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

First Assault on Fort Fisher: Ben Butler and the Powder Boat Scheme

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Fort Fisher, N.C., Interior view of first three traverses on land face, 1865. Timothy H. O’Sullivan, photographer. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had long recognized Wilmington, North Carolina, as the key blockade runners’ haven in the war. He had tried to create an expedition to capture Wilmington’s prime defender, Fort Fisher. Welles, in conjunction with Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, conceived an attack where monitors would pass through Cape Fear’s Old Inlet and bombard Fort Fisher from the rear. A great idea: however, this mode of assault was impractical as the new Passaic-class monitors had too drafts too deep to enter the river. The Federals; nevertheless, did not forget about Cape Fear.

CONCEPT CONCEIVED

The Federals knew that Wilmington needed to be closed; yet, they also recognized the magnitude and extent of the Cape Fear defenses. Fort Fisher was key to General Robert E. Lee’s defense of Petersburg and Richmond. The food, weapons, ammunition, clothing, and medicines that Lee’s army relied upon all came from Wilmington, North Carolina. If this port city were to be captured, Lee would have to abandon his trenches outside of Petersburg.   Read more