When George McClellan assumed command of the Union army he inherited a disorganized, discouraged, and undisciplined force. To help him train his new responsibility he called upon his friend and former roommate, Ambrose Burnside. Burnside did not come without credentials. He was a 1847 graduate of West Point and a Mexican War veteran. The post war years saw Burnside fall into financial difficulty when he tried to peddle his design for a multi-shot carbine to the government. After promises of acceptance the eventual failure to consummate a deal left Burnside deeply in debt and out of work. McClellan offered a job at the Illinois Central Railroad and a place to stay while he worked his way out of debt. The arrangement allowed Burnside to get back on his feet and he moved off to other opportunities in New York. When the war came McClellan remembered his old friend and brought him on board to help develop the army.
During discussions with his commander Burnside presented a plan to form a division specifically for amphibious operations. He suggested that the unit be comprised of men “mainly from states bordering on the Northern sea coast, many of whom would be familiar with the coasting trade and among whom would be found a goodly number of mechanics.” The ultimate goal of this project would be to have a unit that would be capable of “establishing lodgments on the Southern coast.” McClellan asked for the plan in writing and approved it.
McClellan saw a strategic advantage in the concept of these types of operations. Besides seizing coaling locations for the blockading fleet he wanted to use these footholds as a means of interdicting the internal lines of communication of the Confederacy. In particular he wanted to target the railroad systems that allowed the enemy to transport supplies and troops. The target that McClellan had in mind for Burnside was the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad branch that ran through New Berne with the ultimate target of Raleigh and the various lines in the vicinity. The plan was made possible by the seizure of a tiny foothold in Hatteras Inlet by Benjamin Butler in September, 1861.
As early as September 19, 1861 the onsite commander there, Colonel Rush Hawkins, began the cry for operations to expand the foothold. Writing to BG John E. Wool, commander of the Department of Virginia;
“I do most sincerely trust that you will urge upon the government the great and important necessity of taking Roanoke Island”
Hawkins continued that the foothold should be expanded before the the enemy defenses were fully developed and noted five justifications for his suggestion. The work of reinforcing Fort Macon with reinforced roofs of railroad iron; vessels being sunk to block the Neuse River; piles driven across the Pamlico River; the reinforcement of the garrison at Roanoke Island, and the possibility of a drive against weak resistance into Norfolk from below. Burnside adopted these suggestions and promoted them vigorously to the Lincoln Administration. The President, eager to strike a blow against the Confederates, approved the plan. By January of 1862 Burnside’s troops were ready and the necessary naval support on hand to start the expedition that would bear his name. For the operation Burnside’s Coastal Division consisted of about 15,000 men divided into three brigades. The brigade commands fell to personal friends and past classmates.
6th New Hampshire
9th New Jersey
51st New York
4th Rhode Island
53rd New York
89th New York
Battalion 5th Rhode Island
Battery F, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery
Operations Begin – On to Roanoke Island
As part of his overall strategic scheme against the Confederates McClellan issued orders to Burnside on 7 January, 1862 that authorized him to cross the Hatteras Inlet and take Roanoke Island as the first step in gaining a wider footprint in North Carolina. He also bestowed on his friend the lofty title of commander of the Department of North Carolina. The journey began at Annapolis, Maryland where the army and navy components united. The journey got off to a rocky start for the 6th New Hampshire Infantry aboard the Louisiana with Martha Greenwood lashed to the side. The pair of boats collided with a schooner in the dark as they attempted to move out of the harbor. Things would not improve for the Granite Staters. The journey to the North Carolina coast was slowed by a vicious storm that pounded the armada. With conditions so crowded “that it was impossible to move about” they rode out the storm. The full force of the hit about 1400 and the below decks became a madhouse of men “vying with one another to see who would empty his stomach the quickest.” Charles B. Amory of the 24th Massachusetts found the experience of riding out the storm “most uncomfortable” while members of Company B, 4th Rhode Island Infantry resorted to tying themselves off to avoid being swept away by the high seas. Although all were elated to enter the partially sheltered waters of the inlet it proved no guarantee of safety. Two officers of the 9th New Jersey were lost as the small boat they were using to deliver dispatches swamped in the high surf.
The storm widely dispersed the fleet and sent five vessels to the bottom of the Atlantic. These important losses included the City of New York with its valuable cargo of ammunition and the Pocahontas beached losing 106 of the 123 horses on board. The Union commanders were again delayed reassembling the scattered parts. Further delays were encountered when many of the deeper draft vessels had to be significantly lightened so that they could be dragged over the obstacle. In desperation to speed the transit of the bar some of the boats used their propellers as augers to clear a path through the stubborn muck. It wasn’t until January 25th that the fleet was completely assembled and prepared to conduct its role.
On February 5th three naval columns finally stood ready to begin operations, but were again delayed by foul weather. The assault was postponed until the 7th. Nineteen Union gunboats, mounting 57 pieces moved into position to remove the meager Confederate naval presence. The USS Underwriter opened the attack at 1125 and by noon two of the seven Confederate gunboats present was out of action, the CSS Curlew was battered and run aground while the CSS Forrest was damaged to such an extent that she had to leave the scene. The remaining five boats fired there ammunition and gladly escaped the fight before they could be “utterly demolished.” The encounter was not with loss for the victorious Union sailors. On board the Hetzel, an 80lb gun burst and wounded six of the crew. Enemy fire accounted for another three killed and one wounded before they were driven off. With the naval threat gone the Union ships turned there guns on the land batteries at Fort Bartow. By 1630 return fire from these guns was determined to be insufficient enough to allow the landing of assault troops. The landing location was determined when a teenage “contraband” directed them to Ashby’s Harbor.
Foster’s 1st Brigade troops landed first followed by Reno’s 2nd joined by Colonel Hawkins’ 9th New York Zouaves. The Confederate commander Colonel H. M. Shaw (serving in place of BG Henry Wise who was sick on the mainland) with only 2500 troops available to meet the attack wisely retreated to Suple’s Hill to consider his options. After a cold rainy night bivouac at the Hammond House about 10,000 Union troops moved on the defenders at 0730. The battle for the island was on.
- Burnside Expedition Part 1
- Burnside Expedition Part 2
- Burnside Expedition Part 3
- Burnside Expedition Part 4
- Burnside Expedition Part 5
- Burnside Expedition Part 6
- Burnside Expedition Part 7
- Burnside Expedition Conclusion
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