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Thayer's Note: For following the geography in the text, the map provided on the book's endpages may be useful; it opens in a separate window.
Virginia was no longer the focal point of the war for North Carolinians. Attention was riveted on the beaches. Their forts had no gunners, no rifled cannon, no supplies, no anything except undrilled and unpaid country bumpkins posing as troops. Patriots, white and black, hastily dug ditches, stretched wire entanglements, and shoveled up earthworks. The defenses at Roanoke Island were ludicrous.
That dirty, swampy island was vital to the defense of the Old North State and to the Confederacy. Strategic to interior coastal commerce, Roanoke commanded Croatan Sound, the link between Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, whose waters joined the Atlantic with the rivers and towns of the mainland and with the canals leading to Norfolk and Richmond. Located •forty-five miles above Federal-held Hatteras Inlet, this pest-ridden island faced Albemarle Sound on the north, Pamlico on the south, the Atlantic shore on the east, and the mainland on the west. The occupation of this key position would assure the enemy control of the sounds p82 and seacoast towns, of a rear door to Norfolk and its navy yard, of the rich corn and wheat counties of eastern Carolina, and of the railroads running northward into Virginia.
In the late summer of 1864, President Davis, juggling his limited resources to save face with coastal governors, responded niggardly to the urgent pleas of North Carolinians to support their undermanned regiment on Roanoke Island. Southward from Norfolk moved two wagons, four mules, and two worn‑out cannons.
Preparations inched forward on the island. Dressed in castoff clothing, some in dingy grays and "Kentucky jeans," others in dark salt-and‑pepper-colored uniforms, sporting sou'westers, slouches, sombreros, and beaver hats, the defenders were a pitiable crew. Designation of rank was a homemade tinseled shoulder strap, a rusted French-style dueling sword, or a tattered piece of gold fringe sewed to the pants leg. Through the steaming month of September the Hatteras Avengers, the O. K. Boys, and the Yankee Killers dug and hacked, hammered and sawed. Four mules and a handful of barefoot wretches equipped with outmoded muskets to crush a Yankee armada!
Near apoplexy with chagrin, Governor Clark tried to bully the Confederate Government. On 2 September, he clamored for four regiments; three days later, for suitable officers and several regiments; on 25 September, for arms and ammunition. Conditions became progressively more chaotic. By January 1862 the situation on the island was precarious. Clark threatened to hire p83 his own navy, tampered with the various Confederate commands in his state, and forbade a powder mill to transport the much needed product into Virginia.
To stop this "damn meddling," Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin assured North Carolinians that the Confederacy was "alive" to their needs and ordered Wise's Legion, a spick-and‑span brigade of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, into the area. Through bungling, the horsemen and cannon were left stranded in Norfolk, and only 800 foot-sore soldiers straggled into the vicinity of Roanoke Island.
Brigadier General Henry A. Wise, a lean, tobacco-chewing ex‑governor of Virginia, a sheep in wolf's clothing, set up headquarters at a fashionable seaside hotel at Nag's Head overlooking the Atlantic. Even this novice, outfitted as a brigadier general, recognized that the defenses were a fright. The cool ocean breezes and the luxurious living could not shake him from his doldrums.
From his hotel suite Wise ordered immediate ditch work. The men, sweating and swearing, struggled to choke up Croatan Sound with piles, and toted sand and turf, mixed them together, and threw up earthworks with what equipment they had. But Wise was no miracle worker. He could not undo the blunders of the engineers who first planned the fortifications.
Fully expecting enemy attacks from Confederate-controlled Albemarle Sound, not from Pamlico and Yankee-held Hatteras Inlet, they had erected crude forts at the northern end of the island. Forts Huger, Blanchard, and Bartow, equipped with fewer than p84 twelve 32‑pounders apiece, faced westward across Croatan Sound, while below for •eight miles the beach was naked of gun emplacements. At the center of this hellhole the defenders put up a breastwork with embrasures for three guns. Across the sound on the mainland, opposite Fort Huger at Redstone Point, they implanted a seven‑gun battery.
Wise was further irritated by his weak-kneed superior sitting in Norfolk. A professional soldier with a mediocre military record, Major General Benjamin Huger had the obsession that all Federal expeditions fitting‑out across the water at Hampton Roads were destined for Norfolk. This distorted his viewpoint, and pleas from North Carolina were efficiently filed and forgotten. Huger answered Wise's requests with a pep‑talk, concluding: "You want . . . hard work, and coolness among the troops you have, instead of more men."
General Wise at Nag's Head jerked political wires until his hands bled. Ben Huger remained callously indifferent. Sensing the hopelessness of the situation, an infantryman despaired: "It was . . . too late in the day when we went into the field to work."
Immediately after the fall of Hatteras Inlet in August 1861, while Carolinians shuddered and the Stringham-Butler expedition idled, the Blockade Board in Washington recommended that the sounds of North Carolina be occupied permanently by gunboats to break up the foreign and interior trade. At Hampton Roads, Yankee tars readied another attack force for sea. Its skipper, Captain Louis M. Goldsborough, had relieved Stringham of command of the North Atlantic p85 Blockading Squadron and was in Washington conferring with Lincoln and his Cabinet about strategy in North Carolina.
Down at the War Department, military chiefs snarled at each other, trying to untangle another problem. General McClellan, tense with his responsibility, pestered with organizations problems of his Army of the Potomac, was much too busy to worry about the Confederate quasi blockade of the Potomac River which threatened to dislocate traffic into the capital. To flush out these Rebel batteries along the riverbanks, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside suggested the formation of a coastal division equipped with light-draft vessels to operate as an integral part of McClellan's army. Little Mac approved the plan and hustled Burnside off to New England. Burnie Burnside, a fleshy, genial West Pointer, a real professional soldier from his bewhiskered double chin to his highly polished boots, set about recruiting men and transports.
When Lincoln tapped McClellan for chief of Union armies in November 1861, Burnside was summoned back to Washington, where he and his division were ordered to co‑operate with the Navy in capturing the sounds.
This switch from the Potomac area to North Carolina conformed to McClellan's over‑all strategy. This was to send General Tim Sherman,º then basking with Du Pont in the sun at Port Royal, into Florida and Georgia and the army in the West into the New Orleans area simultaneously with the Goldsborough-Burnside expedition. These operations would rupture p86 the flow of arms from England to Confederate armies in Virginia, force the Rebels to garrison large numbers of men along their coast, and seriously interfere with coastal railroads running into Richmond.
The gruff old Goldsborough, smelling of rank tobacco, puffed on his pipe as he read his orders. He was exhilarated with the idea of seamen, armed to the teeth with cutlasses and pistols, boarding enemy men-of‑war amid battle smoke and engaging in combat at close quarters. This bewhiskered officer from the sailing Navy, a hulk of a man, envisioned the old days of 1812 being re‑enacted in the sounds of North Carolina. Roanoke Island was to be the first target, despite reports from Hatteras indicating that Rebel fortifications were impregnable.
Courtesy Huntington Library
Naval agents in New York and New England bought, classified, and dispatched southward small light-draft vessels to join Goldsborough's squadron. Upon their arrival at Hampton Roads, the old skipper flew into a thundering rage, damning the agents for sending him craft that failed to measure up to his standards. Refitting took time. President Lincoln, anxious for the expedition to get under way, spurred Goldsborough. "God knows," roared the Captain upon receipt of the dispatch, banging his cane on the deck, "I am doing everything in my power, night and day, to get it off!" The first three steamers of his attack force chugged out of Hampton Roads late in December bound for Hatteras to await the fleet.
Military agents, personally supervised by General p87 Burnside in New York, fared badly in securing transports. Being unskilled in such matters, Burnside was hoodwinked by waterfront speculators who palmed off rickety craft. Military agents, despite such skullduggery, amassed sufficient troopships — a motley fleet, confided Burnside — for the transportation of the coastal division. Ships' carpenters strengthened these North River steamers and schooners of the coasting trade from deck to keelson with heavy oak planks. Army sergeants piled sandbags and inflammable bales of hay on the decks to afford "protection" from enemy gunfire. Passenger steamers plus New York tugboats and Staten Island ferryboats comprised the remainder of the transports. Burnside commandeered sailing vessels to accommodate the building materials, rafts, scows, entrenching equipment, stores, tools, and extra ordnance.
His troops arrived at Annapolis in October and set up camp •two miles west of the city at Taylor's Farm. Late arrivals bunked with the empty showcases at the Naval Academy Museum. During the months which slipped by before Burnside's conglomerate fleet hove into sight, his men drilled constantly, until one seasoned veteran complained: "One can scarcely get time to wash his face."
Reveille beat at 6 A.M. on 6 January 1862. Downing hot coffee, soldiers lined up in formation and tramped off toward town and the waiting transports, singing "Dixie" and "Glory, Hallelujah" amid a snowstorm. On board one of those hulking barns afloat, Hussar, p88 privates swore at the mattresses stuffed with seaweed, the cramped quarters, and the coffee brewed with a steampipe in a barrel.
The troopships, cargo schooners, and ferryboats arrived at Hampton Roads during the evening of 10 January. Twenty-eight hours later at 11:50 P.M. the expedition, totaling seventy vessels, slid down the channel from Hampton Roads. Orders were explicit. The first objective was Roanoke Island, then, in rapid succession, New Bern, Beaufort, Fort Macon, and Wilmington.
The voyage from Hampton Roads to Hatteras was a nightmare. Ships labored heavily in the sea. Two plowed into mudbanks. Burnside and his men vomited. Below decks on those Army tubs the stench was suffocating. "What a delightful sensation! You . . . didn't care a fig whether you lived or died until you threw up," reported a landlubber. Hatteras Light was sighted on 13 January and by midnight most of the fleet was anchored in the comparative shelter of the inlet.
Gales suddenly lashed the Carolina coast. Burnie swore that he had been through everything, but had never before known what trouble was. His face muscles twitched as he consigned the double-dealing, profiteering New York speculators to the hottest corner of Hades in inimitable army jargon. He stood helpless watching a steamer run aground with troops, two others sink from sight, another disintegrate in the surf. His unwieldy fleet forced the General to double as navigator, harbor master, and chaplain. But, suggested p89 a New York reporter, he was "not the Almighty, to say to the winds, 'Be still.' "
After the loss of nine army vessels to the screaming winds, Goldsborough and Burnside faced the tricky business of maneuvering their craft across the treacherous shoals which linked the inlet with the deeper waters of Pamlico Sound. Naval gunboats easily ran the obstacle, but the Army, embarrassed by lack of seamanship and clumsy craft, botched the operation. Ships' drafts, guaranteed in New York to be •six feet, actually measured from •eight to ten, while the depth of the water was seven. Rain-soaked army sergeants dumped horses, supplies, and men on the beach to lighten the ships. Once unloaded, tugs, puffing and churning, worked steadily for forty-eight hours to tow and push the transports over the bar. When Spaulding with the General's staff on board crossed, troops cheered and blew steam whistles and Gilmore's Band of the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts played "Bully for You."
Misadventures kept dogging the Army. Its water supply arrived late. Slashed rations resulted in thirst, wretched cooking, and fetid quarters. The grub was foul. The meat rations consisted entirely of pork, which, boiled and barreled at Hampton Roads, was sour and moldy upon arrival. The poker players grumbled as they anted up their beans, and prayer meetings were well attended.
Out in Pamlico Sound, Goldsborough cussed the Army's tardiness, and fretted about his backgammon game, his supply of gin delayed at Hampton Roads, p90 and his gout. What if Rebel gunboats operating in Pamlico swooped down into the Army mess at Hatteras?
Serious as the situation was, Goldsborough was of no help to Burnside in floating the transports over the shoals or in supplying extra water. Had the Navy taken soundings, marked out the channel, and conned the transports, losses would have been lessened. These difficulties underscored the failure involved in a joint command where the Army and the Navy each controlled its own craft. Goldsborough correctly concluded that in future expeditions, everything concerned with vessels, including military transports, should be handled exclusively by the Navy and kept under its command.
During the last days of January, Goldsborough and Burnside worked out the details of the assault. Intelligence received indicated that 8000 Johnnies squatted behind the parapets at Roanoke Island. An escaped slave told Federal interrogators that there was an abundance of sweet potatoes on the island, but that the Rebels "can't do nothing aside your big guns." The commanders falsely judged that the heaviest resistance would come at the southern tip of the island and agreed not to tarry in this vicinity. Vessels would dash by this supposed barrier, the gunboats concentrating on Fort Bartow. The Army would disembark at Ashby's Landing, a point several miles below the fort. With their plans set, the chiefs waited for a break in the weather.
Rumor circled at Richmond, Norfolk, Raleigh, and the villages along the North Carolina coast. The Norfolk Day Book reported that the gale had completely p91 submerged Cape Hatteras and forced the Federals to land lifeboats on the mainland, where they all surrendered. Citizens of New Bern, refusing to believe this cock-and‑bull story, leaped on extra trains running westward and all but abandoned the town. Raleigh was in "a hell of a stew." Infantrymen guarding the approaches to Wilmington slept with side arms under their pillows and boasted that if old Mr. Burnside arrived, his name would change from Burnside to Burntside. At Roanoke Island, General Wise, laid low with pleurisy and high fever, prayed for men, weapons, and equipment.
The Union attack force, spearheaded by fifteen naval gunboats, headed northward in Pamlico Sound on 5 February 1862. In their wake were forty-seven transports with 7500 men. Gilmore's Band played martial airs. One group chorused:
In the name of God we'll meet you,
With the sword of God we'll greet you,
By the grace of God we'll beat you,
On the North Carolina shore.
At sundown the squadron dropped anchor off Stumpy Point •ten miles from Roanoke Island.
Foul weather prevented the execution of battle plans. That Thursday evening on Roanoke, Rebels sat around their campfires, some confident, others assessing the situation correctly.
At 9:55 A.M. on 7 February the squadron got under way and steamed toward the narrow opening to Croatan Sound, where the commanders anticipated p92 vigorous resistance. None came. Slowly the gunboats threaded their way through the passage, banked on each side by underbrush and marshy ground, out into the sound. This obstacle astern, Goldsborough, gnawing his pipestem and waving his cane, pointed to seven Confederate vessels converged on the batteries at Pork Point. Inside Fort Bartow, Rebels, running to the cannon, discovered that only four would train on the advancing flotilla. Gunners at Forts Blanchard and Huger found the range to be too great. Union guns thundered. Remembering Nelson's feat at Trafalgar, Goldsborough hoisted the signal "Our country expects every man to do his duty."
Union vessels pounded the forts with everything they had and scurried in all directions to gain advantageous firing positions. Batteries blazed from Fort Bartow, Confederate gunboats, and from Redstone Point. Flames soared from the barracks ashore. Goldsborough's Louisiana, Hetzel, Valley City, Southfield, Perry, Morse and Seymour were all hit but experienced little damage. Hampered by the defective ammunition and heavy smoke, Union and Confederate shots fell short, over, and wide of their marks.
Amid the racket of gunfire, blue-clad soldiers on the transports clambered down into twenty boats towed by the steamer Pilot Boy, shoved off, and headed toward Ashby's Landing. Guns from Delaware and Picket, with Burnside on board, scattered the Confederates camouflaged behind bushes. Nearing shore, seamen cast off the lines from Pilot Boy and the surf boats glided easily toward the beach. To be the first to land, p93 a captain, with hands waving, leaped over the side and plunged into mud and water halfway to his neck. Soldiers waded several hundred yards through the slime to dry land. In less than an hour from the time the surf boats left the troopships, 4000 men stood in formation at Ashby's Landing.
His first units ashore, Burnside, flushed with excitement, hurried to the scene of naval action. The Rebels had ceased firing by late afternoon, and due to the heavy rains, Federal gunboats had withdrawn. Burnside and Goldsborough mapped out work for the next day. The Army was to advance inland, flatten the battery at the center of the island, and then march to the rear of the forts. Goldsborough was to hold fire, as his gunners, whose aim had been erratic that day, might accidentally drop shells on Burnside's troops.
By midnight the entire Union division, 7500 strong, was ashore. Drenched with rain, shivering from cold, the men huddled in miserable little groups. Across Roanoke Island at Nag's Head, General Wise directed operations from his bed. Four companies, 180 men, were sent to reinforce the island garrison. The General hurried a dispatch to Huger at Norfolk, who, indifferent to disaster, replied: ". . . keep cool. . . . Stand to the guns." Off in Croatan Sound, officers of the seven Confederate gunboats congratulated themselves on still being alive but, being out of ammunition, retreated northward in Albemarle Sound to Elizabeth City. With this flotilla went the Johnnies' last means of escape.
As light streaked across the morning sky, the order p94 came for the Union troops to fall in. It rained. The men slowly slogged along a narrow road leading through a marsh covered with cypress trees and deep undergrowth. In the distance they spotted the Rebel battery. The second brigade veered off to the left, the third to the right. Hidden from the view of the Rebels, they struggled forward through marshes, waist deep in slime. The first brigade advanced along the road.
The 1250 defenders behind three field guns opened fire at 800 yards. With cries of "No Bull Run here," Union soldiers, fighting like devils, trudged forward. "That's right, give it to 'em!" shouted an officer. The battle was fierce and bloody. An attacker cursed that his musket was "not worth a damn," while across the parapet, a Rebel slammed down his weapon, muttering: "Musket! Hell! . . . If the Yankees can make expenses out of her they are welcome."
The second and third brigades, sloshing through the swamp, gained the flank of the Rebel battery, but on the road, the first ran short of ammunition. Quickly a major of Hawkins's Zouaves ran up to his superior, pleading to lead the charge. Above the din, the General yelled: "You are the very man, and this is the very minute. Zouaves, storm the battery!! Screaming their war cry, "Zou, Zou, Zou," the men with the red caps leaped forward. The suddenness of the attack bewildered the defenders, who hastily deserted their guns and scampered off into the interior. The Federals pushed on. Confederate shore batteries were abandoned. At the northern end of the island 450 reinforcements from Wilmington landed just in time p95 to be entangled in the retreat. Luckier than their comrades, 150 sneaked off the island and escaped to Nag's Head. Bedded down in a wagon and muttering through tobacco juice: "Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!!! That was the disease which brought disaster," Wise fled northward. The islanders, with no time to rally, surrendered at the rear of Fort Huger.
Courtesy Huntington Library
Zouaves storm the Rebel batteries on Roanoke Island
The Navy had not loafed. A small force moved northward in Croatan Sound, ripped up obstructions, and widened the channel. From the clatter of gunfire on the island, Burnside's position was noted. Once assured that he was not in the line of their fire, other gunboats salvoed at Pork Point until the rumble from the interior slackened. At 5:25 P.M. Federal troops raised the Union ensign from the ramparts of Fort Bartow. Roanoke Island was secured.
Sailors and mud‑caked soldiers were jubilant. Privates ashore, a bit unbalanced from the fight, ransacked the island for souvenirs, pocketing bullets, shell fragments, and Confederate love letters. One man swaggered around camp with a wooden rolling pin around his neck. Another toted a complete Shakespeare. Friendships renewed with Southern prisoners. Federals were reminded by some of the Virginians that the Richmond Light Blues, part of Wise's Legion, was the identical company that had treated the Seventh New York to champagne shower baths when, years before, that unit went to Richmond to escort the remains of President Monroe. Union officers found that they had captured 42 guns, barracks for 4000 men, 1500 stands of small arms, several hospital buildings, and 1500 prisoners. p96 The Blue's losses numbered 200 killed, wounded, or missing; the Gray's, 150.
The two thousand inhabitants of Elizabeth City, a drowsy North Carolina hamlet, had been shaken from their lethargy by the booming of cannon in the sound. Suddenly, the gunfire ceased. In the silence, residents gazed hopelessly at one another. They realized that Roanoke Island had fallen and that Elizabeth City was next in the path of the advance. Off in the distance a battle-scarred Confederate flotilla, gunboats that stood between a complete Yankee victory in Carolina waters, churned toward the wharf.
Elizabeth City lay •twelve miles up the Pasquotank River from Albemarle Sound and was connected with Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia, by the Dismal Swamp Canal. To defend it from attack, Confederates had put together a crude fort at Cobb's Point, several miles down the river from the town and had planted inside a battery of four 32‑pounders. The guns were good enough, but wretchedly mounted.
Confederate naval officers, fearful that the Yankee force would strike at any moment, sprang to action. They hauled a marine freak, the schooner Black Warrior, to the left bank of the river opposite the fort at Cobb's Point and lined up their gunboats, Seabird, Ellis, Appomattox, Beaufort, and the tug Fanny from bank to bank, obstructing the channel. Work details of Negro laborers were handed picks and shovels to strengthen the sagging defenses. Military support was urgently requested. Enmeshed in regimental red tape, p97 fragments of the state militia stationed in surrounding areas refused to budge.
When the Union ensign was raised over Roanoke Island, Goldsborough hurriedly dispatched Captain Stephen Rowan and thirteen gunboats to engage the Confederate Navy. At 3 P.M., 9 February, the flotilla took departure, steamed through Albemarle Sound, crossed over the bar, headed up the Pasquotank River, and dropped anchor •ten miles below the Rebel fort and the vessels strung out across the channel. That night gunboat skippers clambered on board Rowan's flagship to sketch out attack plans. Lacking adequate ammunition to bombard the fort, Rowan ordered his officers to hold their fire, run down the enemy ships, board, and fight it out hand to hand.
At daylight the Union force weighed anchor. Underwriter, Commodore Perry, Morse, and Delaware led the battle line. Guns blazed from the fort and Black Warrior. Uninjured amid a torrent of shells, the Union ships pressed on. The Confederate gunboats opened up. Rowan hoisted the signal "Dash at the enemy." Engineers threw the throttles wide open. Federal guns flashed. Demoralized by this show of strength, the crew of Black Warrior set her on fire, jumped over the side, and escaped into the wilderness. Gunners working the land battery abandoned the fort.
Out in the stream, sailors on board Rebel gunboats, seeing the oncoming Yankees, girded themselves. Above the roar of cannon, a Confederate skipper stormed: "Where the devil are the men . . . in the fort?"
p98 "All run away," came the answer.
The flotillas collided. Commodore Perry smashed into and sank the Rebel Seabird. Bluejackets of Ceres, brandishing pistols and bayonets, swarmed on Ellis and forced her surrender. When his guns failed, the commander of Appomattox beached his craft and applied the torch. The Union's Shawsheen veered to port and headed toward the tug Fanny. Fanny, soon in flames, backed off, went aground, and was abandoned. The Confederate squadron that was to halt the Yankee advance in the sounds lay sinking and smoldering in the channel. Only Beaufort escaped upriver.
Courtesy National Archives
USS Commodore Perry, a converted ferryboat
Rowan pushed his ships toward the town. Seamen disembarked and rushed through the deserted streets to prevent retreating Rebels from setting fire to private houses. The white inhabitants had vanished. Federal engineers destroyed machinery, boilers, railroad tracks, and a gunboat on the stocks, while sailors blew up the fort at Cobb's Point.
In one swoop Union ships had obliterated the Confederate Navy in the sounds and taken Elizabeth City. Upon hearing the news, Goldsborough burst out: "Hurrah for the Navy — the old days of 1812 are renewed." A soldier jotted:
The Burnside expedition, it did not end in smoke:
It captured Elizabeth City, and the isle of Roanoke.
The exploits of Rowan's gunboats cleared the way for the Federal expedition to steam unhampered in the waters of North Carolina.
The rumble of distant guns at 7:30 A.M. on 8 February p99 had excited residents of Norfolk. Telegrams trickled in. Burnside, Goldsborough, and the Yankee armada were outmaneuvered and thrashed at great loss. By 11 A.M. a crowd milled outside the offices of the Norfolk Day Book and thundered approval after each bulletin was posted. Toward noon a man on horseback galloped up to the newspaper office, dismounted, spoke to several gentlemen, and then clattered off in search of Ben Huger. At 12:30 P.M. the crowd was told that Wise's force had been severely mauled and that 10,000 Yankees were then marching through southern Virginia toward Norfolk. Martial law was proclaimed. Huger hurried 1000 soldiers to Suffolk and five companies to South Mills to halt possible Union thrusts from the south. From Petersburg, a North Carolina regiment was rushed into its home state.
Coincidentally, it rained in Richmond that day. In the early morning hours an Army officer, carousing through the silent streets, discovered a black coffin with a noose coiled around it near the home of Jeff Davis. The proprietor of the Wise Legion House, a saloon at Tenth and Main, was shot dead. Over Taylor's Store, the lieutenant in charge of recruiting for Wise's Legion put a placard in the window: "Wanted. To the Rescue." Down the street, the editor of the Daily Dispatch lamented: "These are the darkest hours of Southern fortunes."
Richmond was disturbed. The Enquirer termed Roanoke a tragedy; the Examiner viewed it as the most painful event of the war. Governor John Letcher urged the legislature to increase the Confederate armies in p100 the field and to form a state force for state defense under state control. Gunboats were demanded. Fighting without a navy, warned an officer, is like a pugilist who scraps with "a powerful adversary, with one of his arms . . . (& that the right arm) . . . tied behind his back!" The Ladies' Defense Association directed its efforts toward building steam men-of‑war in shotproof armor. Rebels dumped newly devised mines into the James River. At Fort Caswell, near Wilmington, soldiers stretched heavy cables across the inlet to prevent a Federal advance up the Cape Fear River.
North Carolina was panic-stricken. Tarheels momentarily expected attacks at New Bern, Beaufort, Washington, and Wilmington. Goaded to action, men, young and old, rushed to recruiting headquarters throughout the state. Within two days, seven companies came forward for service. Thousands fled to the interior to devour the already short crops and increase the prospects of starvation. At Murfreesboro, her bags packed and horse waiting, a woman screamed hysterically: "Ma has stripped the parlor and rooms of everything . . . and sent them into the country." A Raleigh citizen predicted that 500 men could take the city "banks and all . . . the Southern Confederacy is a 'gone coon'!" Governor Clark, sputtering and scolding, went over the head of Richmond and ordered North Carolina officers, then serving in Virginia, to ship home all spare guns.
The initial rush to the colors gave way to resentment, discontent, and gloom. At Wilmington, a man despaired: "Oh isn't it a dreadful state of affairs — everything p101 seems dark for our country now." Fearful inhabitants of one eastern district refused to serve in the military units even as couriers. "They are not disloyal," asserted the district commander, but, he added, "they are disheartened."
Inland dissatisfaction and disloyalty sprang up in Randolph and Davidson counties. Farmers, denouncing both state and Confederacy, conspired to resist, by violence if necessary, the calls made by the governor. At a crossroad •ten miles from Asheboro, a prayer meeting was held in which fifty souls raised a white flag and pledged peace. Slaves were restless. In Virginia, a North Carolina regiment threatened not to re‑enlist in the Confederate service, but to serve in a state coastal-defense unit.
Newspapers chafed for a full-dress investigation into the Roanoke fiasco. The editor of the North Carolina Standard called it military murder. The Confederate Congress lost little time in probing into the causes of the failure. Who was responsible? "I tell you, sir," stormed a Raleigh man, Confederate officials "ought to be shot, others cashiered and the balance horse-whipped." Judah P. Benjamin lost his office as Secretary of War. Secretary of the Navy Mallory was on precarious footing.
Reverberations were heard three thousand miles away. Prior to the Roanoke failure, the Confederate commissioner in Paris had been satisfied that France was prepared to recognize the independence of the Southern government provided Great Britain acted simultaneously. On 13 March he heard the knell of p102 French intervention in a speech delivered by a government spokesman in the Chamber of Deputies. Across the Channel in London, the United States minister believed that the pressure for British intervention had disappeared.
During the days which followed the Confederate surrender, Yankees at Roanoke Island improved roads, built wharves, and cleaned forts, campgrounds, and hospitals. Maneuvers at Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal had been hampered by deficient organization, planning, and leadership and, in both engagements, the initial advantage had not been pressed. Strategists at Washington learned their lessons well in these first two attacks. Once the main objective at Roanoke had been secured, Goldsborough and Burnside rapidly executed their detailed orders.
Southward across Pamlico Sound at New Bern, the commanding officer of the Rebel forts feasted a War Department official. At the dinner party, officers poured champagne freely and one colonel, reeling and bragging, proposed a toast: "Let us make New Bern a second Sebastopol, before the walls of which the enemy must perish." "Hurrah!" his comrades replied. "We'll make it a Sebastopol." It was an idle boast. On 14 March 1862 the town capitulated to Union gunboats and Burnside's men. After the surrender, a big Negro, wearing a jaunty fur hat, described the general exodus: "We heard de big guns, way down ribber, go bang, and de folks 'round yer . . . trabble up de rail track . . . an skeeted."
Mopping‑up operations in the sounds proceeded without p103 interruption. The entrances to the Dismal Swamp Canal and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal were obstructed. Norfolk fell to a frontal attack from Hampton Roads. The North Carolina towns of Edenton, Washington, Winton, Plymouth, and Beaufort were occupied by Burnside's troops. Beaufort, one of the best harbors on the Southern coast, was quickly converted into a much needed coaling station and supply base for the squadron's assaults against Wilmington, the only Rebel port of any significance remaining open north of Charleston.
Goldsborough correctly reasoned that the Confederates were finished. Wilmington tottered. But Burnside's infantry now occupied so many points that troops could not be spared. Goldsborough and his gunboats, unaided by the military, should have steamed up the Cape Fear River and leveled hapless Wilmington. Instead, the skipper, fearful to move without Army support, loitered in the sounds and failed to sever this important commercial artery. The Goldsborough-Burnside work in the sounds was itself halted in early July when a tired McClellan, defeated on the peninsula in his attempt to take Richmond, recalled Burnside's unit to the James River in Virginia.
The successes of the Roanoke expedition had crippled the war effort of the Confederacy. With Pamlico and Albemarle sounds in Northern hands, the Rebels lost their vital corn supply from the eastern counties, blockade-runners were forced to converge on Wilmington, and despondent Tarheels failed to co‑operate with the Confederate war machine. Their swelling discontent p104 was the primary factor in running out the politicians of the Confederate Party then in power at Raleigh. Battle-weary generals on the Virginia firing front were pressured into sending 15,000 men into the reeling Carolina area.
Defeated on the beaches, the South was triumphant on the Virginia front. McClellan was beaten back. His replacement, the inept General Pope, was pummeled and thrashed at the Second Battle of Bull Run by Lee. In the West, the Rebels held Grant at Shiloh and still controlled a large share of the Mississippi. But the South was faced with a choice. The Confederacy's resources were limited. It could not fight on its own beaches and carry the war into the North. Richmond would not divide its forces. The Confederacy marshaled its strength to battle Union armies and disregarded the discord which the Yankee Navy had sown. Carolinians and Georgians, Floridans and Louisianans were not blind. "You may rely on it," a Tarheel huffed, "we have to take care of ourselves." As the months dragged on, coastal governors were deluded into believing that their states were considered not worth defending. They balked at Richmond's requests. They feared that an ultimate Southern victory would confer upon their states a second-class status.
After a year of strife, the Lincoln Administration might have been shaken to pieces without the naval victories. From extreme unpreparedness in April 1861, the Navy, after twelve months of struggling, was welded into a potent offensive weapon. The Navy, with Army support, had strengthened the blockade by capturing p105 naval bases. The Navy, with Army support, had brought the war to the very shores of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Plantations were deserted, homes uprooted, railroads imperiled. The Union was sustained by the actions of the squadrons and of the river gunboats in the West, which turned the public from a deep despondency toward the realization that the rebellion would be crushed.
Lincoln recognized the Navy's value as a blockading force but was unaware of its real potential. Welles, his chief naval adviser, had not been educated to fight a war at sea. Fox, more experienced in naval matters but burdened with administrative chores, paid scant heed to the qualifications of commanders afloat. Both the Army and Navy lacked a brilliant strategist. Lincoln was gravely concerned with his inability to find a general who could win. He failed to realize that his admirals were loafers, masters in the arts of delay and double talk. Not since 1812 had naval officers tasted gun smoke, and the Navy was top‑heavy with fossilized specimens. Despite the jubilation in the North over the seizure of lightly defended Southern coastal points, Charleston, Savannah, Wilmington, Mobile, and New Orleans, key to the Mississippi River, still stood.
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The Rebel Shore
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