Winton – February 18-21, 1862
On February 16 Burnside called Colonel Rush Hawkins to his headquarters to issue orders for a “expedition up the Chowan” to destroy railroad bridges over the Blackwater and Nottoway Rivers. Burnside saw these spans as critical to the Confederate ability to move men and supplies into and out of the area. Hawkins was to use his regiment (9th New York) and coordinate water transportation with Commander Stephan C. Rowan. He spent the day of the 17th on Roanoke Island discussing the operation with his Navy counterpart and the two men decided on a course of action and the assets to be used.
Rowan took the USS Delaware to Elizabeth City on the 18th to round up the necessary boats and moved them into Albemarle Sound to await the arrival of the vessels carrying the land component. Meanwhile Hawkins was loading his troops on the Hunchback and Barney. With a full complement of troops aboard the 517 ton Hunchback proved too heavy to make a clean rendezvous. She grounded and caused a twelve hour delay as she waited for the tide to lift her from the sand. During the wait Rowan conducted a reconnaissance up the Chowan River with the Delaware and the Commodore Perry. With Hawkins in the cross tees of the Delaware as a lookout the two boats approached Winton, the Delaware in the lead and the Perry trailing about a mile behind. Their attention was drawn to shore by a slave woman who was beckoning them to the wharf. There had been reports of loyal citizens in the area that wished to communicate with Federal forces and the boat slowed to assess the situation. At the last instant Hawkins caught a glimpse of musket barrels and artillery hidden on the bank. He shouted out a warning but it was too late. The Delaware was caught in a terrific fire from “700 infantry or more” and four artillery pieces. Hawkins made a rapid and ungraceful descent and credited his survival on the unexplained luck of war. Rowan was thankful that the enemy “artillery overshot us.” To their dismay they discovered that they could not return fire because their guns would not elevate to accommodate the steep banks. The Perry, however, with the advantage of range managed to take the Confederates under fire and dislodged them after a few rounds. The Delaware was forced to turn around, barely managing to do so in the narrow waterway. The two boats returned to the remainder of the expedition and after consultation agreed that it would be better to wait until the following morning before landing the troops.
At 1130 on the 20th the small fleet returned to Winton, this time taking no chances. After a brief period of enemy musket fire from the bank a bombardment cleared the enemy troops and Hawkins men were landed. They advanced to find the town empty. Hawkins conducted a personal inspection of the area and declared that “every building containing stores for the enemy and occupied by them should be fired.” Many of the troops were prepared for just such a mission. They had been issued “small packages of oakum and kindling wood” to be used to fire the primary objective, the railroad bridges. The greater part of the town was engulfed. Burnside would report that the shifting winds “caused the destruction of some few houses not occupied by the soldiers.” For his part Hawkins found the action regrettable as “the first instance during the war on our side where fire has accompanied the sword” but justified it as retaliation for the ambush and denial of military use of the town. Further investigation revealed that passage up to the bridges was blocked by trees that had been cut into the narrow waterway. The primary objective of the move was forgotten and the expedition returned to Roanoke Island.Burnside Expedition (Campaign Series)