A minor battle during the Federal campaign that captured most of the coast of North Carolina early in 1862. A combined operation under General Burnside had captured Roanoke Island (7-8 February). His fleet had then chased a small Confederate fleet north to Elizabeth City, on Albemarle Sound, destroying it and briefly capturing the port (10 February).
Elizabeth City was directly connected to the great naval base at Norfolk, Virginia by the Dismal Swamp canal, which joined the river about Elizabeth City at South Mills. At the start of 1862 Norfolk was in Confederate hands, and was the centre of Confederate efforts to build an ironclad warship capable of breaking the Union blockade of the south. Rumours began to reach the Federal soldiers at Elizabeth City that a fleet of small ironclads, capable of passing down the Dismal Swamp canal, were being built at Norfolk. If this was true, then the Union’s wooden gunboat fleet was suddenly very vulnerable.
It was quickly decided to send an expedition to South Mills to destroy the locks connecting the canal to the river. Command of this expedition was given to General Jesse Reno. He was given five regiments and four guns. Against him the Confederates could muster one infantry regiment, some local militiamen, one company of cavalry and four guns. They did have a very strong position, flanked on both sides by swamps and strengthened skilfully by Colonel Ambrose Wright, the senior Confederate officer at South Mills.
On 18 April the Federal force landed near Elizabeth City, sixteen miles from South Mills. One brigade was misled by a Confederate agent, and ended up marching thirty miles, delaying their attack until the following day.
Fighting began at 1 p.m. when the Union advance guard discovered the Confederate position. Fighting continued for nearly three hours, but despite superior numbers the Federal troops were unable to achieve any breakthrough. Finally, the Confederate artillery ran out of ammunition, and withdrew from the battlefield. They withdrew two miles, to Joys Creek, where they could still protect the canal.
Reno now received a report that Confederate reinforcements were coming from Norfolk, and decided to return to the boats. The expedition to South Mills resulted in one of the few Union failures during the Burnside expedition. The Confederates had lost 28 men (6 dead, 19 wounded and 3 prisoners) while inflicting 127 casualties (13 dead, 101 wounded and 13 captured). The locks in the Dismal Swamp canal remained intact for the rest of the war. Sadly for the Confederate position on the North Carolina fence, the rumoured ironclads that had triggered the Federal expedition had never existed. The only ironclad launched at Norfolk was the C.S.S. Virginia, and under no circumstances could she travel down any canal! Union control of the waters of Albemarle Sound was unchallenged.