January 5, 1862 – Federal forces embarked on a joint army-navy operation to capture a key point on the North Carolina coast.
President Abraham Lincoln, General-in-Chief George B. McClellan, and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles had approved a plan developed by Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside to load army troops onto navy transports and, with naval warship support, capture Roanoke Island. This guarded both Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, along with many rivers, canals, and railroads.
Taking Roanoke Island, along with the Federal occupation of Hatteras Inlet, would enable the Federals to stop blockade-running in the waters of Pamlico Sound between the North Carolina coast and the Outer Banks. It would also gain them access to many of the waterways flowing from North Carolina’s interior, as well as the numerous Unionists said to reside in that area.
The 12,829 Federal troops of Burnside’s “Coast Division” consisted mostly of New Englanders accustomed to working on the water. Burnside had recruited the men himself, which were grouped into three brigades commanded by his West Point friends: Brigadier Generals John G. Foster, Jesse L. Reno, and John G. Parke. Bands played and snow fell as the troops boarded transports at Annapolis, Maryland, to embark on what became known as the “Burnside expedition.”
Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, led the naval armada. It included about 100 vessels varying from makeshift barges, coal steamers, steamboats, and warships. As they pulled out of Annapolis, Burnside later recalled, “The whole fleet seemed to be under a mixed influence of excitement and contentment.”
Both the northern and southern press speculated on the fleet’s secret destination, with the Richmond Dispatch correctly guessing that it was Pamlico Sound. However, the press greatly underestimated the size of the massive armada, which steamed south toward North Carolina on January 11.
Burnside set up headquarters on the Picket, one of the least seaworthy gunboats in the fleet, to show his men that he was with them. They all suffered through a ferocious two-day storm that featured severe winds and high waves off Cape Hatteras. Burnside noted that “the men, furniture, and crockery below decks were thrown about in a most promiscuous manner.”
The Federals finally arrived off Roanoke Island on the 13th. The smaller ships began entering Pamlico Sound that morning, and the Picket led the larger ships in around 12 p.m. However, rough waves and the shallow bar made it extremely difficult for these ships to pass. The Pocahontas was destroyed, losing 100 horses. The steamer City of New York foundered, losing over $200,000 worth of supplies and equipment. The captain and crew were rescued after lifeboats could finally be sent over the breakers; they had hung from the rigging for nearly two days.
Awaiting the Federals at Roanoke Island were just 1,400 “undrilled, unpaid, not sufficiently clothed and quartered, and miserably armed” Confederates according to their commander, Brigadier General Henry A. Wise. A “mosquito” fleet of seven gunboats under Flag Officer William F. Lynch also aided in defense. Wise notified Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin that the island was “utterly defenceless” and estimated that even without Burnside’s troops, the Federal armada was “amply sufficient to capture or pass Roanoke Island in any 12 hours.”
Wise called on his superior, Major General Benjamin Huger, for reinforcements and arms. Huger denied the request, even though he had 13,000 men standing by at nearby Norfolk. Huger instead recommended that Wise demand “hard work and coolness among the troops you have, instead of more men.” When Wise went to Richmond to personally request reinforcements, Benjamin peremptorily ordered him to return to his post and hold the island at all costs, despite being outnumbered almost nine-to-one.
Lynch reported to Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory that from the C.S.S. Sea Bird at Hatteras Inlet, he “saw a large fleet of steamers and transports.” Lynch reminded Mallory of Roanoke Island’s importance: “Here is the great thoroughfare from Albemarle Sound and its tributaries, and if the enemy obtain lodgements or succeed in passing here he will cut off a very rich country from the Norfolk market.”
Meanwhile, Goldsborough informed Welles of the ongoing difficulties in getting the fleet, particularly the troop transports, across the Pamlico Sound sandbar. The move took several weeks, during which time the Federals reconnoitered the Confederate positions on Roanoke Island and its surrounding forts. As the channel was deepened to enable the ships to enter the sound, the men remained aboard their vessels suffering from a growing lack of drinking water. The sound passage continued into February.
Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17, 21-23; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (multiple dates); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 108, 111, 115, 117-18; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 226-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 96-98, 101-02; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 158-60, 163; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 536; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 372; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 238-39