February 8, 1862
The 1862 battle for Roanoke Island, N.C., was one of the earliest eastern victories for the Union. Led by Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, a flotilla of about 100 ships of various sizes sailed his force of 13,000 men into position. Plagued by devastating storms, Burnside nonetheless succeeded in approaching the North Carolina coast in relative secrecy. His objective was to establish a Union beachhead — and the one he gained was held for the duration of the war.
Burnside’s opponent was the ex-governor of Virginia, Gen. Henry Wise (who happened to be married to the sister of Union Gen. George G. Meade). Wise had only a modest force of about 1,900 effective men, including his son, Capt. O. Jennings Wise. The senior Wise had been to Richmond to plead for reinforcements and material, but he returned to his post empty-handed.
Burnside and his troops landed on January 13. After some reconnoitering, Burnside decided to attack at Ashby’s Landing near Fort Bartow on the western side of Roanoke Island. Initially events went smoothly for the Yankees, but one Union officer predicted that “this expedition will fall into entire insignifacance.” One Confederate officer optimistically stated, “Our people oughtt to be able to drive them (Yankees) away.”
On Friday, February 7, at 11:23 A.M., Burnside’s naval boats let loose a horrendous barrage from their heavy guns. Soon, the big Confederate guns at Fort Bartow answered the fire, and the cannonade continued for the remainder of the day. At about 5:00 P.M. Burnside ordered his first troops ashore. Among the first Yankees to land were the men of the 51st Pennsylvania, led by Col. John F. Hartranft. By 9:00 approximately 10,000 Yankees had made their way to shore despite the hard-driving rain. Thoroughly drenched, the men in blue struggled through a damp dinner and rested in preparation for the fight certain to come in the morning.
The next morning, supported by gunboats, the Federals assaulted the Confederate forts on the narrow waist of the island, driving back and out-maneuvering Brig. Gen. Henry Wise’s outnumbered command. After losing less than 100 men, the Confederate commander on the field, Col. H.M. Shaw, surrendered about 2,500 soldiers and 32 guns. Burnside had secured an important outpost on the Atlantic Coast, tightening the blockade.
Fascinating Fact: While Burnside’s demand for secrecy kept his officers guessing about their destination, Henry T. Clark, governor of North Carolina, was able to correctly declare that the Union army was headed for Pamlico Sound.