November 17, 2014

Archaeologists to investigate possible
site of Civil War fort this week


After a painstaking study of historic maps, documents and photographs zeroed in on the presumed site of a Civil War fort in Waves on Hatteras Island, the actual work on the ground is set to begin this week to prove its location.  

Mel Covey, a local history buff who grew up in Rodanthe, said that retired East Carolina University archaeologist Larry Babits will be leading an investigation starting on Tuesday, Nov. 18, at the site of what Covey believes is the location of Camp Live Oak, an 1861 Union outpost built to defend against Confederates retaking Hatteras island.

Covey said that Camp Live Oak was situated near a windmill in Waves, adjacent to an oak-lined shoreline. It is also the spot from where the Union and Confederate forces famously chased each other up and down the beach.

“It’s the beginning and ending point of the Chicamacomico Races,” he said.

Babits, an expert in battlefield archaeology, will be assisted at the site by Charles Ewen, the director of ECU’s Phelps Archaeology Laboratory.

Ewen said he and a graduate student will scan the area on Tuesday with ground-penetrating  radar to look for anomalies under the surface.

“Larry is running the whole project,” Ewen said. “He’ll tell me where he wants me to look.”

Covey says he has found evidence of an earthwork and Civil War-era artifacts at the site, and each of the 15 different clues he has found all fit the location.

“Here’s the linchpin that makes me know I’m 100 percent right here,” he says. “The fort matches the map,  matches the physical description, and it’s the only time it made any sense to put a fort there.”

Babits’ main goal, Covey says, is to investigate a wall remaining from the earthworks. He is expected to be working all week at the site.

With the assistance of the archaeologist,  Covey says he is hoping to find the physical evidence that would determine that the site is indeed where Camp Live Oak had once served as a safeguard against Confederates.  

“You couldn’t really call it a fort proper because it had no cannon,” Covey says. “Certainly not the armaments that (Union) Col. Hawkins had envisioned.”

Rush Hawkins, the Union commander of the 9th New York Voluntary Infantry, had calculated that the Confederates would try to sneak over from Roanoke Island to overpower the occupying Union troops, and ordered the encampment be built to keep a lookout for invading Confederates.

“It was built to defend for exactly what happened – an amphibious assault coming from Roanoke Island and from the infantry from the north,” Covey says. “Yeah, there’s no doubt it’s Camp Live Oak. It’s a perfect match.”

If evidence proves the fort location, he says, it would be an invaluable addition to the history of Hatteras Island’s role in the Civil War.

Staged in the earliest months of the Civil War, battles in and around Ocracoke, Hatteras and Roanoke islands were critical to the direction and ultimate outcome of the war, Covey says. 

“Go back and look at the battles that happened in eastern North Carolina – the fall of Hatteras, then Roanoke Island,” he says. “Then they started falling like dominoes. Lee had to completely re-assess.”

Covey says that as more is learned, historians are starting to appreciate more the tactical importance of the Outer Banks in the war.

In researching the location of Camp Live Oak, Covey also was able to determine the likely spot in the Pamlico Sound where the Fanny, the first Union Naval vessel captured in the war, had dumped its cargo while escaping enemy boats.

Local divers plan to investigate the area in upcoming months.

“Because of what I’m doing now,” Covey says, “it’s easier to fill in the missing pieces.”

RELATED STORY: Has Hatteras Islander found a significant Civil War-era fort in Waves?

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