Fort Branch is a lesser-known Confederate earthen fortification located on a wide bend on the Roanoke River near Hamilton, North Carolina. Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places the fort is privately owned and is maintained by a local preservation society. Despite its relative anonymity the fort is in remarkably good condition with its once massive earthen walls and surrounding moat clearly visible. The fort also has retained most of its original cannon, with 8 of its 12 guns visible at the adjacent visitor center. I was pleasantly surprised with what I found at this site and it proves that a historic site doesn't necessarily have to be contained within a State or National Park to be a worthwhile place to visit.
The history of Fort Branch began with the Federal Navy taking control of the mouth of the Roanoke River in early 1862. With Union troops occupying nearby Edenton it was vital for the Confederates to protect the inland railway bridge over the Roanoke River which carried vital supplies between the port of Wilmington and and the Confederate capitol of Richmond. The obvious place to build a fortification was at a place called the 'Rainbow Banks' near Hamilton, North Carolina where 70-foot bluffs overlooked a wide bend in the Roanoke River. In a typically low-lying region, the height of these bluffs provided a commanding position with which to defend against Union gunboats attempting to sail up the Roanoke.
A rudimentary river battery was constructed at the bluffs by March 1862 but, when Union gunboats were able to sail past with minimal difficulty, it was quickly decided more impressive defenses were needed. Construction on the fort, as it appears today, was begun in September 1862 and completed by March of the following year. The new fortification was named Fort Branch in honor of General Lawrence O'Brian Branch, a former adjutant general of North Carolina killed at Sharpsburg (Antietam) in September 1862. Aside from a very few attempts of solitary Federal boats to ascend the Roanoke the fort rarely saw serious action. Its greatest test came in December 1864 when Union troops under Colonel James Frankel moved against the fort from Plymouth in response to reports the fort was once again being reinforced. Lacking the necessary supplies to sustain a prolonged operation, and facing a stout defense from the forts defenders, the Colonel Frankel soon decided that investing the fort wasn't worth the effort and quickly moved on. Following this 'attack' the fort continued to defend against the occasional river incursion but, when General Sherman took Goldsboro in April 1865 the troops at Fort Branch received orders to abandon and destroy the fort and its guns. The fort magazine and commissary were burned and the forts 15 cannon were pushed into the river. Thus was the end of Fort Branch.
By the mid-20th Century, interest in the old fort was renewed and steps were taken to preserve what remained of the fortifications. Over the following years eight of the forts original guns were pulled from the waters of the Roanoke and the Fort Branch Battlefield Commission was formed to preserve and restore the fort. Today the interior of the fort has been cleared and a couple cannon positions have been reconstructed to provide a glimpse of what the defenses of the fort looked like. A small but artifact-packed visitor center is located in a garage alongside the fort and markers and brochures do a good job of explaining the old defenses. In addition, reenactors of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers and 11th North Carolina Troops have reconstructed a small winter camp outside the forts walls providing a glimpse of another aspect of life at the fort during the war. So, I invite you to spend some time looking around with me at what is one of the best-preserved 'unknown' Civil War sites I've ever visited...