By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016, All Rights Reserved
Having made summer trips to the Outer Banks with my family since I was a boy, I wanted to read this book as soon as I heard about it. I knew only a little about the Civil War along the North Carolina coast from David Stick’s classic Graveyard of the Atlantic. Michael Zatarga, a historian formerly with the National Park Service, has written a short, concise book about one of the first Army-Navy amphibious operations in U.S. history. Although The Battle of Roanoke Island isn’t perfect, I did learn quite a bit from it.
George McClellan and Ambrose Burnside were classmates and friends at West Point, and McClellan gave Burnside a much-needed job with the Illinois Central Railroad in 1858, after Burnside’s business went bankrupt. Burnside did not do too badly leading troops at First Bull Run, and McClellan, named to command the Army of the Potomac, soon picked him to lead an expedition to capture territory along the North Carolina coast. If all went well, Federal strongholds there could provide bases and coaling stations to support the Navy’s blockade, and furnish jumping-off points for raids deeper into Confederate territory, including threatening the naval base in Norfolk, VA., just up the coast.
Zatarga provides short profiles of the commanders of the mostly New England units which Burnside brought into his “Coastal Division,” including Cols. Edward Harland of the 8th Connecticut infantry regiment, Charles Russell of the 10th Connecticut, John Hartranft of the 51st Pennsylvania, Edward Ferrero of the 51st New York, and Edwin Upton of the 25th Massachusetts, among others. We learn of Col. Lionel Jobert D’Epineuil’s 53rd New York, a riotous lot and an unfortunate exception to the usual rule of Zouaves being elite troops, and of Col. Isaac Peace Rodman’s 4th Rhode Island, so pleased by their new commanding officer that they bought him a gift of field glasses for the expedition. Jesse Reno, one of Burnside’s brigade commanders, won early glory on the North Carolina Campaign before his untimely death on South Mountain later that year.
Burnside, to his credit, soon assembled his disparate units into an effective force, and also worked well with his Navy counterpart, Flag Officer (there were no admirals then) Louis M. “Old Guts” Goldsborough. They loaded up the almost 13,000 soldiers at Annapolis, MD aboard a scratch fleet of 65 ships – many of the transports were acquired by the Navy from the commercial shipping trade – over several days in early January 1862. Despite a severe storm on the way down the coast, the fleet eventually assembled at Hatteras Inlet, already in Union hands from the year before.
The author gives due attention to the much smaller Confederate army arrayed against Burnside. Gen. Henry Wise, the top Confederate officer in the region and a well-connected former governor of Virginia (it was he who had signed John Brown’s death warrant), had done his best with limited resources. But his pleas for more of everything went largely unanswered by the Confederate War Department. One observer wrote that Wise in early 1862 had “no gunners, no rifled cannon, no supplies, no anything except undrilled and unpaid country bumpkins posing as troops.”
When the battle began, Wise had only about 2,500 men under his command. Col. Ambrose Wright of the 3rd Georgia and Col. Charles H. Dimmock, an engineer, tried to beef up Confederate defenses at Forts Bartow, Huger, and Blanchard, at key points on Roanoke Island along Croatan Sound, just up the inland coast from Cape Hatteras. They were backed by a tiny Confederate Navy “Mosquito Fleet” of seven small warships with just eight guns between them, led by Cmdr. William F. Lynch.
On February 7, 1862, United States forces went ashore in small boats on the northwestern coast of Roanoke Island, almost unopposed. “In less than 20 minutes from the time the boats reached the shore, 4,000 of our men were passing over the marshes at a double quick and forming in most perfect order on dry land,” Burnside later wrote. “I never witnessed a more beautiful sight.” He got his entire invading force ashore with few casualties and, after an uncomfortable night out in the rain and mud, made his attack the next day on the much smaller Confederate army arrayed against him.
How the one-day battle ended will come as little surprise, given the great disparity of forces. But it is how the clash unfolded, and why, that I found the most interesting.
The Battle of Roanoke Island is not written in an especially lively way, could have done with more careful editing, and its few maps leave much to be desired. But for anyone who wants to learn more about a little-known amphibious campaign of the Civil War, it’s worth a look.
The Battle of Roanoke Island by Michael P. Zatarga
From the publisher: In the winter of 1861, Union armies had failed to win any significant victories over their Confederate counterparts. The Northern populace, overwhelmed by the bloodshed, questioned whether the costs of the war were too high. President Lincoln despondently wondered if he was going to lose the Union.
As a result, tension was incredibly high when Union hero Ambrose Burnside embarked for coastal North Carolina. With the eyes of the nation and world on little Roanoke Island in the Outer Banks, Burnside began his amphibious assault on the beaches and earned a victory that shifted control of Southern waters. Join author and historian Michael Zatarga as he traces the story of the crucial fight on Roanoke Island.
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