Burnside Expedition Conclusion

Combined Failure

No further major operations were undertaken by Burnside as his expedition became inexorably linked to the success of the Peninsula Campaign. As early as April 2 the two campaigns became associated when McClellan wrote to Burnside;

“…if I succeed in driving the enemy out of Richmond I will at once throw a strong force on Raleigh and open communications with you via Goldsborough.”

This, of course, assumed a move by Burnside in that direction. McClellan seemed to be authorizing such a move when he continued;

“It appears probable that a movement in the direction of Goldsborough would be the best thing for you to undertake.”

He did however instruct Burnside to use “great caution” because “we cannot afford any reverse at present.” Burnside felt he lacked the necessary strength to accomplish a move on Goldsborough and exercised the caution suggested by his commander by remaining stagnant. This inactivity was seemingly approved of by McClellan who wrote on April 20;

“Make no offensive move beyond New Berne until you have secured Fort Macon.”

The next opportunity for major action arose after the fall of Norfolk. Burnside received a dispatch from Secretary of War Stanton on 11 May. In the message Stanton revealed a chance for coordinated action with MG Wool’s forces at Norfolk.

“Wool proposes a move without delay on Suffolk and would be glad to cooperate with you by your advancing to Weldon and seizing the railroad there.”

Again Burnside declined the offer of action stating that his command was stretched too thin by his garrison responsibilities and protection of the rail line. He also cited a lack of horses and wagons for supply operations to support such a movement. The situation remained unchanged as Burnside awaited instructions from McClellan “before attempting another move.” Accordingly his operations in North Carolina after Fort Macon was taken devolved into a series of patrols and skirmishes of no great military importance. On May 21st he received an optimistic private note from McClellan that stated “if I thrash these rascals we will soon be in direct communication with you.” In official correspondence he encouraged Burnside to adjust his garrisons to allow 12,500 men to conduct “a cautious yet bold advance on Goldsborough.” McClellan obviously saw this as a means to “neutralize” the enemy in front of him by drawing forces away. Burnside disregarded the suggestion yet again. There is no correspondence giving his reason for not attempting the move but on 28 May he wrote to Stanton that he was still awaiting the results of McClellan’s push on Richmond and indicated that his request for horses and locomotives had not been fulfilled. Apparently he continued to be concerned about his ability to logistically support that kind of move. As McClellan’s campaign began to sour the request for a move by Burnside took a different twist. On June 28 he received a message from President Lincoln that stated;

“I think you had better go with any re-enforcements you can spare to General McClellan.”

On 3 July he embarked 7000 infantry for the trip to Fort Monroe leaving BG Foster in command of 6100 troops to secure the gains made. The Burnside Expedition was over. No effort was made against Goldsborough until December.
Conclusion and Assessment
The Burnside Expedition is another example of McClellan’s ability to conceptualize strategic initiatives and his inability to successfully execute them. There is much to suggest that a fully supported and properly configured force could have accomplished all that was expected and more against the available enemy defense. The reasons they did not are twofold.

1. Insufficient strength of the deployed forces.
Not enough consideration was given to the necessity of securing any gains made deep in enemy territory. The early successes (Roanoke, New Berne, and Fort Macon) drained away significant combat power as troops were required to garrison these locations and secure communications. A much larger force was needed if there was to be adequate troops available to act as maneuver force after these requirements were met. There was also inadequate cavalry to conduct the reconnaissance necessary for this type of action.

2. Logistical Instability.
The area of operations was incapable and unwilling to supply any assistance in supporting the occupying force. Everything from rations to water had to be brought in and distributed. Supporting a force in enemy territory, especially one attempting distant offensive operations, under such conditions required a much greater ability to conduct sustainment operations than Burnside had on hand. His repeated requests for assistance in this area went unanswered.

Burnside correctly understood these limitations and declined to put his overextended and under resourced men at risk. Had he left what he felt necessary to secure his rear then he would have advanced with only 6200 troops. This would certainly be a very risky endeavor. Had he beefed up his maneuver force by stripping away these garrisons, as McClellan suggested, he would have been taking the risk of becoming isolated inland if the weakened areas in his rear fell. He elected neither option. When McClellan was replaced and the emphasis on operations turned to more direct confrontation with enemy forces the coastal footholds were quickly relegated to distant sideshows. The “internal blockade” concept failed. Interestingly, the Weldon Railroad would eventually become an important target for major Union operations but not until the siege of Petersburg two years later.

Burnside Expedition (Campaign Series)



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