After the Federal seizure of Hatteras Island in August 1861, the North Carolina coast saw a period of relative peace (American Civil War). That state of affairs came to an end at the beginning of 1862. Towards the end of 1861 General Burnside had convinced General McClellan to let him raise a coastal division, specifically for use against the Confederacy’s vulnerable coastline. By the start of 1862 that division was ready for action.
Its first target was Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Since the capture of Hatteras Island, Roanoke had been fortified to defend the channel to Albemarle Sound to the north of the island. Once in Albemarle Sound, Burnside’s men would be in a position to capture a series of Confederate ports, and would also begin to threaten the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, which was connected to the sound by a canal.
The defences of Roanoke Island were not very impressive. General Henry A. Wise commanded a force of 3,000 men. He had four gun batteries, containing a total of 32 guns, three facing the main channel west of the island and the fourth on the east side. These gun batteries were not well placed – the channel was narrowest at the southern end of the island, but they had been placed on the northern half of the island, meaning that they would be unable to interfere with any attempt to land on the island. Wise also had command of a tiny fleet of seven gunboats, each with only a single gun.
Burnside’s expedition reached Pamlico Sound by 4 February 1862. He had 12,000 men, and a fleet of sixteen fully armed gunboats. On 7 February his fleet entered the sound between Roanoke Island and the mainland. The Confederate fleet was protected by a line of piles across the sound. From behind this line they fired on the Federal gunboats, before being driven away by heavy gunfire. After a brief reappearance later in the day, the surviving six Confederate gunboats fled to Elizabeth City, where they were caught and defeated on 10 February.
The Confederate forts did rather better, managing to keep up a good rate of fire for much of the day. However, they were unable to prevent Burnside from landing 7,500 men at Ashby Landing, half way down the island. At the end of 7 February Burnside was firmly ashore, and outnumbered the Confederate garrison by well over two to one.
Wise’s one hope was the nature of the island. Burnside’s progress north was blocked by a swamp that ran all the way across the island. A road had been built along the middle of the island, but that road was guarded by a small fort with three guns. This position did provide something of a barrier to the Federal advance. In a foreshadowing of later events in the war, the Confederate defenders thought that the swamp was impassable, but the Federal infantry proved them wrong, wading waist deep through the swamp until they had outflanked the Confederate position.
Once they had been forced out of this position, Confederate resistance soon folded. They were chased to the northern tip of the island, before surrendering unconditionally. 2,500 men were captured, although Wise himself escaped. Sadly, his son was fatally injured during the evacuation. Union losses were 37 dead, 214 wounded and 13 missing, for a total of 264. The Confederates suffered 23 dead and 58 wounded before the surrender.
The capture of Roanoke Island gave the North control of most of the North Carolina coast, and gave Burnside the freedom to choose what ever target he wanted. Over the next couple of months the Confederates lost Elizabeth City (10 February), New Berne (14 March), South Mills (19 April) and Fort Macon (captured on 26 April after a siege). The only port in North Carolina still in their hands was Wilmington, on the Cape Fear River. It would take the North another four years to finally block that last refuge of the blockade runners. The loss of Roanoke Island caused a political scandal in Richmond which forced Jefferson Davis to fire his Secretary of War Judah Benjamin (although he was soon restored to office as Secretary of State!).