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South Mills, Battle of

by Paul Branch and Thomas L. Norris Jr., 2006

See: Civil War Battles

Brig. Gen. Jesse L. Reno. Image courtesy of Albemarle-NC.Col. Ambrose R. Wright. Image courtesy of Albemarle-NC. The Battle of South Mills, a Civil War engagement also known as the Battle of Sawyer's Lane and the Battle of Camden, occurred in Camden County on 19 Apr. 1862 at the south end of the Dismal Swamp Canal. After the Confederacy lost Roanoke Island, New Bern, and Fort Macon, the Union's Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside sought to blow up the locks of the canal at South Mills. He hoped to prevent the Confederates from passing their small ironclad gunboats through the canal to Albemarle Sound and threatening Union forces in the region. Burnside mounted an expedition in cooperation with Federal gunboats to move up the Pasquotank River. Brig. Gen. Jesse L. Reno commanded the expedition of 3,000 men.

Soon after midnight on the morning of 19 April, Reno's force landed about four miles below Elizabeth City. Local Confederates, led by Col. Ambrose R. Wright, had prepared for the enemy. They dug a ditch across the road with marsh woodland at each end, then filled it with wood from fences and buildings and set it on fire to block the Union's movement. This ditch, known as "the roasted ditch," is still extant.

Wright, commanding 900 men, stationed five companies and three guns in a ditch crossing the road on which Reno was advancing. Reno's troops arrived late in the morning and deployed for attack. Wright's outnumbered men held off the Union force for four hours, until they had exhausted their ammunition. Wright fell back and assumed another defensive position, but Reno's men were too shaken and exhausted to follow.

Reno himself was troubled by inaccurate rumors of massive Confederate reinforcements assembling at Norfolk and abandoned the expedition, returning that night to the Federal ships below Elizabeth City. In the engagement, Reno lost 13 killed, 101 wounded, and 13 missing. Wright lost 6 killed, 19 wounded, and 3 captured.


John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963).

Daniel H. Hill, Bethel to Sharpsburg, vol. 1 (1926).

Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Klough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1 (1884).

Image Credits:

Both images from


Origin - location: 



My Great Grandfather was there, a PVT his entire 4 years as a Confederate Soldier. PVT J A Maharry


it does not help with why did the war happen.



Take a look at the additional resources on this article to help explain the reasons behind the war -

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library


My great great uncle, William Derby Cavanaugh, died in the Battle of Camden on that date. He was from New York, and he was 20 years old. He was buried in New Bern, far from home. I just want him to be remembered.


Great article. Are the remnants of the burning ditch accessible to visit or is it not and located on private land?


That's a great question! 

You may want to try to contact a local public library or the local visitor's center for the area to see if they know.

Elizabeth City Visitor's Bureau:

Pasquotank County Library in Elizabeth City:

I hope this helps!

Michelle Underhill, NC Government & Heritage Library, State Library of North Carolina


A young, teenaged Union soldier named Orsemus B. Boyd distinguished himself at that battle. For his bravery there and elsewhere in General Burnside's command, he was awarded a commission and later an appointment to West Point where he graduated in 1867. His entire career was characterized by honor under duress. He died on active duty as a captain in Fort Bayard, NM.


Hi Siegfried,

Thanks so much for visiting this entry and sharing this detail.  Your comment will stay with the entry for future visitors.


Best wishes,

Kelly Agan, Government & Heritage Library


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