Folks who are only familiar with the stories of General Ambrose Burnside at Antietam and Fredericksburg often wonder why he was thought of highly enough by President Lincoln to have had the Army of the Potomac offered to him on several occasions. It is because he had other successes earlier in the War – not a commodity for Union leaders – and one of those happened 150 years ago today on the coast of North Carolina. This battle was known as “Roanoke Island,” or sometimes also as “Fort Huger.”
Roanoke Island was an important position for the Federals to hold in order to effectuate a blockade of much of the northern coast of North Carolina. Burnside secured permission from General McClellan in late 1861 to develop a coastal division for this sort of operation.
The Burnside Expedition comprised a total of 12,000 men, including 16 gunboats, while Confederate General Henry Wise had but about 3,000 men and 32 heavy guns on the island.
On February 7th, Burnside landed 7,500 men on the southwest corner of Roanoke. The Confederates held the northern part of the island, believed to be well-protected from any attack from the south due to the existence of but a single well-defended road. On either side of this path were swamps, thought to be sufficiently impenetrable by infantry. But on the 8th – 150 years ago today – the Federals waded through waist deep muck, flanking the Confederate defenders, and ultimately surrounding them on the northern portion of the island. Captured were 2,500 Confederates. Total losses were: Union – 37 dead, 214 wounded, 13 missing, for a total of 264; Confederates – 23 dead, 58 wounded, 62 missing, along with the aforementioned surrender of 2,500. (Some escaped, including General Wise.)
The capture of Roanoke Island granted Union control to most of the North Carolina coast. Over the next several months, the Confederates lost Elizabeth City (2/10), New Berne (3/14), South Mills (4/19), and Fort Macon (captured on 4/26 after a siege). Wilmington, on the Cape Fear River, was therefore the only port in North Carolina still in Confederate possession.
One political fallout from the Battle of Roanoke Island was a scandal in Richmond that forced Jefferson Davis to remove Secretary of War Judah Benjamin; although, before long, he was serving as Secretary of State.
Ambrose Burnside possessed a high “likability factor.” This was enhanced on this expedition when he chose to identify with the men on the small ships (who were suffering much from seasickness) by leaving a larger vessel to be with them.
Both of the attached sketches depict the attack of the 9th New York – Hawkins Zouaves – who will of course later in 1862 gain notoriety at Antietam with their aggressive advance late in the afternoon upon the Confederate right … placing them in position to suffer severe losses to A.P. Hill’s arrival from Harpers Ferry.