Burnside Attacks Roanoke Island! Beauregard and Johnston Suss It Out in Tennessee

February 7, 1862 (Friday)

The first fingers of dawn slipped over the Atlantic, slowly throwing off the nebulous shroud of fog that thickly clung to Pamlico Sound since the previous morning. Through the wispy remnants, the sailor of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron could see the signal flying from General Ambrose Burnside’s flagship: “Today the country expects every man to do his duty.”

By 9am, the Union fleet pulled within view of Roanoke Island, held by 3,000 Confederates under General Henry Wise. With Wise down with pneumonia, defense of the forts and the island fell upon the shoulders of Col. Henry Marchmore Shaw, a former doctor and United States Congressman with little or no military training.

The Union fleet steamed closer, up the west side of the island. Fort Bartow fired a signal shot. The battle started lethargically, with the Confederate forts firing little as the Union vessels took their positions. The fleet split, some ships collecting to attack the small Rebel “mosquito fleet,” while others gathered to bombard Bartow, the most southern of the island’s fortifications.1

It wasn’t until noon that the battle swung into a full pitch. The advantage sailed with the Union ships as the gunners found their range. Commodore Goldsborough, commanding the Union fleet, had quickly bested the guns of Fort Bartow by steaming in so close to the shore that six of the nine Rebel barrels could not be depressed low enough to fire upon the ships. The Rebels, so far, had fortune upon their side. Though most of their guns were rendered useless, only one had been hit. A Union shell hit the fort’s only rifled gun, destroying its traverse so that it could only be pointed north.2

With the fury of lead pounding earth and metal as a distraction, General Burnside began to think about landing his troops. He had earlier met with an escaped slave who told him that Ashby’s Harbor, at the southwestern end of the island, would be ideal.3

Before the battle, Confederate Col. Shaw had been near Ashby’s Harbor, anticipating the Federals coming ashore at that point. When it became clear to him that they first wanted to reduce Fort Bartow, he left Ashby’s under the command of Col. John Jordan with 200 infantrymen and a couple of artillery pieces. Shaw ordered that the landing be contested at the water’s edge and then to fall back to the fort with the artillery.4

Jordon spied a small Union vessel, carrying perhaps fifteen soldiers, coming to shore about a half mile to the north. He dispatched twenty-five of his men to drive them off. And drive them off, they did, wounding one as they escaped back to their ship. Their reconnaissance mission had been a success, however, and Burnside was convinced that he should land his troops at Ashby’s Harbor before nightfall.5

Quickly, Burnside ordered General Jesse Reno’s brigade to board small landing crafts and prepare to make landfall. Sixty-seven surf boats carrying 4,000 men and a battery of artillery, were towed by steamships, each stringing twenty of the small crafts behind them. When let go, the transports floated towards the shore, where the troops quickly disembarked and marched through knee-high water onto the beach.6

Col. Jordan, commanding the 200 Rebels at Ashby’s Harbor, watched as the 4,000 Federals organized themselves on the shore. He estimated their number at 8,000 to 10,000 and figured that it was high time to scurry back to the redoubt at Meekum’s Hill, towards the center of the island. As the Union gunboats steamed in to support the landing, Jordan made his retreat without firing a shot. He arrived at the redoubt and before too long, Col. Shaw was there and in command. Night was quickly edging out the daylight and Shaw knew that here he would have to make his stand.7

Though the first Union brigade quickly landed and readied themselves, it took until midnight for the remaining two brigades to do the same. The next morning, Burnside would attack.8


Beauregard and Johnston Suss It Out

Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, hero of Fort Sumter and Manassas, had arrived at Bowling Green, Kentucky on the 5th, the day before General Grant took Fort Henry. He spent much of the day inspecting the defenses in the central Kentucky town with General Albert Sidney Johnston, department commander. Beauregard found them to be woefully poor. In fact, he considered the entire Confederate line in the Trans-Mississippi to be suspect.

Bowling Green was the left, Columbus, along the Mississippi River, was the right, with Forts Henry and Donelson making up the center. The left and right, however, were salients, jutting out from the center in easily-turnable flanks (especially in the case of Bowling Green). If Forts Henry and Donelson fell, Johnston’s line would be severed.

The remedy, said Beauregard to Johnston, was for Bowling Green to be abandoned and for all of the 14,000 troops huddled there to be sent to the forts. Johnston hated the idea and refused any thought of it. It would, he believed, give the Federals an open road to Nashville.9

The same day, Grant took Fort Henry and set his sights upon Fort Donelson. On this date, the day after Henry’s fall, word reached General Johnston, who, along with General William Hardee, commander at Bowling Green, met with Beauregard to suss it all out.

With Henry fallen and Donelson certain to soon fall, the three Generals decided that the right wing of the army at Bowling Green should be removed to Nashville, while the left abandoned Columbus for Humbolt, Tennessee to cover Memphis.

The fall of Henry and the probable fall of Donelson split the two wings of Johnston’s army. For a time, they would have to act independently.10

Despite the urges to pull back to Memphis and Nashville, Fort Donelson was not yet lost and both Beauregard and Johnston thought at least some attempt should be made to save it. The previous night, Johnston ordered General John Floyd, who once sparred with General Henry Wise, now near Roanoke Island, to take 12,000 men by rail to Clarksville and then, perhaps, to Donelson. General Pillow, who was already commanding troops at Clarksville, was to go to Donelson to take command, even though Johnston had already sent a general (Bushrod Rust Johnson) to do just that.

In a final telegram sent to Pillow, Johnston left Donelson’s defense up to both Pillow and Floyd’s own discretion. So soon after the fall of Henry, it’s understandable that confusion reigned, but Johnston was doing little to solve it.11

Incredibly large map of the situation in and around Tennessee

  1. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p181 (Hill’s Report). []
  3. The Burnside Expedition by Ambrose Burnside. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p171 (Shaw’s Report). []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p176 (Jordan’s Report); p76 (Burnside’s Report). []
  6. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p171-172 (Jordan’s Report). []
  8. The Burnside Expedition by Ambrose Burnside. []
  9. P.G.T. Beauregard; Napoleon in Gray by T. Harry Williams. []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p861-862. []
  11. Forts Henry and Donelson by Benjamin Franklin Cooling. []
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Burnside Attacks Roanoke Island! Beauregard and Johnston Suss It Out in Tennessee by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


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