capture of Hatteras inlet by Union troops in August of 1861, Confederate authorities found it necessary to begin construction of a number of earthen fortifications at Roanoke Island, and on the Roanoke, Pamlico, Neuse, and White Oak Rivers. These defensive positions were to secure the area from Union advancement inland from the coast. The battery on Huggins Island was completed before early December, 1861 and troops probably garrisoned the battery in early January of 1862.
When union troops captured Roanoke Island in February of that year, confederate forces decided to consolidate all the various far-flung defenses of the North Carolina coast. probably garrisoned the battery in early January of 1862. When union troops captured Roanoke Island in February of that year, confederate forces decided to consolidate all the various far-flung defenses of the North Carolina coast. Bogue Inlet and Bear Island mark for a brief time the boundary of the Union and Confederate forces. Pickets, or front line soldiers, are stationed on Bear Island to prevent a Union landing.
The Huggins Island Battery (Paul Branch Fort Macon State Park Park Ranger/Historian): The capture of Hatteras Inlet in August 1861 gave Union forces a foothold on the coast of North Carolina from which attacks could be launched up the rivers and sounds of the North Carolina Coast to the interior Consequently, during the fall of 1861, Confederate authorities found it necessary to begin construction of a number of earthwork fortifications at ROANOKE ISLAND and on the ROANOKE,PAMLICO, NEUSE and WHITE OAK RIVERS to secure against Union attempts to advance inland from the coast. The first formal mention of a battery specifically on Huggins Island is found in a letter…
November 9, 1861
From: General Richard C. Gatlin, Commanding the Dept. of North Carolina
To: Brigadier Gen. Joseph R. Anderson, Commanding the District of the Cape Fear
“ Common prudence dictates the erection of a battery on Huggins Island… Besides its importance in defending the town of Swansborough against marauding parties it would add much to the security of New Berne, as an enemy landing on the White Oak would have his choice of two or more practicable roads to that city.”
|Gen. Richard C Gatlin|
It can be safely assumed that construction of the battery did start soon afterward, although the exact date is not known. The battery was completed before early December…
December 6, 1861
From: Gen. Richard. C. Gatlin
To: Major General John G. Martin, Adjutant General of North Carolina
“ I desire to receive into service three companies of artillery to serve at the heavy batteries on the Pamlico, Neuse and White Oak Rivers…”
Who Built the Huggins Island Battery: It was necessary to arrange for a force of laborers to do the actual work. At this stage of the war, almost all physical labor on military defenses was performed by Negro laborers, some of whom would be free Negroes and the rest slaves. These workers were probably furnished for the project by Onlsow and neighboring counties, a practice which was common during the construction of the state’s coast defenses in 1861. For patriotic reasons, free negroes frequently volunteered for such duty while slave owners likewise donated the services of their slaves. As the war dragged on, it became necessary to assure a sufficient labor force was always availible to work on defenses by a practice of “impressment”. With the consent of the Governor, one slave in every five would be taken, or impressed, for work from slaveholders owning more than five slaves in neighboring counties adjacent to military defenses of a particular locality. There is little doubt the workers who built the Huggins Island Battery were furnished under one or the other of these arrangements.
The Battery: The battery is of a form of a simple open redan (ditch) made in somewhat of a horseshoe shape. The embankments, or parapet, of such a work would be formed by piling up sand excavated from the ditch in front of the work. The interior slope of the parapet would be revetted with some kind of material but whether by sod, planks or sand bags is not known.
The Bomb Proof: In the middle of the work was a shell-proof magazine in the form of an underground chamber floored below and covered with timbers and soil above. At some point, a barracks building was added for the accommodations of a garrison. This probably was a simple log building typical of those built as winter quarters by troops of the period.
The exact armament of the battery is not known but would have typically consisted of 24- or 32- pounders. Reports from Union forces, which later tried to destroy, the work in August of 1862, mentioned, “battery was intended to mount thirteen guns, but yet only six have ever been mounted.” Another report stated the “the guns…had been taken (six in number) to New Berne to aid in the defense of that point and were there captured by us, and have not since been replaced.” Most of the guns used in the defense of New Bern (and captured there by Union forces on March 14,1862) Were 32- pounders. It is therefore most likely the guns at the Huggins Island Battery were 32-pounders. There is also little doubt these would have been of Navy pattern. Most all 24- and 32-pound cannons used in coast defenses of North Carolina in 1861 came from the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia. Where Virginia state troops seized the Navy Yard at the beginning of the war they captured about 1200 cannons of the U.S. Navy which were stockpiled there. Virginia shared many of them with North Carolina for the states coast defenses.
There is no doubt the guns on Huggins Island were naval guns which originally from the Norfolk Navy Yard. The New Bern ordnance officer may have sent the six guns for Huggins Island from some of the guns earmarked for the defenses of the Neuse River but this is not certain. There is a better chance the ordnance officer may have ordered the guns be sent from Fort Macon which still had a large number of surplus unmounted, unused guns on hand which had been received from Norfolk during the summer. It certainly would have been an easy matter from a transportation situation to float the guns down Bogue Sound from Fort Macon to Huggins Island. The barbette carriages for the guns apparently were furnished from Wilmington.
|Captain Daniel Munn|
During November and December of 1861, this company known as the “Bladen Stars” was engaged in filling its ranks for mustering-in to confederate service, which took place in Wilmington. Commanded by Captain Daniel Munn, the company was considered an independent company for local defense and special service in North Carolina, it was eventually designated Company B of the 36th North Carolina Regiment (2nd North Carolina Artillery). 4 Officers and 64 Men (Jan. 1862).
Union Forces: The appearance of the powerful expedition of Union General Ambrose E. Burnside in North Carolina waters in January, 1862, was a major threat to the security of North Carolina coast defenses such as the Huggins Island Battery. Burnside successfully captured the Confederate stronghold at Roanoke Island during February 7-8,1862, and prepared to advance against New Bern.
To General Gatlin it was painfully obvious the only way of stopping Burnside’s advance was by a concentration of forces. All the various far-flung defensive forces on the North Carolina coast such as the Huggins Island Battery were to scattered and weak in their present state to be effective by themselves. The only hope of defeating Burnside was by a consolidation of forces.
Abandonment of the Battery: On February 19,1861, orders were issued for Captain Munn to withdraw his company from Huggins Island. The guns and ordinance were to be transported to Morehead City from which they could be sent to New Bern. If the guns were not needed at either Fort Macon or New Bern, they were to be shipped to Wilmington for use at Fort Caswell. Munn did as he was ordered and proceeded back to Wilmington. The six guns of the battery apparently were kept at New Bern, and ultimately fell into Union hands when Burnside’s forces captured New Bern on March 14, 1862.
Destruction of the Battery: In August 1862, a small-scale joint Union Army and Navy expedition to Swansboro was planned for the purpose of reconnoitering the area and destroying salt works at Swansboro and up the White Oak River. Brigadier General Thomas G. Stevenson with seven companies of the 24th Massachusetts Regiment, and a detachment of the 1st New York Marine Artillery. The force was transported on seven light draft Army steamers and the Navy gunboat Ellis.
|Brigadier Gen.Thomas G. Stevenson|
The force took possession of Swansboro on August 17 and spent the next couple of days destroying several salt works operating in the area. Before departing back to Beaufort on the morning of August 19th. An attempt was made to destroy the abandoned Huggins Island Battery. From a report from the commander of the gunboat Ellis made an attempt almost as an afterthought. The only part of the battery giving any evidence of a possible explosion or destruction is the magazine bombproof.
Importance of the Huggins Island Battery : In the vast realm of Civil War history, the significance of the Huggins Island Battery on the course of the war is marginal at best. The Battery was built and occupied for only about three months and then it was abandoned. It never fired a shot in anger. Far greater is the significance it holds today, however. It is the only unspoiled example of Confederate earthwork fortifications surviving on the North Carolina coast.
North Carolina’s Lost History: Most of these defenses were destroyed by shore erosion, damage from occupation in World War II or modern development. Leaving the Huggins Island Battery the only Confederate coastal fortification in North Carolina retaining its original integrity and character.
Dr. William Sharpe: A pioneer neurosurgeon from New York, acquires the island in the 1920's along with a 4,600 acre mainland site known as "the Hammocks." Dr. Sharpe hires a local guide, John Hurst, as manager of this hunting and fishing paradise. John and Gertrude Hurst became caretakers for the estate, a decision by Dr. Sharpe that caused a fiery local controversy. Local residents objected to placing a black man in charge of the estate, insisting that "a white man must be boss here in the South." Anonymous letters were sent threatening trouble unless the wrong was corrected. Dr. Sharpe refused to be intimidated by threats and placed an ad in local newspapers offering a reward of $5,000 for arrest and conviction of anyone damaging the "Hammocks" or injuring its personnel. "There was no further trouble," Dr. Sharpe boasts in his autobiography, Brain Surgeon.
|Dr. Sharpe and John Hurst|
For almost thirty years, Dr. Sharpe enjoyed and protected his "paradise" with frequent lengthy visits. In 1937, the state of North Carolina made plans to construct a road across his isolated property. Appeals made to Raleigh seeking abandonment of the road plans brought no relief so Dr. Sharpe turned his attentions to a higher authority. Through a colleague, the personal physician of President Franklin Roosevelt, he obtained a three-minute personal meeting with the president. Within days, "work on the road had ceased," Dr. Sharpe relates.
The area plays a role in World War II training as marines based in Jacksonville practice amphibious landings with live ammunition on the island. A Coast Guard station is built to spot German submarines.
Fire destroys the maritime forest in the island's interior. Remains of the charred trees under the shifting sands can still be seen today.
Bear Island is transferred to the North Carolina Teachers Association through the generosity of William Sharpe and John and Gertrude Hurst. William Sharpe intends to leave the island to John Hurst's family, but Gertrude suggests that the Teachers Association manage the island as a beach for African Americans. At this time, public beaches are segregated.
The Hammocks Beach Corporation is organized to develop the island for recreation. After unsuccessful attempts to obtain funds for a bridge to Bear Island, the corporation enters into negotiations with the state in 1956 to make Bear Island a state park. In May of 1961, Hammocks Beach opens for African Americans only. In 1964 The Civil Rights Act mandates the end of racially based segregation in public places and Hammocks Beach opens for all.
Thousands of people come to Bear Island to enjoy this unique, unspoiled barrier island. Pelicans and gulls fly overhead. Deer, raccoons, gray foxes, ghost crabs, and corn snakes make the island their home. Porpoises, sand sharks, man-of-wars, and loggerhead sea turtles enjoy the surrounding waters.