Burnside Poised to Strike Roanoke Island

February 5, 1862 (Wednesday)

Since we last left General Ambrose Burnside, stranded with his joint fleet off the coast of Cape Hatteras, bobbing and flailing amidst storm after storm, little of his plight had changed until very recently.

Of Burnside’s fleet of eighty vessels, several had been lost. The soldiers, huddled and no doubt terrified, were forced to remain on their transport ships, rather than encamping on Hatteras Island. Surrounded by ocean water, there was soon nothing to drink and before long the soldiers were selling cups of rainwater to each other at embarrassing prices.

The storms were obviously to blame for the bulk of the wait, and while the infantry troops understood this and passed on blaming their commander, the Navy understood that Burnside was indeed to blame. They had been ready to move since January 19th, wrote Admiral Goldsborough, Naval commander of the expedition, to his wife in late January.1

The weather cleared considerably by the 26th and the vessels began to cross the swash into Pamlico Sound. This was an irritating and laborious task. The channel, which was said to be eight fathoms deep, turned out to be only six. Most of the ships in the fleet drew more than that; the channel would have to be deepened.

The current over the swath was swift, which enabled them to devise a method of deepening the channel by grounding the large vessels on the bar and allowing the sand to wash out from under them. With the aid of the current, the ships plowed out the swath to the required depth. By February 4, the entire fleet was across and into the Sound. That same day, General Burnside issued detailed orders for the attack upon Roanoke Island.

The next day, this date, the fleet began its voyage from Hatteras Inlet to Roanoke Island. The gunships under Goldsborough took the lead, with the transports following behind. Sixty-five vessels steamed their way up Pamlico Sound towards their target.2

Admiral Goldsborough spent most of the day maneuvering around Long Shoal, ever cautious. By evening, the lead ships of the fleet anchored off Stumpy Point, ten miles or so south of Roanoke Island. A ship was sent ashore to kidnap a local pilot who could guide the fleet safely to their objective.

The next morning, however, was cloaked in thick, unmovable fog. Burnside dared to venture no farther till it lifted.3

Meanwhile, on Roanoke Island, the Confederates failed to take advantage of the Union delay. Perhaps they figured that God, Himself, was protecting them with his furious storms, battering their ships to pieces only to send them running without firing a shot.

The Rebels failed to take advantage, it was true, but it was not entirely for lack of trying. General Henry Wise, Confederate commander in the region after being ushered from Western Virginia, made a quick jaunt to Richmond, hoping to procure the favor of Secretary of War Judah Benjamin. Wise’s request for additional troops fell upon deaf ears, though he was ordered to go directly to Roanoke Island to take command of the post.4

While Wise was gone, Col. Henry Marchmore Shaw was left in charge of the woefully inadequate defenses. To assure their improvement, he tried to procure slaves to build up the fortifications.5 When Wise returned, and while he was recovering from a bout of pneumonia (or possibly pleuritis), also tried to appropriate “free negro laborers.”6 It was, however, too late.

Wise was confined to his sick bed and Col. Shaw was at the helm. Shaw, born a New Englander, was not well-respected among his men, who were already in a sorry state. Fully a quarter of the men were on the sick list.

Burnside’s force consisted of over 13,000, well-armed men. Wise’s, on the other hand, was made up of no more than 2,300. Though slight in number, Wise’s men (actually Shaw’s men) had four earthen forts and an artillery emplacement to help in their defense. The Union attack, however, was coming from the south. Three of the forts were on the west side, while another was on the mainland. Once the fog lifted, there was little hope for the Rebels.7

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10,000 Rebels En Route to Fort Henry? Halleck, Buell and McClellan Have an Odd Conversation

For General Grant, about to assail Fort Henry on the Tennessee River, this was a day of preparation. While he waited for the remainder of his troops to arrive at Camp Halleck, three miles downstream from Henry, Grant set 11am of February 6th to move out.

General McClernand was to move on the east side of the river towards Fort Henry, while General Smith was to move on the west side of the river towards the much smaller and abandoned Fort Heiman. Grant, believing that the Rebels were soon to be reinforced, knew timing was everything.8

That Rebel reinforcements were soon to arrive at Fort Henry was a common misconception on this day. An odd conversation took place via telegraph between Generals Halleck, Buell and McClellan. General Halleck, Grant’s superior, first wired General Buell, commanding in Kentucky, asking him if he could make a demonstration before Rebel-held Bowling Green, apparently to keep them from reinforcing Fort Henry.

Buell, who was told by Halleck, only a couple of days prior, that his help would not be needed, replied that he could make no diversion, but he would launch a full scale attack. It would, however, take twelve or so days to get his ducks in a row.

Before Buell could reply, Halleck wired General McClellan in Washington, informing him that 10,000 Confederate troops had just left Bowling Green to reinforce Fort Henry. He then asked for infantry from Ohio.

Rather than replying to Halleck, McClellan telegraphed Buell, bringing him up to speed on the 10,000 Rebels headed towards Fort Henry. He also asked him to make a demonstration on Bowling Green, and to communicate with Halleck. McClellan then wired Halleck, telling him what he told Buell.

Buell replied to McClellan with good news and bad news. The bad news was that he couldn’t make a demonstration upon Bowling Green (it was “strongly fortified behind a river”). The good news was that he could loan Halleck a brigade. He also informed Halleck of this, but added that the brigade was only available “if you find that you absolutely require it; otherwise I have use for it.”9

In reality, there were no 10,000 Rebels en route to Fort Henry. While Confederate General Lloyd Tilghman had wired both Bowling Green and Columbus, Kentucky to send reinforcements, neither had come through. How the rumor of 10,000 was started seems anyone’s guess.



  1. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []
  2. The Burnside Expedition by Ambrose Burnside, 1880. []
  3. Burnside by William Marvel, UNC Press Books, 1991. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p140. []
  5. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p150. []
  7. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []
  8. Grant Rises in the West by Kenneth P. Williams. []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p583-584. []
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