Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Coast Division and Burnside's Expedition

By Julius Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Although Confederate-held Norfolk, Virginia, was well protected by batteries at Sewells Point and other strategic locations  along the Elizabeth River early in the Civil War, Forts Monroe and Calhoun (changed to Wool in 1862) remained under Washington's control, and a Union blockade prevented the city from resupply from the sea.  Trade with Norfolk came not through Hampton Roads but through the North Carolina sounds, until an audacious operation to take Roanoke Island, seen here, began on February 7, 1862. (North Carolina Collection, UNC Chapel Hill)     
On May 10, 1862, a column of 6000 Union men led by 78-year-old Major General John Wool landed on Willoughby Spit and made their way to Norfolk. Upon arrival, the soldiers were met by Mayor William Lamb, who surrendered the city without resistance. But what led to this symbolic and military victory? Much of the credit can be given to operations south of the city earlier that year.   
A contemporary map by D.S. Walton showing Hampton
 Roads to the north, the North Carolina sounds to the south,
and the strategic location of Roanoke Island near the mouth
of Albemarle Sound. (University of North Carolina Libraries)

At the beginning of 1862, the Union presence in Hampton Roads was limited to Fortress Monroe in what is now Hampton, and Fort Wool, an island in the channel between Hampton and Norfolk that bristled with artillery. The fortification was formerly named after the noted secessionist and former Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, but the war had brought about a change of name. South of these two positions lay Confederate-held Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard, where the steam frigate USS Merrimack was transformed into the mighty ironclad CSS Virginia. Norfolk, though cut off from supplies via sea by the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was well supplied from the south through the numerous inlets, sounds, and bays that lined the North Carolina coast by way of the Dismal Swamp and the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canals.
Matthew Brady's portrait of Ambrose Burnside (Library of Congress)

The cornerstones of defense for this area were Roanoke Island and its batteries manned by 3000 Confederate troops, and the “Mosquito Fleet,” gunboats crewed by experienced waterman, that patrolled the waters of the Outer Banks. In order to cut off the flow of supplies to Norfolk, these two issues had to be dealt with by Union forces. That responsibility would fall to two men, Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside, a West Pointer and Mexican-American War veteran with distinctive facial hair, and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, the Commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Burnside’s idea was to raise a “Coast Division” made up of New England sailors, dockworkers, fisherman and lobsterman, whom he reasoned, due to their previous work experience and familiarity with ships, would be better equipped to make amphibious assaults. By January, successful recruiting efforts led to a force of 13,000 trained men ready for the planned invasion.

A contemporary War Department map
of the route taken by Burnside's Expedition.
 (University of North Carolina Libraries)
The job of the US Navy would be to silence the artillery batteries on Roanoke Island and then take control of the waters of the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. To accomplish this task, Flag Officer Goldsborough assembled 20 vessels, as well as several hastily constructed floating batteries, mounting 108 guns in total. The ships and floating batteries would first concentrate their fire on the Confederate artillery on the western side of Roanoke Island and then support the attack by the Union Army. Once Roanoke Island was captured, the ships were to be dispatched to find and destroy all Confederate vessels in the area.

On January 5, 1862, the men of the Coast Division began to embark on the transports that would take them from Annapolis, Maryland, to a secret location in the South. By January 9, the men and their equipment were loaded and the ships began to get underway to rendezvous with the US Navy units waiting at Fortress Monroe. Two days later, the assembled fleet left the protected waters around the fort and headed out into the open sea. Even at this point, only Burnside and his staff knew their precise destination. In a short time, however, the captains would be requested to open the sealed orders they had been given to inform them that they all were headed to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

A contemporary War Department map from the campaign. (University of North Carolina Libraries)

After a rough and stormy southbound transit and a time consuming and difficult crossing of the shoal water around Cape Hatteras, the fleet assembled in Pamilco Sound, south of Roanoke Island, with a planned start of operations occurring the next day, February 6. Due to stormy weather, operations did not start till the 7th when the Union gunboats took up positions to attack the Confederates, and the Union Army landed troops to engage the Confederate Army the next day. Only four of the Confederate cannons could engage the Union fleet. While the Confederate artillery proved less than useful, the ships of the Mosquito fleet proved their worth by hitting and lightly damaging several Union ships with no losses of their own. They eventually had to leave the battle due to running out of ammunition.
The Battle of Roanoke Island. (Colliers Weekly Archives)
The next day, February 8, would be the culmination of the effort when Union troops routed the Confederates and took control of Roanoke Island. While the Confederates were defeated on land, the mission of the US Navy was not yet complete, the ships of the “Mosquito Fleet” still proved a threat and their destruction or capture was now paramount.

No comments: