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
(University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1952). 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
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
History Press, Charleston, S.C. 2015
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.