Naval Intelligence in Hampton Roads: 1861-1862

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CSS Virginia.
The Mariners’ Museum.

There was no formal naval intelligence system established during the American Civil War. While a few examples exist of Northern sympathizers, free Blacks, like Mary Louvestre of Portsmouth, sent messages to various Union commanders about the Confederate ironclad construction effort. These links were unofficial and were generally between one Union officer and an individual. The Union nor the Confederacy needed to rely on such clandestine methods since Northern and Southern newspapers provided ample information, usually in a boastful manner. Each antagonist simply needed to obtain a copy of The New York Times or Mobile Register to gather all they needed to know about ironclad development. 

Union intelligence was able to receive valuable knowledge about the construction and impending attack of CSS Virginia. The information appeared to flow back and forth across Hampton Roads. On October 6, 1861, Major General John Ellis Wool, stationed at Fort Monroe as commander of the Union Department of Virginia, wrote to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott:   Read more

Burnside’s Roanoke Island Expedition: The Battle for the North Carolina Sounds

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From Norfolk, VA to Bogue Inlet, NC, 1874.
Voyage of the Paper Canoe by Nathaniel H. Bishop, https://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/nhb/paperc/intro.html#maps.

Major General George B. McClellan recognized the need for combined operations to overwhelm the Confederate war effort. With more than 3,000 miles of coastline to defend, the Southerners were often unable to protect their coastal territory effectively. The captures of Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal Sound were decisive actions that furthered General Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside’s Roanoke Island Expedition would strike at the very heart of the Confederacy. This effort to conquer North Carolina’s inland seas would come close to ending the war in 1862.

The Great Inland Sea

The loss of Hatteras Inlet was a rude awakening for North Carolina. The Federals suddenly had complete access to the sounds, and the key to the control of the various shallow bodies of water was Roanoke Island, located at the confluence of the Albemarle and Currituck Sounds. These large sounds led to Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia, via the Great Dismal Swamp and the Albemarle & Chesapeake Canals. This was the backdoor to the South’s largest shipbuilding center and was a direct link to Richmond. These sounds gave access to critical North Carolina river ports such as Elizabeth City, Edenton, and Plymouth.   Read more