January 11, 1862 (Saturday)
That a great fleet of Union Navy vessels had gathered around Fortress Monroe was the news of the day. Northern, as well as Southern, newspapers batted around their speculations like kittens faced with too many balls of yarn. The Richmond Dispatch even correctly guessed its destination: Pamlico Sound on the North Carolina coast. However, they grossly misunderstood the size of the fleet, placing the number of ships at twenty. The actual tally was nearly 100.1
Officially, only The President and General McClellan, along with General Ambrose Burnside and Rear Admiral Louis M. Goldsborough, who each respectively commanded the expedition’s Army and Naval forces, knew the true destination.
With the secrecy so silent and the fervor to know the truth so compelling, as President Lincoln later related, one prominent gentleman in Washington nearly demanded that President Lincoln tell him where the fleet was headed. “Now, I will tell you in great confidence where they are going, if you will promise not to speak of it to any one,” said the sly President. The gentleman gave his word that not a soul he would tell, and Lincoln spilled forth, “Well, now, my friend, the expedition is going to sea!”2
Two days had passed since the last of Burnside’s infantry were loaded onto transport ships at Annapolis and taken to Fortress Monroe. The bulk of this day was spent readying the ships about to go to sea. Much concern had been expressed about the seaworthiness of the ships, so General Burnside selected the smallest vessel, the Picket, a tiny, propeller-driven ship, giving up his relatively posh quarters aboard the George Peabody, a large steamer.
Burnside was well aware that his ships were not the best of the Navy, but also knew that they were the best the Navy could spare. And though the weather forecast was threatening, he didn’t believe that it would become overly violent.
A few ticks before midnight saw the Picket weigh anchor and take to the sea.3
Waiting for them on Roanoke Island was Confederate General Henry Wise, who had taken command of the area after his poor performance in Western Virginia. Upon his arrival, even he could see that the defenses were poor. He pleaded with General Benjamin Huger, commander of the Department of Norfolk, and Secretary of War Judah Benjamin for additional troops, but neither even bothered to respond.
The only official who heeded former Virginia Governor Wise’s call was current North Carolina Governor Henry Toole Clark. His cries also went unnoticed.
On Roanoke Island itself, General Wise had less than 1,500 “undrilled, unpaid, not sufficiently clothed and quartered, and miserably armed” men, according to Wise. Burnside’s force consisted of 15,000. If the weather held, they would be there in less than a week.4
Secretary of War Simon Cameron is Out
Secretary of War Simon Cameron had been criticized in Washington and in the press for how he handled the War Department. Two prominent battles had been fought near Washington and both resulted in terrifying Union defeats and the death of Secretary Cameron’s own brother. To add to the disdain, the War Department was paying top dollar on contracts and getting shoddy goods in return.
From the very start of the conflict, guns were faulty, horses were aged and worn, accouterments were cheap, food was spoiled. All the while, Cameron profited, thanks to his holdings in Pennsylvania railroads, over which the supplies were carried.
In early January, President Lincoln, who was well aware of all of this, met with Secretary of State William Seward and others to discuss the Cameron problem. It was clear, the Secretary of War had to go.
To replace him, Lincoln chose Edwin Stanton, the Attorney General under Buchanan. Stanton had been a trial lawyer in Ohio and Pennsylvania prior to moving to Washington, where he defended Senator Daniel Sickles, who had murdered the son of Francis Scott Key for sleeping with his wife. Sickles was found innocent, in one of the first uses of the “temporary insanity” defense.
Most recently, Stanton had teamed up with Cameron in an attempt to arm the slaves, a stunt that Lincoln quickly shot down.
On this date, President Lincoln, fed up with the embarrassment in the War Department, fired Simon Cameron.5
My dear Sir As you have, more than once, expressed a desire for a change of position, I can now gratify you, consistently with my view of the public interest. I therefore propose nominating you to the Senate, next Monday, as minister to Russia.
Very sincerely Your friend
The letter was unusually short and terse, even for Lincoln. Cameron would receive it the following day.
- Richmond Dispatch, January 11, 1862, article entitled “The Burnside Expedition.” [↩]
- The Burnside Expedition by Ambrose Burnside, 1880. [↩]
- The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett, Chapel Hill, 1963, as well as The Burnside Expedition by Ambrose Burnside, 1880. [↩]
- The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett, Chapel Hill, 1963. [↩]
- Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2005. [↩]
- The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. 5, p96. [↩]