The Burnside Expedition: Roanoke Island

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series The Burnside Expedition

The Burnside Expedition:

Roanoke Island

The series of amphibious operations that were collectively called ‘The Burnside Expedition’ are an often overlooked campaign in the Civil War. Yet, the amphibious operations that were led by Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside had several important outcomes.

The expedition took Army-Navy cooperation to a higher level. It would have a dramatic impact in the later years of the war along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. It greatly expanded the logistical impact of the coastal war. By capturing parts of eastern North Carolina the Union Army opened up the area for the recruitment of black troops later in the war.

Ambrose Burnside was Rhode Islander who appreciated the use of the sea and the Navy to assist the Army in defeating the Confederates. Burnside had suggested raising a “coastal” division from his own Northeast. He felt that men who were familiar with steamers, sailing vessels and surfboats would be perfect for his force. He thought that 10,000 would be sufficient for the expedition.

He also asked for a sufficient number of warships and transports to move his force along the coast. He would need vessels with the shallowest draught into to cross the sandbars and move around the sounds and rivers of the North Carolina coast.

Burnside’s idea was considered far-reaching and ahead of its time. Even George McClellan began to appreciate it for use in his operation on the Virginia Peninsula. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles pledged the Navy’s full support.

NC CoastBurnside was able to raise 15,000 men rather quickly but apparently Welles’ promise of cooperation didn’t go very far. Burnside was forced to assemble a “motley fleet” that by the beginning of 1862 numbered more than 80 ships.

Burnside divided his force into three divisions led by Brigadier Generals John Foster, Jesse Reno and John Parke. They had all been cadets together at West Point. The naval commander was Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough. He was the commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

The initial target of Burnside’s expedition was Roanoke Island. Situated just off the marshy peninsula that divides Albemarle Sound and Pamlico Sound, the island was strategically located to control Albemarle Sound. Hold Roanoke and you control the flow into the sound. Roanoke Island was 12 miles long and 3 miles wide.

The Union Navy already controlled Pamlico Sound to the south with the capture of Hatteras Inlet in August 1861. The sound gave them a year-round anchorage and access to New Bern, the principal eastern depot on the railroad line to Richmond. Even more important for the Confederacy was that the capture of Albemarle Sound would give the Union forces access to Norfolk and its Gosport Navy Yard through the rear.

The Confederate forces on Roanoke Island, Burnside’s initial target, were a rag-tag force of about 1,500 men nominally commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry Wise. Wise was the former Governor of Virginia who had been assigned to command of the island’s defenses by Secretary of War Judah Benjamin in December 1861.

Wise was a difficult man to get along with, having worn out his welcome in western Virginia in 1861. His importance to the Confederacy was due to his political influence and his ability to raise a “legion” or brigade of troops. However, he had become seriously ill with pleurisy and for all practical purposes command had fallen to Colonel Henry Shaw.

Wise described the force as “undrilled, unpaid, not sufficiently clothed and quartered, and…miserably armed with old flint muskets in bad order.” The force would eventually increase to 2,500 as men continued to trickle in but even then they were deficient for the job. The Confederate artillery was equally poor. It was antiquated and undersupplied. At the start of the Union attack one captain was still training his men in the firing of theirRoanoke Island, February 1862 gun.

The Confederate naval force consisted of two side-wheel steamers, six tiny gunboats and a floating artillery battery. The naval commander was Captain William Lynch who Wise disliked calling the force the “Mosquito Fleet” which was “perfectly imbecile.”

The Burnside Expedition left Annapolis on the morning of January 9, 1862. They met their supply ships and gunboats at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula where they opened their secret orders to proceed to Roanoke Island. On January 12th, the fleet arrived off Hatteras Inlet only to realize that they had been misinformed about the depth of the water in the inlet. Instead of being 8 feet deep, it was 6 feet deep.

Fortunately, Burnside had a number of innovative sailors in his force and they managed to deepen the inlet sufficiently to allow his fleet to enter Pamlico Sound. It was a slow, laborious process but by February 4th they were all in the sound. After a three-day delay because of bad weather, Battle of Roanoke Islandthe expedition was prepared to attack.

The Confederate naval force had set up pilings to obstruct the channel. Lynch was hoping the the Union naval forces would get hung up on the obstructions, giving the Confederates the opportunity to do some damage. Goldsborough ordered his 19-vessel warship division to immediately attack the “Mosquito Fleet” and eliminate it as an annoyance. With the loss of one ship, the Confederates were forced to retire when the ran out of ammunition.

The Union fleet proceeded to bombard the island’s four forts: Bartow, Blanchard, Huger and Forrest. By 4:00 PM the Union troops began to land at Ashby’s Harbor in the center of the island. The troops were loaded into large longboats which were towed to the shore by shallow-draught steamers. Each steamer towed 20 longboats. The steamers had been equipped with special ladders for the troops to board the boats. The steamers would veer off as they approached the shore and release the boats with the motion of a cracking whip.

In less than an hour 4,000 troops were ashore in brigade order. By midnight 10,000 men had landed and were setting up a camp. The entire operation was carried out under the cover of naval gunfire that bombarded the areas where Confederate troops would likely be concealed.

At 7:00 AM on the morning of the 8th, the assault began with the 25th Massachusetts and a boat -gun battery manned by Coast Guardsmen advancing up the center of the island. By 11:30 the Massachusetts regiment was replaced by the 10th Connecticut who advanced to within a quarter mile of the Confederate positions. They were replaced in turn by the 9th New York Zouaves.

The flanking brigades had been ordered through the marshes on the left and the right. While the center force continued to press the enemy, the flanking brigades carried out a simultaneous assault. Under the strain of the multiple attacks, the Confederate line broke and the Confederate troops fled. Col. Shaw surrendered all of the forces on the island almost immediately afterward.

The Union losses at Roanoke Island were 37 killed, 214 wounded and 13 missing. The Confederate force was completely destroyed with 23 killed, 58 wounded, 62 missing and 2,500 captured. Roanoke Island remained under Union control throughout the war.



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