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Roanoke Island, NC

Confederate Commander

Brig. Gen. Henry Wise

Forces Engaged:



Captured or Missing:


February 7-8, 1862

Dare County, North Carolina

Union Victory

Burnside's North Carolina Expedition (January-July 1862)

Also Called: Fort Huger


Forces Engaged:



Captured or Missing:


          In October 1861, Gen. Gatlen wrote his impressions, “Roanoke Island is the key of one-third of North Carolina, and whose occupancy by the enemy would enable him to reach the great railroad from Richmond to New Orleans. Four additional regiments are absolutely indispensable to the protection of the island. The batteries also need four rifled cannon of heavy caliber. 1

          At the same time in Northern Virginia, Gen. Burnside was discussing his idea of a Coast Division with Gen. McClellan. The division would have 12,000 to 15,000 men, mainly from the Northern states bordering the Atlantic. The fleet would consist of light-draught steamers, sailing vessels and barges large enough to transport the division, the armament and the supplies required to move from a coastline to coastline rapidly. Once McClellan saw the proposal in writing, it was quickly approved. 2

While Burnside’s troops were concentrated at Annapolis, Maryland going through training exercises, he was in New York City trying to raise a fleet for the division. However, the majority of the ships had been assigned by late 1861. Finally, on December 12th, he let McClellan know he had gathered enough ships. All vessels would meet at Fort Monroe. 3

          While the troops were at Annapolis, Burnside organized the Division into three Brigades. (See Union Order of Battle) On January 5, 1862, the troops started boarding the transport ships and left for Fort Monroe on the 9th. They arrived on the evening of January 10th. 4

          Gen. Gatlen with headquarters in Goldsborough, North Carolina wanted to divide the coast into three districts. The Northern District was assigned to Gen. Henry Wise. While Burnside was gathering his forces, Wise was having problems building the defenses of Roanoke Island.

          Plans for the Northern invasion leaked to the Southern leaders. Wise, having visited Roanoke Island saw the importance of the island and went to Norfolk, Virginia to raise troops to defend the island. Gen. Huger refused to help telling Wise to stop whining and work with what he had. Wise then went to see Mr. Benjamin, Confederate Secretary of State, personally, which was against protocol. Mr. Benjamin went to Gen. Huger for advice as he trusted the word of a West Point graduate versus a political appointee. Eventually, Wise was ordered back to Roanoke Island to work with what he had. 5

          North Carolina Governor Clark pleaded with the Secretaries of War and Navy and President Davis for reinforcements. Governor Clark stated the loss of the sound would be disastrous for the Confederacy. 6

The Union fleet set sail on January 11th with sealed orders, only to be opened once they were at sea. By noon on the 13th, the fleet was laying off Hatteras Inlet. However, they were unable to move as a terrible Atlantic storm moved into the area. With the storm, it required the ships captains to use extreme caution to prevent a disaster to the fleet. 7

          As the storm receded, the fleet was ready to enter Pamlico Sound. When Burnside was building his fleet, he was selecting ships able to draft only eight feet of water. The swoosh, a channel of water through or behind a sandbank, was only six feet deep. To get his ships through the swoosh, large vessels were sent at a fast speed. Once grounded, the ships would set anchor and wait for the fast current to take the sand away. They continued the process until the swoosh was deep enough for the fleet. 8

          As the battle was about to begin, Wise was bedridden at Nags Head, east of Roanoke Island. This placed Col. Shaw in command of the island forces.

          After the fleet anchored about 10 miles south of the island, they had to wait out a gale. On February 7th, the Union fleet started bombarding Fort Bartow and by noon was bombarding the island’s northern forts and Southern fleet. There were no experienced artillery crews for the Confederate guns, so there was little damage done to the Union ships.

          With the help of a young escaped Negro, Burnside decided to land his troops at Ashby’s Harbor nearly midway up the western shore. In less then an hour, 4,000 troops had landed. By midnight, all but one regiment had landed. 9

          Fort Defiance was not really a fort, but a Rebel battery along a narrow strip on the island. One either side of the strip was a heavy swamp the Rebels thought to be impenetrable. However, while the 25th Massachusetts were attacking the Rebel battery, the 23rd and 27th Massachusetts walked into the swamp to turn the Rebels left flank. The 21st Massachusetts, 9th New Jersey, and 5th New York performed the same action to turn the Rebel’s right flank. 10

          As the Union troops closed in, Col. Jordan felt it was in the best interests to retreat. He was under orders not to loose the battery. 11 As Jordan’s troops advanced north, Col. Shaw felt the island was lost. He ordered all the guns to be spiked and destroy other implements. When Gen. Foster was approached on terms of surrender, he stated the terms were “unconditional” which were accepted. 12 The 2nd Battalion North Carolina Infantry arrived from Norfolk only to fire a few shots and surrender. 13

          With the victory, Burnside gained complete possession of the island. There were five forts with 32 guns mounted. The forts could be winter quarters for approximately 4,000 troops. They captured 3,000 stand of arms and large hospital buildings. 14


  1. D. H. Hill. Bethel to Sharpsburg. North Carolina in the War Between the States Volume I. Raleigh, North Carolina: Edwards and Broughton, 1926. rpt Wilmington, North Carolina: Broadfoot, 1992. p 191

  2. Ambrose E. Burnside. Burnside Expedition, The. Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: The Opening Battles. Eds. Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel. Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, 1983. p 660

  3. Ibid, p 661

  4. Ibid, p 662

  5. Hill, p 194

  6. Hill, p 193

  7. Burnside, p 662-665

  8. Burnside, p 665-666

  9. Burnside, p 668

  10. John G. Barrett. The Civil War in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University Press of North Carolina, 1963. p 81

  11. John B. Jordan. Report of Colonel John V. Jordan, Thirty-first North Carolina Infantry. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. OR Series 1 Volume IX Chapter XX. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1883.

  12. Barrett, p 83

  13. John S. Carbone. The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina. Raleigh, North Carolina: North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 2001. p 41

  14. Ambrose E. Burnside. Reports of Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside, U. S. Army, with congratulatory orders. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. OR Series 1 Volume IX Chapter XX. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1883.

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