CSS Curlew

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Burning of the Confederate gunboat Curlew, off Fort Forrest, Feb. 7, 1862
Career Confederate Navy Jack
Name: CSS Curlew
Launched: 1856
Commissioned: 1861
Fate: Run aground and burned on February 7, 1862
General characteristics
Displacement: 236 tons
Length: 135 ft (41 m)
Beam: 23 ft 6 in (7.16 m)
Depth of hold: 8 ft (2.4 m)
Propulsion: 1 walking beam steam engine powering side paddlewheels
Speed: 12 mph (19 km/h)
Complement: 20
Armament: 1 x rifled 32 pounder (bow), 1 x 12 pounder (stern)

CSS Curlew was an iron-hull North Carolina Sounds paddlewheel steamboat that was taken into the Confederate Navy in 1861. It was run aground and burned in the battle for Roanoke Island on February 8, 1862. Its wreck was discovered in 1988 and archaeologically investigated in 1994.

The steamboat

The Curlew was built in 1856 by the Harlan & Hollingsworth Iron Shipbuilding Company of Wilmington, Delaware. It was 135 feet (41 m) long, 23 feet (7.0 m) wide, 8-foot (2.4 m) depth of hold, and listed at 236 tons. Its average draft was 5 feet (1.5 m), which suited the shallow waters of the North Carolina sounds. The steamboat had side paddle wheels that were 18 feet (5.5 m) in diameter by 8 feet (2.4 m) wide. The Curlew had no figurehead, a round stern, and no mast. A walking beam engine with a 29-inch (740 mm) diameter cylinder and a 9-foot (2.7 m) stroke powered the new steamer. This type of engine had a distinctive trapezoid-shaped rocker arm mounted between the paddle wheels, which transmitted power from the piston rod to the crank on the paddle wheel shaft. For improved efficiency, the Curlew's engine was equipped with Sickle's patented cutoff valve. Steam was provided by a two furnace return-flue boiler 18 feet (5.5 m) long, 7 feet (2.1 m) high, and 8 feet (2.4 m) wide, and rated at 30 lbf/in² (210 kPa) of pressure. It started operating in North Carolina in July 1856. (Olson 1997:30ff)


The Curlew was built for Thomas D. Warren, a doctor and plantation owner from Edenton, North Carolina. It was operated for passenger and cargo transportation in the Albemarle Sound region, running between Edenton, Hertford, Elizabeth City and Nag's Head. It also made trips up the Chowan River to Franklin, Virginia. Its first captain was Richard Halsey, who was later replaced by Thomas Burbage in 1858.(Olson 1997:34ff)

The Curlew made many trips to the Nag's Head Hotel, which in those days was a popular tourist destination. In 1859 Edward Bruce, an artist and reporter, rode the ship on a trip to Nag's Head and afterwards wrote about it for Harper's New Monthly Magazine. He singled out the Curlew and its crew for special praise:

We never saw him (Captain Burbage) rave. Always at his post, and always quiet, everything went on like clockwork. No traveler accustomed to the privileged usage on many similar craft would have imagined that one of them could be so well managed with so little damage to the Third Commandment. (Bruce 1859:726f)

After the Civil War broke out, the Curlew was initially used as a troop transport, ferrying troops and supplies to various defensive works along the North Carolina coast. The Curlew was acquired by the Confederate Navy after Hatteras Inlet fell to Union forces in August 1861. It was outfitted with one rifled 32-pound cannon in the bow and one 12-pound smoothbore cannon in the stern. Under the command of Thomas T. Hunter (also known as Tornado Hunter) it was involved in the capture of the U.S. Army supply boat Fanny at Chicamacomico on October 1, 1861. Between October and February 1862 the Curlew alternately patrolled Pamlico Sound and harassed Union shipping at Hatteras Inlet. On February 7 the Curlew and eight other Confederate gunboats attempted to repel the Union invasion of Roanoke Island. During this battle the Curlew was holed by a shell and run aground to keep from sinking. The next day it was set on fire when the Confederate forces on Roanoke Island surrendered. The remaining Confederate gunboats withdrew to Elizabeth City, where all but 2 were destroyed or captured on February 10. (Olson 1997:118ff)

Afterwards, Captain Hunter commented to another gunboat captain that during the battle he suddenly realized that his pants were gone, even though he knew he put on a pair that morning. (Parker 1985:248f)

The Curlew's engine was salvaged in 1863, after which the wreck was allowed to decay. It was located in 1988 by a group of international divers working for the state of North Carolina's Underwater Archaeological Unit. In 1994 the wreck was documented by state divers and students from East Carolina University. (Olson 1997:150ff)


  • Christopher Olson, An Historical and Archaeological Investigation of the CSS Curlew; Masters Thesis, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina,1997.
  • William Parker, Recollections of a Naval Officer, Naval Institute Press, 1985.
  • Edward Bruce, Loungings in the Footprints of the Pioneers, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 18 (1860): 726-727.