Complete Union Victory at Roanoke Island

February 8, 1862 (Saturday)

Union General John Foster, thus far in the war, had been kept busy. Even before the first shots were fired, he found himself in the thick of things, commanding Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. When Major Robert Anderson transfered all of the troops to Fort Sumter (which Foster helped build), John Foster was second in command. Currently, the former West Point instructor found himself leading a brigade onto the beaches of Roanoke Island, North Carolina.

Foster had spent the previous rainy night readying his brigade at Ashby’s Harbor and making a reconnaissance with the two other brigade commanders, Generals Jesse Reno and John Parke, to ascertain the Rebel position along the narrow road that led north to Fort Bartow. The Navy had spent the better part of the previous day doing their best to blow holes in the earthen fort, but in actuality did little damage. As day broke, Foster and his brigade advanced up the road to the Confederate redoubt, a few miles south of Bartow.1 As Foster’s Brigade was stepping off and Reno’s Brigade was readying itself, General Ambrose Burnside arrived at Ashby’s Harbor where he remained, seeing most of the troops off to battle.2

Col. Henry Marchmore Shaw, commanding the Confederates on Roanoke in the absence of General Henry Wise, taken ill and in his sickbed. At dawn, Shaw sent forward a reconnaissance party of his own, which found that the Federals were coming in a great force.3 His position was a precarious one. Behind this small redoubt huddled just over 1,400 Rebel soldiers. Poised to attack were just over 10,000 Union soldiers. If the redoubt fell, Fort Bartow, whose guns faced only the water, would fall with barely a fight of its own.

Shaw’s men, though terrifyingly outnumbered, did have some advantage. They had a fortification to hide behind, for starters. Also, the road to the redoubt was narrow and opened up to a clearing affording the enemy no cover.4 Shaw also had three large pieces of artillery, “one 24-pounder howitzer, one 18-pounder field piece, and one 6-pounder.” Though it was true that the only ammunition they had for the 18-pounder was 12-pounder shot, and that they had no trained artillerymen to work the guns, Shaw was doing his best to see the positive as he threw out skirmishers and ordered his men to arms.5

General Foster’s Brigade quickly threw back the Rebel skirmishers. He placed his artillery and hurried his 4,000 men towards the redoubt. The clearing before the Confederate position was actually a knee-deep swamp. Realizing that he couldn’t take the post from the front, he sent two regiments to try and break the Rebel’s left flank.6

While Foster maneuvered his troops, Col. Shaw’s Rebels showered shot and shell upon them. Though the gunners were untrained, they handled their pieces to deadly affect.7 Just as Foster was about to hit the Confederate left, General Reno’s brigade burst into the clearing.

Unable to move around Foster’s brigade on the narrow road, Reno had elected to cut through the woods and the swamp to hit the Confederate right. While the plan was sound, the ground was a morass. Soldiers sunk in up to their hips. They made slow work of it, but after two long hours, there they were, upon the right flank of the Rebels.8

Bringing up the Union rear was the brigade of General Parke, composed of three regiments, one from Rhode Island, another from Connecticut, and the 9th New York, Hawkins’ Zouaves in their brash and garish drapery. By the time Parke reached the battle, both Foster and Reno were hotly contending with Shaw’s Rebels. Reno was gaining ground on the Rebel right, while Foster was doing the same on their left.

Foster, in command of the field, ordered the Rhode Island regiment to aide his own brigade on the right. But after getting stuck in the swamp and pinned down by Rebel fire, he decided to throw the uproarious Hawkins’ Zouaves directly into the mouths of the cannons. With Major Edgar “Old Cherubusco” Kimball at their head, with bayonets fixed, and a rough and piercing shout, the Zouaves charged the Confederate works, Kimball running steadily ahead of his men. Just before the New Yorkers reached the fortifications, the Rebels broke and ran.9

Major Kimball has a better hat than you'll ever have.

Before Major Kimball took sword in hand to rush the Confederate redoubt, General Reno’s brigade had broken through the Rebel right flank, smashing it to pieces. They fired unrelentingly into the rear of the battery, and charged into the works. As Hawkins’ Zouaves were racing towards the guns, Col. Shaw and his Rebels yielded.10

Reno’s Brigade was the first to give chase. As his men rounded up prisoners, some trying to escape across the Sound to Nag’s Head, Foster overtook him on the way to Fort Bartow. After pulling ahead, Foster was met by a Rebel officer under a flag of truce, who asked about the terms of surrender. “None but those of unconditional surrender” would be granted, replied Foster. The Rebel officer, accompanied by a Union officer, returned to the fort to confer with Col. Shaw.11

They found him smoking a pipe in a chair before a campfire. When he heard that the surrender was “unconditional,” he made up his mind. “I must surrender,” Shaw replied after a moment’s contemplation. Before long, General Foster arrived and received Shaw’s sword.12

For the amount of lead each side slung at the other, the casualties could be considered light. The Federals reported 37 killed, 214 wounded, with 13 missing. Col. Shaw reported that he lost 23 killed, 58 wounded and was missing 62 men. In all, the Union captured around 2,500 Rebels in the surrender.13

The victory gave General Burnside “complete possession of this island, with five forts, mounting thirty-two guns, winter quarters for some 4,000 troops, and 3,000 stand of arms, large hospital buildings, with a large amount of lumber, wheelbarrows, scows, pile-drivers, a mud dredge, ladders, and other appurtenances for military service….” Across the Sound, the Rebels had set fire to Fort Forrest before abandoning it.14

Confederate General Henry Wise, too sick to take part in the battle, fled his headquarters at Nag’s Head, and headed to Poplar Branch, twenty miles north.15 With Roanoke Island in their hands, the Federals could fall upon the Rebel “mosquito fleet,” which had retreated up the Albemarle River towards Elizabeth City.



  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p86 (Foster’s Report). []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p78-79 (Burnside’s Report). []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p171 (Shaw’s Report). []
  4. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. I’m using this text to fill in the gaps the OR leaves out. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p172 (Shaw’s Report). []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p87 (Foster’s Report). []
  7. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p172 (Shaw’s Report). []
  8. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p198 (Reno’s Report). []
  9. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p106 (Parkes’s Report). []
  10. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p98 (Reno’s Report). []
  11. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p87 (Foster’s Report). []
  12. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []
  13. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p85, 173 (Shaw’s Report). []
  14. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p79 (Burnside’s Report). []
  15. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p155 (Wise’s long, frustrating and tiresome report). []
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Complete Union Victory at Roanoke Island by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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