previous next

Chapter 3:

Early in 1862 the Federal government decided to follow up its successes at Hatteras by descending upon the North Carolina coast with the famous ‘Burnside expedition.’ This expedition was supplied with almost every conceivable necessity for the prosecution of its mission. Even railroad hand-cars were brought along to be used, when needed, in the transportation of troops. Its infantry and artillery were equipped with the latest arms. Its highest officers were all members of the regular army, and three of them were veterans of the Mexican war.

North Carolina, as shown above, was at that time not prepared, either in the available number of its soldiers or in the arms of its soldiers, to resist successfully such a large and well-organized force. Its regiments that had seen most service and that were best armed were in Virginia. Although earnestly requested to do so, the Confederate government felt unable to spare any of these regiments to reinforce the small garrisons on the coast. So the heroic Shaw was left on Roanoke island with two regiments, to oppose, as best he might, Burnside with nearly 15,000 men. At New Bern the gifted Branch, having only seven regiments and most of them but newly organized, was called upon to make an effort to hold a long line of intrenchments against this same force, aided by numerous gunboats. As a result of this disparity in numbers, Roanoke island, New Bern, and Fort Macon [33] soon fell into Federal hands, and all eastern North Carolina above Bogue inlet went with these fortified points.

Nothing more strongly marks North Carolina's subordination of her own interests to the welfare of her country than that her authorities consented at this crisis in her history, when her sons were being captured by regiments and her territory subjugated by the square mile, to the retention in Virginia of so large a number of her troops.

The disasters to the State began in February of 1862; for, commencing in October, 1861, another combined army and naval expedition, similar to the one commanded by General Butler but on a much larger scale, had been prepared in New York and other seaports. The object of this expedition was to seize the coasts of North Carolina above Hatteras,

and penetrate into the interior, thereby threatening the lines of transportation in the rear of the main army, then concentrating in Virginia, and holding possession of the inland waters on the Atlantic coast. Battles and Leaders, 1, 661.

The vessels of this expedition were of light draught, to ascend the sounds and rivers, were well armed, mounting in all 61 guns, and were attended by naval convoys. Including the transports, on which were loaded about 15,000 selected troops, the fleet numbered over 80 vessels, perhaps the largest aggregation of warlike vessels seen up to that time on the western continent. The number was so large that when the ships reached their destination and crowded the harbor, General Burnside says, ‘We were ready to wish that the fleet were not so large.’ In command of the land forces, General Burnside was assisted by Generals Reno, Foster and Parke. Admiral Goldsborough, with Commodore Rowan as second, commanded the naval forces. This fleet sailed from Fortress Monroe on the 11th of January, 1862, but, owing to having to widen the channels [34] near Hatteras, did not arrive before Roanoke island until the 7th of February.

In spite of the fact that this formidable invading force was known to be designing an attack somewhere on this coast, and in spite of the further fact that Roanoke was the key to the whole sound region, it seemed out of the power of the Confederacy to provide it with defenses commensurate with its importance, or to spare it enough troops to hold its insignificant fortifications. General Gatlin had said in answer to a request for more troops, ‘The place is of so much importance that could I have done so I should long since have reinforced it, but I am unable to send a soldier without drawing them from parts already insufficiently defended.’ General Hill had reported to the secretary of war, ‘Four additional regiments are absolutely indispensable to the protection of the island.’ General Wise had written the authorities, ‘With present means I cannot guarantee successful defense for a day.’ The place should have been reinforced or abandoned.

The defenses on the island consisted of four batteries, mounting in the aggregate 30 guns, all 32-pounders, as follows (see map): Fort Huger, 10 smooth-bore and 2 rifled guns (this battery, being out of range, was not engaged in the battle); Fort Blanchard, 4 smooth-bore guns (this battery fired only an occasional shot); Fort Bartow, 8 smooth-bore and 1 rifled gun. This last battery is the one that fought the Federal fleet all day on the 7th. Across on the mainland was another battery that was not fired at all, being out of range also. In addition to these coast batteries, there was a three-gun battery in the middle of the island, a short distance northeast of where the Federals landed. This battery contained one howitzer, one 6-pounder brass field piece, model of 1842, and one 18-pounder, a Mexican war trophy, and described as of ‘venerable aspect.’ It was around this land battery, that was flanked by earthworks for a quarter mile on each side, that the land fighting all occurred. One [35] flank of this earthwork rested on a morass, and the other on a swamp. Both of these were thought to be impenetrable, but they proved otherwise. Scattered about in these different redoubts, the little Confederate force awaited the coming of Burnside's flotilla. As General Wise was away at Nags Head sick, Colonel Shaw, of the Eighth North Carolina, was in command. He says that his force, exclusive of the infantry detached for the batteries, amounted to 1,434 effectives. This was made up as follows: Eighth North Carolina (568); Thirty-first North Carolina, Col. J. V. Jordan (in part, 456); part of the Forty-sixth and part of the Fifty-ninth Virginia, under Lieut.-Col. F. P. Anderson and two companies of the Seventeenth North Carolina, under Maj. G. H. Hill. Colonel Shaw was entirely without trained artillerymen, and for his 18-pounders he had only 12-pounder ammunition. The Confederate ‘pasteboard fleet,’ seven vessels and eight guns, took position above Fort Bartow and behind some piles that partly obstructed the channel.

On the morning of the 7th, the Federal squadron in imposing array neared the island. ‘By 11 o'clock,’ says General Hawkins,

the first division of army gunboats, under Commodore Hazard, arrived opposite the forts on the west side of Roanoke island and commenced the bombardment in earnest, and at the same time engaged the enemy's fleet. As the navy vessels arrived they went into action, and by half past 11 the whole fleet of gunboats was engaged. The engagement between the heavy guns lasted all day without much damage having been done to either side. At the close the gunners answered each other with about the same spirit displayed at the commencement. The Confederate forts had, however, fared better than their fleet. The latter was protected from an assault on the part of our vessels by a row of piles driven across the navigable part of the channel and by sunken vessels; but, notwithstanding this protection, [36] the accurate fire of the Union fleet soon compelled it to retire out of range, with the loss of one of its vessels. Battles and Leaders, 1,640.

The Confederate vessels did not retire, however, until they had expended their ammunition. Fort Bartow, which had, owing to the position of the Federal fleet, been able to use only three guns, was little injured, although sustaining the fire of the fleet for six hours. This fort, the single one in action, made a gallant resistance to the numerous guns of the fleet.

While this battle of heavy guns was in progress, General Burnside landed his infantry at Ashby's Point, about a mile and a half below the three-gun redoubt. His troops spent the night on the island, and early on the morning of the 8th began the attack on the redoubt with its flanking earthworks. The three guns of this redoubt were commanded by Captain Schermerhorn, Lieutenant Kinney and Lieutenant Selden, each having charge of one gun. These were supported by six companies of infantry, occupying the earthworks, and two companies on its left. The other Confederate forces were distributed at the other batteries or in reserve. General Wise reported that some companies of the Thirty-first evaded the combat. The whole land fighting was over the possession of this redoubt. If it fell, all the other batteries would be left exposed in the rear.

General Foster began the attack about 8 o'clock on the 8th. He moved up six Dahlgren howitzers on the only road that led to the redoubt. These he supported with the five regiments of his brigade. Reno followed with his brigade, moving into the swamp on the Confederate right to flank the position. Parke followed with his brigade. Each of Foster's attacks in front was held at bay until General Reno's brigade succeeded in making its way through the dense morass. Two Massachusetts regiments had penetrated the swamp on the right also, and had fallen on Wise's three companies and driven [37] them toward the redoubt. Attacked thus on all three sides, the little force fell back to the north side, and there surrendered. Colonel Shaw says, ‘With the very great disparity in numbers, the moment the redoubt was flanked, I considered the island lost. The struggle could have been protracted and the small body of brave men, which had been held in reserve, might have been brought up into the open space to receive the fire of the overwhelming force on our flank, which was under cover of trees; but they would have been sacrificed without the smallest hope of a successful result.’

The loss of the Confederates was 23 killed and 62 wounded; among the killed were Capt. O. Jennings Wise, and Lieutenants Selden and Munroe. The Federal loss was, killed, 37, wounded, 214. Colonel Shaw surrendered about 2,000 men, including his sick. The difference between this force and his reported effectives comes from the fact, that, after the main battle, the Second North Carolina battalion (eight companies) and Major Fry with four companies of the Forty-sixth Virginia arrived on the island and were included in the surrender.

When the Confederate vessels retreated from Roanoke they might have escaped to Norfolk, but they felt impelled to obey general orders ‘to defend home waters,’ and went to Elizabeth City. There, with 200 pounds of regular and 100 pounds of blasting powder, Lynch made what defense he could against the gunboats that followed him, but his ships were destroyed by the enemy or beached and left. So, in addition to Roanoke, Elizabeth City was in the hands of Burnside.

Shortly afterward an expedition, commanded by Col. Rush Hawkins, Ninth New York, made its way up to Winton and burned a good part of the town. The five companies, all raw militia, sent to defend it, ‘fled,’ Moore says, ‘ingloriously in the direction of Murfreesboro.’

With the fall of Roanoke the way was clear for General Burnside to direct his army against New Bern, the [38] second largest town on the North Carolina coast Events soon showed this to be his intention. Hence the State sent its available forces there under Brig.-Gen. L. O'B. Branch. Six regiments of regularly organized troops, one battalion and several unattached companies of militia, hastily gathered from the adjoining counties, half-armed, undrilled, undisciplined, were thrown into the fortifications a few miles below the city. To these were joined one or two companies of heavy artillery and Brem's and Latham's light batteries, and some companies of the Second cavalry. Much time had been expended constructing, on the Neuse river, works to repel gunboats, but comparatively little preparation had been made to repel land attacks. There were two main lines of defense designed, however, to be held by more men than General Branch had under his command, so on the approach of General Burnside with his land and naval forces, all fortifications below Fort Thompson were abandoned. The works behind which the Confederates fought extended from Fort Thompson (13 guns) on the Neuse to a swamp on the Weathersby road, a distance of two and a half miles. From the fort to the railroad, a distance of one mile, were posted, beginning at the fort, the Twenty-seventh North Carolina, Major Gilmer; the Thirty-seventh, Colonel Lee; the Seventh, Colonel Campbell; the Thirty-fifth, Colonel Sinclair, and a battalion of militia under Colonel Clark. Across the railroad, for a mile and a half, the only forces were the Twenty-sixth North Carolina, Colonel Vance; two dismounted companies of the Second cavalry, and one unattached company of infantry, and to the right of these two pieces of Brem's1 battery under Lieutenant Williams. Between the railroad and Vance's left there was, at a brickyard, a break in the Confederate lines. This break, the finding and occupation of which won the Victory for the Federals, was being protected by a redoubt when [39] the opening of the battle stopped the work on the redoubt and left this vital point guarded only by some artillery acting as infantry. Back of the line, on the railroad, Col. C. M. Avery's regiment, the Thirty-third, was held in reserve. Latham's battery was posted near the Thirty-seventh, and Brem's on the railroad.2 A careful search of official records convinces one that it is impossible to ascertain Branch's force with positive accuracy. General Hawkins (Battles and Leaders, I, 648) makes it between 7,000 and 8,000 men. This is far too large. Branch says in his official report: ‘I have at no time been able to place 4,000 men in the field at New Bern, and at the time of the battle had been seriously weakened by the re-enlistment furloughs.’ Many of his regiments were being reorganized from six and twelve months enlistments to enlistments for the war. On such occasions the authorities granted, freely, short furloughs for the men to put their business in order. Hence the regiments were very small. Colonel Hoke reports that he had only 614 men present. It is fair to assume that the other regiments, affected by the same cause, had about an equal number. The six regiments present, then, would number about 3,684. The militia battalion reports 264 men. The artillery and cavalry present did not, from best accounts, number over 400. This would make Branch's force aggregate about 4,348, which is nearly the figure at which he placed it, and is very nearly right.

It is also difficult to get accurately the Federal numbers. Burnside had thirteen regiments engaged. These were not reorganizing. But if we give them the same number present as the Confederate regiments, they would aggregate 7,982, and with the artillery would make a total of at least 8,300, or about double the Confederates. [40] But there is no reason to put the Federal regiments as low as 614. On the 31st of January, Burnside reported present for duty, 12,829. It is hardly probable that a month later, with no serious battle intervening, and, so far as reported, no detachments, that it would number less than 10,000 men.

On the 13th of March, General Burnside landed his forces at Slocomb's creek, and on that same day marched to within striking distance of the Confederate lines. On the 14th the attack opened by Foster moving on the Confederate left, between Fort Thompson and the railroad. At the same time Reno moved against Vance's position, on the right, and Parke followed up the railroad in the center to support either Foster or Reno at need. The Federal gunboats all the morning vigorously shelled the earthworks. Foster's front attack on the left was easily repelled for some hours. But on the right, General Reno with Lieutenant-Colonel Clark, of the Twenty-first Massachusetts, found the break at the brickyard and gallantly charged in, and then turned to the right on the Confederate militia posted there under another Colonel Clark. The militia, raising the cry that they were flanked, retreated in confusion, and unfortunately the Thirty-fifth, under Colonel Sinclair, ‘very quickly,’ says General Branch, ‘followed their example, retreating in the utmost disorder.’ Avery's regiment of reserves was ordered to the brickyard, and with Vance's regiment made a determined stand. In speaking of the bravery of these two regiments, Colonel Clark, of the Massachusetts regiment, says in his official report: ‘They were the best armed and fought the most gallantly of any of the enemy's forces.. . . They kept up an incessant fire for three hours, until their ammunition was exhausted and the remainder of the rebel forces had retreated.’

Into the gap in the Confederate line, left by the retreat of the militia and the Thirty-fifth, Reno poured his forces, and they thus turned the whole right of the [41] intrenchments from Fort Thompson. Colonel Campbell, commanding that wing, ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Haywood to charge the front of Reno. This the Seventh did in fine form and retook Brem's battery,3 but was in turn driven back by the advance of the Fifth Rhode Island and Eighth Connecticut. After their center was thus cut, the Confederates saw that with their inferiority of numbers they could no longer make effective resistance, and they retired or New Bern. Their losses had been, killed, 64; wounded, 101; prisoners, 413. The Federal losses were, killed, 90; wounded, 380.4

The fall of New Bern opened much territory to the Federals. Shortly thereafter their troops occupied Carolina City, Morehead City, Beaufort and Newport, and detachments were sent out in all directions. On April 13th a skirmish between one of these detached parties and a portion of the Second North Carolina cavalry occurred at Gillett's farm, in which Lieutenant-Colonel Robinson, the Confederate commander, was captured.

On the 19th of April a spirited action took place at South Mills, near the Dismal Swamp canal. Rumors of ironclads building for a descent on the Albemarle fleet led the Federals to send a considerable force, under General Reno, to destroy the locks that connected both the Dismal Swamp canal and the Currituck canal with the rivers.5 General Reno took with him from New Bern the Twenty-first Massachusetts, ‘500 picked men,’ and the Fifty-first Pennsylvania. On his way he [42] was joined by Col. Rush Hawkins with his brigade, then stationed on Roanoke island. Hawkins says that his forces numbered 2,000 men. General Reno's whole command, including four pieces of artillery, numbered fully 3,000 men. This force was landed from transports at Elizabeth City, and at once marched toward the locks. Near South Mills it encountered Col. A. R. Wright, commanding the Third Georgia regiment (585 strong), some drafted North Carolina militia, Gillett's company of Southampton cavalry, and McComas' battery of four pieces. Wright's total force seems to have numbered about 750 men. Of these, he sent three companies and the militia a mile to the rear to hold an important crossing. Stationing his artillery in the road and supporting it with his little force, which General Huger says was not over 400 men, Wright pluckily waited for the attack of the enemy. In spite of a long march, Reno, who had no idea of the small number of his foe, attacked promptly, but for three hours made no impression on Wright's force, sheltered cleverly by the artillery and a strip of woods. At last McComas, who had fought his guns manfully, was killed, and Colonel Wright fell back a mile to his supports. General Reno did not attempt to follow, and that night at 10 o'clock left his dead and wounded behind and made a forced march to his boats. The losses on both sides were as follows: Confederate, killed, 6; wounded, 19. Federal, killed, 13; wounded, 92.6 [43]

The culmination of the serious losses that had befallen the coast by the operations of General Burnside was the surrender of Fort Macon, on the sand-bar opposite Beaufort. This fort was an ‘old style, strong, casemated work,’ mounting about fifty guns.7 Col. M. J. White occupied the fort with four companies of the Tenth North Carolina artillery and one company of the Fortieth. General Burnside sent General Parke with his division, to lay siege to the work. After some weeks spent in preparing mortar and Parrott batteries, under protection of the sand hills, General Parke opened fire on the fort with four batteries on the 25th of April. The Federal fleet joined in the fire for an hour or two. By 4 o'clock the combined batteries threw 1,150 shells and shot at the fort, 500 of which took effect,8 dismounting over half the guns. Colonel White says in his official report: ‘The attack from the land was kept up with great vigor, the enemy having immense advantage from superior numbers, being able to relieve their men at the guns, while our morning reports showed only 263 men for duty. Our guns were well managed but able to do little damage to water batteries and siege guns, firing through narrow embrasures. At 6:30, finding that our loss had been heavy, and, from the fatigue of our men, being unable to keep up the fire with but two guns, a proposition was made to General Parke for the surrender of the fort.’ The regimental history of the Tenth regiment declares: ‘Of the forty-four guns, half were entirely disabled. None on the parapet facing the entrance to the harbor could be brought to bear on the land batteries, nor could [44] those facing Beaufort.’ The Confederate loss was 7 killed and 18 wounded.

These successive defeats aroused the people instead of dispiriting them. They saw plainly that the Richmond authorities had been far too slow in realizing the State's condition and the importance of the territory being lost. They saw, not without some bitterness, enough North Carolina troops sent into the State, after the fall of New Bern, to have prevented its loss. Still the almost defenseless condition of the other part of the State called for new exertions, and without taking time for much repining, the State government sent out an order that was fruitful in results. This was, that the captains of all militia companies were to detail one-third of their men for immediate service, and these men were accorded permission to volunteer for the war. Major Gordon says:

This order struck a wave of patriotism that was floating over the State from east to west, which had been almost dormant for some months on account of the government's refusing to furnish arms to twelve months volunteers. Prominent men in every county of the State vied with one another in raising troops, and many of those not actually going to the field were as busy helping as those going. Instead of getting one-third, the writer believes that fully two-thirds of those liable to service volunteered under this call. In all, twenty-eight regiments and several battalions promptly volunteered. The adjutant-general's office was daily crowded by men offering companies for service. The Eleventh regiment (Bethel) was reorganized at High Point; the Fortysec-ond (Col. G. C. Gibbs), at Salisbury, April 22d; and at Camp Mangum, near Raleigh, were organized the Forty-third (Col. T. S. Kenan), the Forty-fourth (Col. G. B. Singeltary), the Forty-fifth (Col. Junius Daniel), the Forty-sixth (Col. E. D. Hall), the Forty-seventh (Col. S. H. Rogers), the Forty-eighth (Col. R. C. Hill), the Forty-ninth (Col. S. D. Ramseur), the Fiftieth (Col. M. D. [45] Crator), the Fifty-second (Col. J. K. Marshall), the Fifty-third (Col. W. A. Owens), the Fifty-fourth (Col. John Wimbish), and the Fifty-fifth (Col. J. K. Conolly) —all between the 21st of April and the 19th of May. The Fifty-first (Col. J. L. Cantwell) was recruited in the Cape Fear district and organized at Wilmington.

The State had now in a very short while fifteen splendid regiments organized and ready for service, except arms, which will be mentioned later. All the military departments of the State were tried to their uttermost to clothe, feed and equip this large number of troops, who so promptly came to the defense of the State. In addition to those mentioned above, twelve or thirteen more regiments were in sight at the adjutant-general's office, to be taken care of when fully recruited.

9 [46]

1 Not Harding's, as Battles and Leaders has it.

2 General Hawkins errs greatly in saying: ‘These works were armed with 41 heavy guns and 19 field pieces.’ (Battles and Leaders.) The only guns on this line were as follows: Fort Thompson, 13; Brem's battery, 6; Latham's, 6; total, 25.

3 General Hawkins again makes an error when he says: ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Clark. . . came upon a light battery of sixteen pieces.’ Colonel Clark in his report says five pieces. There were, however, only four; the two others of Brem's 6-gun battery were on the right, as already mentioned.

4 Official Reports.

5 ‘I have organized in conjunction with Commodore Rowan against that place (Elizabeth City), and if we succeed in capturing or driving the enemy back, we shall move up to South Mills and blow up the lock of the canal, and then proceed up to the head of Currituck canal and blow in its banks, thus rendering it impossible for the gunboats, which are said to be building at Norfolk, to come into these waters.’—Official Records, page 271, Series I, Vol. IX.

6 An interesting difference between official and private reports comes out in the Federal accounts of this battle. General Reno and his second in command. Colonel Hawkins, made such glowing reports of what they had done that their commander, General Burnside, issued a congratulatory order to their troops. In it he felicitates them ‘upon the indomitable courage with which they attacked a large body of the enemy's best artillery, infantry and cavalry in their own chosen position, achieving a complete victory.’—Rebellion Records, IX., 307.

In a private letter to the same commander, the same General Hawkins says in reference to the same affair: ‘Doubtless the unfortunate occurrence of the 19th has been brought to your notice. No one can regret the result more than myself. First, because of the loss of life; second, the object of the expedition not being accomplished after all the obstacles in our way had been removed. It seems that both parties were badly frightened. The enemy ran like quarter-horses toward Norfolk, and we as fast as our weary legs would carry us toward Roanoke, leaving quite a number of our wounded, and destroyed the bridges behind us.’—Ibid., 316.

7 It is difficult to tell how many guns Macon had; Hawkins says, 64; Burnside, 54; and the Tenth Regiment History, 44.

8 Flagler's Report.

9 Organization of the Troops.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1862 AD (2)
7th (2)
January 11th, 1862 AD (1)
October, 1861 AD (1)
1842 AD (1)
May 19th (1)
April 25th (1)
April 22nd (1)
April 21st (1)
April 19th (1)
April 13th (1)
March 13th (1)
February 7th (1)
February (1)
January 31st (1)
14th (1)
8th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: