Burnside Expedition Part 2

The Battle of Roanoke Island

At 0730 the 25th Massachusetts led the way out of the makeshift camp followed by the 23rd and 27th Massachusetts and the 10th Connecticut of the 1st Brigade. They marched north up the central road until they reached a water filled ravine in their path. As they were crossing the natural obstacle they were engaged by the fire of the Confederate pickets. The road beyond was covered by a three gun battery reinforced by a mixture of troops from the 8th and 31st North Carolina. The remainder of his force was withheld at the northern tip of the island. As the fight developed around the guns the 2nd Brigade troops of Jesse Reno struggled into position through the swampy ground. Also present were the brightly attired Zouaves of the 9th New York. The increase of firepower quickly gained fire superiority over the badly outnumbered defenders allowing the 21st Massachusetts to maneuver on the Confederate works. “Led by BG Reno himself the 21st waded into the deep swamp on the left of the road.” Emerging from the swamp the 21st found itself in perfect position to assault the small, but lively, Confederate works. As the regiment organized a line of battle Reno went to the front and ordered the charge. Seeing the inevitable turning of the tide against them the Confederate commanders decided not to put up a useless fight. The defenders fired a last volley and fled. CPL Ethan Blodgett of Company A mounted the parapet and planted the Massachusetts state flag claiming the three abandoned brass pieces for his regiment.

Eager to join the attack, Hawkins Zouaves moved into position to strike the enemy position. As they made their final preparations the 10th Connecticut, dressed in gray coats, arose and fired a volley in their front. Stunned by the troops that had suddenly appeared in front of them and somewhat confused by the actions unfolding around them a portion of the regiment fled the scene. The remainder only managed to join the attack as the Confederate defenders retreated. As the other Union troops flooded into the position, Company E of the 21st fired the last shots of the battle at the fleeing enemy. Some of the Confederates attempted to avoid capture by rowing for the mainland in small boats. A few rounds splashing around their craft convinced them of the folly of their effort. They were soon waving white handkerchiefs in a “comical” display to save themselves.

After securing their gains the First brigade troops took up the pursuit of the retreating enemy. As the approached the northern end of the island LTC Fowle of the 31st North Carolina appeared under a flag of truce representing Colonel Shaw. Fowle asked terms of surrender and was told by BG Foster that the only acceptable terms would be “those of unconditional surrender.” Asked time for consultation with Shaw and returned to the Confederate fort accompanied by Major Stevenson of the 24th Massachusetts. When a prompt reply was not forthcoming Foster became impatient and started advancing the 24th toward the camp. Before any further hostilities could take place a flag of truce bearer met the column and announced acceptance of the terms. The 23rd Massachusetts was sent forward to secure the camp without incident. Colonel Shaw surrendered 2488 officers and men. The casualty list for the brief fight showed 24 Confederates killed and 222 wounded. The surrender led to an investigation by the Confederate Congress. In the end the committee there absolved BG Wise of responsibility and blamed MG Benjamin Huger and Secretary of War J. P. Benjamin for failing to adequately support the outpost. Union losses amounted to 41 killed and 242 wounded or missing. The small, sloppy affair granted Burnside his first victory of the campaign. Roanoke Island was his.

Elizabeth City – February 10, 1862

Following the fight off Roanoke Island Flag Officer William Lynch took the surviving vessels to Elizabeth City in search of ammunition and supplies. Finding only enough to resupply two vessels he sent the CSS Raleigh up the Chesapeake Canal to Norfolk with a request for help. With the two resupplied ships , the flagship Seabird and the Appomattox, Lynch turned back toward Roanoke Island planning to render “what assistance we could.” Before they could reach the island they were hailed by a small boat and learned that the battle was over and the Confederate forces surrendered. He changed his plans and headed toward a floating battery hoping to rescue the crews there. This mission also had to be cancelled when 13 Union ships appeared at the head of the river. He ordered the two ships turned around and headed up the Pasquotank River evading the Union fleet in the growing darkness.

Returning to the Elizabeth City docks he devised a plan to block passage of the river with his 6 vessels. He redistributed the available ammunition and strung the boats across the river diagonally just above the small fort at Cobb’s Point. Lynch then went to the fort to coordinate their efforts with his ships. Instead of help he found the fortification nearly empty. Only seven militia men were on hand to man the three 32lb guns. He was told that although the call had gone out for the militia few had answered the call. Lynch stripped the CSS Beaufort of all but those necessary to move the boat up the canal to safety and manned the battery.

The Union fleet arrived on the morning of the 10th and at the first shot the militiamen at the fort fled. LT Commander Parker, of the Beaufort, was forced to reduce the firepower at the fort to just two guns. It hardly made a difference. The Federal gunboats made quick work of the enemy boats. In only slightly more than an hour the tiny Confederate fleet was in ruins. Only the CSS Appomattox managed to escape. The Seabird was sunk, Ellis was captured, Fanny was run aground and burned by her crew, and the Forrest, tied up for repairs, was burned at the wharf. The Union ships continued on and gained position to enfilade the fort. Unable to move the guns the crews spiked the guns and abandoned the fort.

In the city, the local commander, Colonel Henningsen of the 55th Virginia Infantry, ordered the town burned to prevent anything of value from falling into Union hands. Distressed at the decision, Reverend E. M. Forbes rushed to the docks with another prominent citizen to broker a deal with the Union commander. Forbes declared the city “open” in hopes that it could be spared. It was of no use. Hardliners, led by Colonel Lucien Starke, continued to push for application of the torch. In order to speed the destruction Sgt Scruggs was sent to spread the word that the inhabitants were to torch the town. Scruggs mission was short lived when he ventured into a patrol of Union sailors and was captured. When they learned the nature of his mission they were ordered back to their boats. Commander S. C. Rowan feeling that they “would be charged with vandalism as incendiaries” banned further visits to shore. Fortunately only a two block area was burned destroying several houses and the county courthouse. When the flames were extinguished crews were sent ashore to destroy the fort, public property, and the railroad. About two weeks after the fight on the river the town was occupied by a regiment of Union soldiers and used as a base to conduct further operations and prisoner paroles.

Burnside Expedition (Campaign Series)


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