Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough had launched an army-navy expedition against Roanoke Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in January. The island commanded the naval passage between Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, overlooked the North Carolina coast from Cape Lookout to Virginia, and guarded the back door to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.
The Federal expeditionary force consisted of about 65 ships and 13,000 troops, which had been bogged down by bad weather. Sandbars provided another impediment for the warships and naval transports to get the troops into Hatteras Inlet and Pamlico Sound. After a channel had finally been cleared, the last Federal vessel cleared the last bar on February 4.
The next morning, the Federals that had survived the past month’s harsh frustrations began heading northward up Pamlico Sound, with Goldsborough’s warships leading the way. The fleet anchored for the night about 10 miles from Roanoke Island, poised to attack the following day. However, heavy fog stalled the Federal advance.
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Henry A. Wise commanded just 2,300 Confederate defenders at Roanoke Island. Wise had gone to Richmond to plead for reinforcements, but all he could get was his small legion from southern Virginia. Wise had also failed to recruit “free negro laborers” to help build defenses. Wise fell ill with pneumonia and was replaced by Colonel Henry M. Shaw, a man distrusted by Confederates for his New England upbringing and his lack of military experience.
In addition to the Confederate garrison, three sand forts bearing 32 total guns protected the northwestern section of Roanoke Island. This was hardly an ideal position since the Federals would be coming from the south. The Confederates also had Flag Officer William F. Lynch’s “mosquito” fleet of seven naval vessels, which were former tugs and paddleboats, each with just one gun. The island itself contained a redoubt across its center road, with swamps guarding the garrison’s flanks. The Confederate forces lacked the guns and ammunition needed for a full-scale battle.
When the fog lifted on the morning of the 7th, Goldsborough’s fleet began the advance into Croatan Sound. The 16 gunboats, bearing 64 guns, led the way in line of battle, with the troops and supply ships behind them. Aboard Burnside’s flagship the Picket, signalmen conveyed to the armada a quote from Lord Nelson before the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar: “Today, the country expects every man to do his duty.”
Moving northward, the fleet approached Fort Bartow, at Pork Point in Croatan Sound, west of Roanoke Island. Confederates at Bartow fired a signal shot around 11:30 a.m., as the Federal vessels split between attacking the fort and confronting Lynch’s fleet. Lynch quickly pulled his ships back out of firing range, burning the C.S.S. Curlew to prevent her capture.
The Federals then turned on the Confederate water batteries and Fort Bartow. Many cannon were easily knocked out of commission, as Goldsborough directed his gunboats to move as close to the fort as possible so that Confederate artillerists could not depress their guns low enough to fire on them. With the Confederates in the forts and fleet occupied, Burnside began preparations to land his troops on Roanoke Island.
Burnside selected Ashby’s Harbor, in the island’s southwestern corner, as the landing point based on the advice of a local fugitive slave. The war’s first successful large-scale amphibious landing occurred when the Federal troop transports began debarking two miles south of Goldsborough’s gunboats around 4 p.m. The ships protected the landing by repelling one last desperate attack from the “mosquito” fleet. Lynch then pulled his boats back to Elizabeth City to prevent their destruction.
The Federal landing was efficient; “over the weeks and months Burnside had worked out a clever method for getting his men from boat to beach. The transports each came fitted with specially designed ladders, down which the troops climbed into large surfboats. In strings of twenty they were towed inshore by a steamer, cast off and rowed the final yards over the surf.” The surfboats came as close to the beach as possible, and the Federals waded the rest of the way to shore.
Over the next nine hours, some 10,000 Federals in three brigades under Brigadier Generals Jesse Reno, John G. Parke, and John G. Foster landed at Ashby’s Harbor. Colonel Shaw dispatched 450 Confederates to contest the landing, but they retreated after observing the overwhelming force coming ashore. Shaw hurriedly prepared to make a stand at the island’s main redoubt. The Federals quickly secured the island’s southern half, then huddled in freezing rain until the next day’s scheduled attack.
At dawn on the 8th, the Federals advanced upon the Confederate defenses in the northern section of Roanoke Island. They moved in three columns on the causeway that crossed the island’s vast swampland. The Federals encountered no resistance until they reached a clearing about halfway up the 12-mile island. About 1,500 entrenched Confederates and three guns covered that point.
Shaw placed his men behind strong earthworks, hoping to draw the Federals into open ground. The swamps in the clearing also threatened to slow any attack long enough for the Confederates to pour fire into the attackers and drive them off. But nobody knew how to service the three cannon; a captain from General Wise’s staff was still instructing the men as the Federals approached.
One Federal brigade advanced head-on up the causeway, led by the 9th New York Zouaves. The other two brigades conducted simultaneous flank attacks, advancing knee-deep through mud and swampland. The Confederates were quickly overwhelmed, and when their artillery ammunition ran out, they hurriedly abandoned their trenches and fled in confusion. They were soon trapped on the island’s northern end.
A Confederate officer asked General Foster for capitulation terms, to which Foster replied, “None but those of unconditional surrender.” This message was relayed to Shaw, who thought for a moment and said, “I must surrender.” Foster soon arrived to receive Shaw’s sword, and Roanoke Island now belonged to the Federals.
The Federals sustained 264 casualties (37 killed, 214 wounded, and 13 missing) while the Confederates lost 85 (23 killed and 62 wounded), along with 2,675 surrendered. Wise’s son was killed in action, but Wise himself overcame his illness long enough to escape to Currituck County, North Carolina. He was convinced that he could have fended the Federals off if he had been reinforced like he asked. He wrote to President Jefferson Davis, “The North Carolina troops had not been paid, clothed or drilled, and they had no teams or tools or materials for constructing works of defense, and they were badly commanded and led, and, except a few companies, they did not fight.”
This was the first significant Federal land victory of the war, much greater than the victory at Fort Henry two days before. Burnside reported that he had “complete possession of this island, with five forts, mounting thirty-two guns, winter quarters for some 4,000 troops, and 3,000 stand of arms, large hospital buildings, with a large amount of lumber, wheelbarrows, scows, pile-drivers, a mud dredge, ladders, and other appurtenances for military service…”
Although this battle was small compared to future engagements, the Confederate government considered the loss of Roanoke Island a great disaster. This exposed northeastern North Carolina to a potential Federal drive to the vital navy yard at Norfolk or even Richmond. It also gave the Federals control of North Carolina’s inland seas, which would strengthen the blockade and alarm all coastal defenders. The loss greatly harmed southern morale and led many to wonder why the Davis administration did not work harder to ensure the island’s security.
By around 4 p.m., Goldsborough’s Federal gunboat fleet had removed the Confederate obstructions to Albemarle Sound; Flag Officer Lynch’s “mosquito” fleet offered little resistance. Goldsborough followed up this victory by advancing up the Pasquotank River toward Elizabeth City to confront Lynch’s small squadron. A two-day bombardment of Fort Bartow led to the Confederates evacuating the place on the 9th.
News of Roanoke Island’s capture was celebrated throughout the North. Horace Greeley wrote in his New York Tribune: “It now requires no far-reaching prophet to predict the end of this struggle.” Meanwhile, gloom pervaded the Confederacy, with an article in the Richmond Examiner calling the defeat “certainly the most painful event of the war.”
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