South Mills (Camden) – 19 April 1862
While the preparations for the siege of Fort Macon were being made another issue came to the attention of Burnside. It was believed that the Confederates were constructing ironclad ships at Norfolk with the intention of passing them down the Dismal Swamp Canal into Albemarle Sound. In an effort to remove this possibility Burnside ordered BG Reno to form a task force with the objective of destroying the locks at South Mills. Reno assembled the necessary troops on Roanoke Island and broke them into two brigades. The First Brigade was made up of portions of the 9th New York, 89th New York, and the 6th New Hampshire under the command of Colonel Rush Hawkins. The Second Brigade was formed with two units from his own brigade; the 21st Massachusetts and 51st Pennsylvania, under the command of LTC Thomas Bell. Four artillery pieces commanded by Col William Howard were also added.
Explosives expert Benjamin Maillefert and three wagons of powder for the destruction of the lock were attached. Reno held overall command of the mission. Hawkins Brigade was landed near Elizabeth City around 0300 and began the march inland. The Second Brigade troops were delayed when their transports grounded in the river and did not arrive until 0700. Despite the four hour head start the Second Brigade column, with BG Reno, overtook Hawkins’ brigade twelve miles out. Hawkins had been lost or been misled by his guides and marched his men in a circuitous route only to arrive back at the main road. An irritated Reno ordered Hawkins to fall his men in behind the Second Brigade. The incident was an omen for the events that would transpire as the united column moved on. Four miles down the road the march was brought to an abrupt stop by artillery fire from well prepared positions. The Confederate defense consisted of 10 companies of the 3rd Georgia, a small detachment of cavalry, a battery of artillery, and a body of North Carolina militia, commanded by Colonel Ambrose Wright. With only about 750 men at his disposal Wright did his best to enhance his positions with entrenchments. In an interesting and unique effort to deny use of key terrain and to mask his position Wright had a ditch in front of his line filled with flammables and ignited. The resulting smoke made it difficult for Reno to distinguish the limits and strength of his line and prevented its use as defensive terrain. After a brief reconnaissance Reno deployed his units for action. He sent the 21st MA and 51st PA to the right with the idea of turning the enemy left.
As Hawkins’ brigade came up the two New York regiments were filed off to their support. The 6th New Hampshire was left in support of the artillery. Due to the “excessive fatigue” of the men brought on by the march in oppressive heat the flanking march took time to develop. An over eager Hawkins could not wait and ordered the 9th NY to charge the enemy position over an open field. The attack was crushed by the concentrated fire of the Confederate muskets and artillery. The failed attack dominated the attention of the defenders and allowed the 6th New Hampshire to gain a position within easy musket range on the enemy right. The unit history describes the ensuing volley as “something wonderful, both in precision and effect.” It was enough to convince Wright that his small band had done enough and ordered a retreat. They had stalled the much larger Union force for more than five hours. The Confederates moved back about two miles and manned another line in anticipation of Federal pursuit. Reno, however, had taken stock of the situation and decided to return to the boats. The locks would go untouched and the 1100 pounds of powder intended for the destructive work there was abandoned on the field. It was recovered on the 20th by the Confederates along with “the arms, accouterments, tools, etc. left by the enemy.” Reno vs. Hawkins Despite the dubious claim to victory made in a congratulatory message issued by Burnside the Union commanders were well aware of the failure of the mission to accomplish their objective. The blame game became heated when Colonel Hawkins submitted his report of the affair directly to Burnside thereby circumventing the normal chain of command. An incensed Reno responded to the slight with a scathing endorsement. In his statement he accused Hawkins of the following;
1. Disobeying Army Regulations by submitting his report directly to Burnside.
2. That he failed to mention any orders he received from Reno in the report.
3. That the time lost on the march was a direct result of “nothing but design or negligence” as the correct road was “open, plain, and perfectly direct.”
4. Hawkins refused to move forward promptly when contact was made with the enemy.
5. “Studious avoidance” of orders.
6. That the unauthorized charge of the 9th New York was an act of insubordination resulting in unnecessary losses.
BG Reno finished his indictment with this statement;
“In conclusion, I have to state that Col. R. C. Hawkins, in making his report directly to you instead of his commanding officer, has been guilty of a breach of military usage and discipline, and that the spirit of said report is calculated to ignore my presence as commanding officer, to ignore orders received from me, as well as to ignore the presence of those regiments which principally fought the engagement, and that the report tends to convey a false impression of the circumstances arising during the engagement and of the part which he played in it, and that it contains a perversion of truth in the statements concerning the obstacles to his progress in moving to turn the enemy’s left. I beg leave also to state that the principal loss in killed and wounded is due to the unauthorized and unnecessary charge made by the Ninth New York, under the immediate command of Colonel Hawkins.”
Hawkins was ordered to rework his report but the second version did little to appease Reno. The endorsement to the new version read;
This amended report of Colonel Hawkins, made to me in obedience to your express orders, exhibiting the same inconsistencies and misstatements as the first or original report, is not deemed satisfactory, and I can see no reason for altering or suppressing my original remarks or endorsement;. I therefore recommend that his original report, with my endorsement, be forwarded.
In correspondence with Burnside over the matter Reno referred to Hawkins as “that infernal scoundrel” and “the rascal” and insinuated that he was a liar and guilty of “bad conduct.” Hawkins again took the issue directly to Burnside but this time in an effort to avoid the spotlight of attention he had focused on himself he asked for eight weeks convalescent leave. Not surprisingly the 9th New York was shifted away from the command in July 1862 to become part of IX Corps where it was brigaded away from BG Reno.