January 9, 1862 (Thursday)
While General McClellan, commander of the entire Union army, urged General Buell in Kentucky to move on Eastern Tennessee, and General Halleck to create a diversion in Missouri, he also wished for some kind of action on the coast of North Carolina. All of these things were to take place for two reasons. The first was to further the Union cause. The second was to further McClellan’s cause. They were not, it seems, one in the same.
For a few short weeks, President Lincoln had focused his attention upon Kentucky and Tennessee, making a few pokes at McClellan to advance his Union Army of the Potomac southward towards the Confederate Army of the Potomac at Centreville, Virginia.
Towards the end of December, McClellan and Lincoln met with General Ambrose Burnside to discuss a fine plan to assault Roanoke Island, for which McClellan later took credit. Burnside was ready to begin the assault at once, but McClellan tangled him up in a holding pattern.
Nearly two weeks had passed since the meeting in Washington. By this time, Burnside’s armada, eventually to be made up of eighty vessels, floated restless at Annapolis. It was commanded by Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, who was the overall commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Goldsborough had proposed a plan to control the waters of Pamlico Sound, near Roanoke Island. All he needed were a few more ships. Once accomplished, thought Goldsborough, a joint venture with the Army could subdue the North Carolina coast. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles endorsed the plan, giving Burnside’s expedition the full support of the Navy.1
Over 15,000 infantrymen, all raised by Burnside himself in New England, impatiently waited in the cold and snowy damp of the Naval Academy. The infantry of Burnside’s expeditionary force was organized into three brigades, each commanded by one of Burnside’s dearest friends. Generals John Foster, Jesse Reno and John Parke had all been cadets together at West Point.
General Foster had been Robert Anderson’s second in command at Fort Sumter when it fell, while Parke was, more or less, new to the war. A year before, General Reno was in command of a US Arsenal in Alabama when it was assailed by secessionists and its surrender forced upon him. None of them had seen any real action thus far in the war. This expedition would be their baptism of fire.
It was not until January 5th when the nearly frozen troops began to board the ships at Annapolis. It would take two days to load all of the men onto the transports. During those days, the snow fell and bands played as column after column of blue-clad soldiers marched through the largely-secessionist town. There was no cheering or flag waving from the Annapolis citizenry. By the morning of the 8th, every regiment was afloat. “The whole fleet seemed to be under a mixed influence of excitement and contentment,” wrote Burnside after the war.
On this date, Burnside ordered the entire fleet to set sail for Fortress Monroe, near Norfolk, Virginia. By the next evening the entire fleet would be together.2
Both God and Man Delay General Grant
While Burnside’s armada moved south, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee, with a similar number of men, was preparing to do the same. Grant had received General Halleck’s order to prepare a diversionary expedition from Cairo, Illinois to Columbia and Mayfield, Kentucky. This was only a diversion, as the real assault would be coming from General Buell in Kentucky. He was supposed to push south into Eastern Tennessee, but had been balking at the idea when urged by General McClellan and President Lincoln.
Halleck, figuring that Buell would soon give a date for when the diversion should take place, ordered Grant to prepare. He was probably not expecting such a speedy result. By nightfall of the same day he received the order, Grant was ready to move out, telling Halleck that he would step off in the morning of this date.
But the morning was not ready for General Grant. Both God and man had put a stop to Grant’s plans. A thick fog made it impossible to cross the river into Kentucky. Also, a steamer had run aground twenty miles up the river, blocking all traffic and holding up the reinforcements that Grant was expecting. He learned this early and postponed the advance until the next day.3
General Halleck, whose command stretched through the entire state of Missouri, and now, into Kentucky, used the day to explain the predicament in his department to General McClellan. Halleck’s biggest concern was the Missouri State Guard under General Sterling Price. He overestimated its strength, telling McClellan that it could be as large as 40,000-strong. He also warned that there were another 18,000 Confederates in Arkansas marching north to join up with Price at Springfield.4
Halleck admitted that he did not know the true number or disposition of Price’s force. In reality, the Missouri State Guard was a disorganized mess. They were slowly being officially transferred into the Confederate Army.5
It had been reported to Halleck about a week prior that Price’s force was no larger than 16,000. “At present he has no discipline, no roll-calls, no sentinels, nor picket to prevent passing in and out of Springfield,” wrote an officer relaying the information gathered by spies in the Rebel camp. “Rains [Missouri State Guard General] drunk all the time. Price also drinking too much.”6
Despite suspecting that Price was currently of little risk, he knew that if the Missouri State Guard was reinforced by the Confederate troops in Arkansas and marched north to the Missouri River, they would be greeted by thousands of secessionist recruits who had stockpiled arms, waiting for such an opportunity. If troops, aside from Grant’s, were pulled from his command to aide in a push into Tennessee, “we must seriously peril the loss of this state.”
“If you insist upon my doing this now,” concluded General Halleck in his letter to McClellan, “your orders will be obeyed, whatever may be the result in Missouri.”7
- The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. [↩]
- The Burnside Expedition by Ambrose Burnside, 1880. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p540. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p540-541. [↩]
- General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert E. Castel. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p478-479. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p541. [↩]