Amphibious Assault on Roanoke Island

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In the fall of 1861, Union Gen. George McClellan approved a plan submitted by Gen. Ambrose Burnside to seize Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina.

The island, described by historian James McPherson as “a swampy piece of land ten miles long, two miles wide, and rich in legend,” is situated between the Albemarle and Pamlico Sound, and separated from the North Carolina coast by the Croatan Sound. It was the site of the “Lost Colony” of English settlers who disappeared without a trace in 1590—a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

McClellan understood that seizing Roanoke Island meant Union control of the North Carolina coast and, in McPherson’s judgment, commanding the “key to Richmond’s back door.” Historian Shelby Foote compared Roanoke Island to “a loose-fitting cork plugging the neck of ... Albemarle Sound.” “Nothing that went by water,” explained Foote, “could get in there without going past the cork.”

Burnside with the full cooperation of the Union Navy launched the expedition from Annapolis in early January 1862. Burnside had about 13,000 men divided into three divisions commanded by John G. Parks, J. G. Foster, and Jesse Reno. The naval components of the expedition—more than 80 vessels, including nine warships mounting 64 guns and five floating batteries—were under the command of Adm. Louis Goldsborough.

From Annapolis, the force moved to Hampton Roads near Fortress Monroe, then sailed to the Hatteras Inlet. Naval Historian Ivan Musicant in Divided Waters: The Naval History of the Civil War, notes that “Hatteras in winter is one of the world’s most miserable places, and moving the ships through the shallow, torturous inlet ... tested seamanship to the extreme.” It took three weeks to get all of the ships through the inlet into Pamlico Sound.

Confederate forces on Roanoke Island consisted of 3,000 troops under the command of Gen. Henry Wise and a small “mosquito fleet” of ships under Flag Officer William Lynch. Three Southern forts were located on the western side of the island: Ft. Huger, near the northern tip of the island, brandishing 12 guns; Ft. Blanchard, a few thousand yards to the south of Huger, had four guns; and Ft. Bartow, still further south, closer to the waste of the island, had nine guns. (Today, road signs mark the approximate locations of these forts).

Confederate forces constructed entrenchments along the middle of the island across a roadway adjacent to a swampy area (a portion of those entrenchments, surrounded and preserved by a white picket fence, can still be seen today just south of Highway 64 along Route 345, where a marker explains the battle) in an effort to defend the island if Federal troops made it ashore. Three guns and infantry waited for Union troops behind those entrenchments.

Foote described what the attackers faced. “To advance along the causeway toward those guns,” he wrote, “would be like walking up a hardwood alley toward a bowler whose only worry was running out of balls before the advancer ran out of legs.”

On Feb. 7, 1862, the battle began as Union and Confederate naval forces clashed in the Croatan Sound. Prior to the action, noted Musicant, Adm. Goldsborough hoisted the same famous signal used by British Adm. Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar: “Our country expects every man to do his duty.” Union gunboats opened up on Ft. Bartow, the only confederate fort that threatened them. One Union captain reported “the whole fleet pouring an incessant fire of shot and shell into the fort.” Union naval forces easily overcame the South’s much smaller and poorly armed “mosquito fleet,” chasing it away early in the action.

Burnside’s troops landed unopposed at Ashby Harbor, located on the western side of the island, south of the Confederate entrenchments. By evening, all were ashore.

The next morning, Burnside ordered his three divisions into a line and instructed his commanders to charge straight up the causeway, with probing movements on the swampy flanks. The center division, wrote Foote, “ran into murderous head-on fire.” But the troops on the flanks succeeded in getting through the swampy marsh, joined in the charge and overran Confederate positions.

Confederate forces retreated north as far as they could go, but in the end more than 2,600 rebels surrendered. Union dead and wounded totaled 264, while the Confederates lost 143 men. A small battle by Civil War standards, but its significance was great. “Burnside,” wrote Foote, “had won control of North Carolina’s inland sea, thereby tightening the blockade one hard twist more, opening a second front in the Virginia army’s rear, gaining access to the back door to Norfolk, and arousing the immediate apprehension of every rebel posted within gunshot of salt water.”

By the late spring, the Union controlled every significant Southern harbor, except Charleston and Wilmington, N.C. Burnside was promoted to major general, while the Confederate Secretary of War, Judah Benjamin, blamed for the disaster, was transferred to the Confederate State Department.

Musicant, reflecting on the difficulties of combined arms and amphibious operations, concluded that Burnside and Goldsborough had achieved “as neat a combined operation as happened in the war.”

Francis P. Sempa is the author of "Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War," and "Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War." He has written on historical topics, including the Civil War, for The Washington Times, The Diplomat, Orbis (the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute), the University Bookman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and other publications.

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