Burnside's North Carolina Expedition

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Burnside's North Carolina Expedition [February-June 1862]
"The enterprise of running the blockade and importing army supplies from abroad has proven a complete success." Governor Zebulon Baird Vance, November 1863

Burnside's North Carolina Expedition, commonly referred to as the Burnside Expedition, was an objective in Union General Winfield Scott's Anaconda Plan and consisted of a series of battles along the North Carolina coast during the American Civil War (1861-1865). In January 1862, an amphibious expedition under the command of Union Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was dispatched to the North Carolina coast to deprive the Confederacy of its vital blockade-running ports. Hatteras Inlet, during the Blockade of the Carolina Coast, had been seized by Maj. Gen. Ben Butler in 1861. Next, Burnside was sent to take Roanoke Island, capture the town of New Bern, move against Fort Macon, and proceed against the railroad at Kinston and Goldsboro. Despite the handicap of adverse weather, the first three objectives of the expedition were successively achieved. The last objective, however, would have to wait.

Burnside and North Carolina Expedition Map
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Map of Burnside's North Carolina Expedition

Fort Huger on Roanoke Island, NC
Fort Huger.jpg
(Formidable Civil War Fort)

The principal objectives of Burnside's massive expedition were best summarized in the detailed instructions finally issued to him by Maj. Gen. George McClellan on January 7, 1862. Moreover, these instructions would prove more than a little prophetic of the future course of events in North Carolina during the balance of the Civil War:

"In accordance with verbal instructions heretofore given you, you will, after uniting with Flag-officer Goldsborough at Fort Monroe, proceed under his convoy to Hatteras inlet, where you will, in connection with him, take the most prompt measures for crossing the fleet over the Bulkhead into the waters of the sound. Under the accompanying general order constituting the Department of North Carolina, you will assume command of the garrison at Hatteras inlet, and make such dispositions in regard to that place as your ulterior operations may render necessary, always being careful to provide for the safety of that very important station in any contingency.

Your first point of attack will be Roanoke Island and its dependencies. It is presumed that the navy can reduce the batteries on the marshes and cover the landing of your troops on the main island, by which, in connection with a rapid movement of the gunboats to the northern extremity as soon as the marsh-battery is reduced, it may be hoped to capture the entire garrison of the place. Having occupied the island and its dependencies, you will at once proceed to the erection of the batteries and defences necessary to hold the position with a small force. Should the flag-officer require any assistance in seizing or holding the debouches of the canal from Norfolk, you will please afford it to him.

The commodore and yourself having completed your arrangements in regard to Roanoke Island and the waters north of it, you will please at once make a descent on New Berne, having gained possession of which and the railroad passing through it, you will at once throw a sufficient force upon Beaufort and take the steps necessary to reduce Fort Macon and open that port. When you seize New Berne you will endeavor to seize the railroad as far west as Goldsborough, should circumstances favor such a movement. The temper of the people, the rebel force at hand, etc., will go far towards determining the question as to how far west the railroad can be safely occupied and held. Should circumstances render it advisable to seize and hold Raleigh, the main north and south line of railroad passing through Goldsborough should be so effectually destroyed for considerable distances north and south of that point as to render it impossible for the rebels to use it to your disadvantage. A great point would be gained, in any event, by the effectual destruction of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. I would advise great caution in moving so far into the interior as upon Raleigh. Having accomplished the objects mentioned, the next point of interest would probably be Wilmington, the reduction of which may require that additional means shall be afforded you."

Civil War Burnside Expedition Map
Civil War Burnside Expedition Map.jpg
General Burnside's North Carolina Civil War Expedition

Roanoke Island and the Burnside Expedition
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Official Map of Burnside's Expedition with emphasis on Roanoke Island

(Above) Map, February 8, 1862, with forts and batteries located on and adjacent strategic Roanoke Island, NC. The island was also defended by a variety of channel obstructions, such as wood pilings which were designed to strike the hull of a ship. The Confederate “mosquito fleet” of small, shallow draft boats would attempt to lure Federal ships into the dangerous unmarked and obstructed channel. (Right) Map of Burnside's initial route and advance to Roanoke Island, which was the first of a series of battles in the Burnside Expedition. Courtesy Clark's North Carolina Regiments.



In August 1861, Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler and Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham captured Forts Hatteras and Clark guarding and entry point into Pamlico Sound. It took several months before the Union high command would capitalize on this success. Butler and Stringham were able to persuade the Secretary of Navy Gideon Welles to maintain a force at Hatteras Inlet to keep the possibility of further operations open. The Lincoln Administration did not agree with invading North Carolina from the sea, but General-in-Chief George B. McClellan was in favor of such an operation. McClellan was able to persuade President Lincoln to authorize the operation and choose Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside to lead the expedition. (In recognition of his successes at the battles of Roanoke Island and New Bern, the first significant Union victories in the Eastern Theater, Burnside would be promoted to major general of volunteers on March 18, 1862.)

North Carolina Civil War Map
North Carolina Civil War Map.gif
North Carolina Map of Civil War Battlefields

During late January 1862, a Federal land-sea expedition assembled at Hatteras Inlet to take Roanoke Island and capture control of the North Carolina sound region and its Outer Banks. The force was under the joint command of Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside and navy Flag-Officer Louis Goldsborough. After several delays due to bad weather, the Union fleet, consisting of dozens of troop transports and more than 20 war vessels, arrived at the southern end of Roanoke Island. On Croatan Sound the South’s five-vessel “Mosquito Fleet” harried the Union ships but was badly battered and quickly driven north out of range. 


(Right) Map of the principal battles fought in North Carolina.




The Burnside Expedition, which was contested during four months, consisted of the Battle of Roanoke Island (aka Fort Huger), Battle of Elizabeth City, Battle of New Bern (aka New Berne), Battle of Fort Macon, Battle of South Mills (aka Camden), and Battle of Tranter's Creek.


The Battle of Roanoke Island, February 7-8, 1862, was the initial battle of the Burnside Expedition. On Feb. 7, a hundred vessel Union flotilla steamed down Croatan Sound to land an amphibious force on Roanoke Island after destroying a small Confederate fleet in Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside led 15,000 U.S. Army troops while Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough commanded the naval contingent. By capturing the island, the Federals would have a base from which to attack Confederates in North Carolina from the sea. About 3,000 Confederate soldiers under Col. Henry M. Shaw opposed the landing, and Flag Officer William F. Lynch’s three-gun battery and seven gunboats supported them. Three forts stood on the northwestern part of the twelve-mile-long island, but were not positioned so they could help. Lynch led his gunboats out against the Federal fleet, but Goldsborough defeated them and landed the Union troops at Ashby’s Harbor. By midnight, the Federals occupied the beach, and at 8:00 a.m. the next morning, they set off in pursuit of the Confederates, who were retreating north. About halfway up the island, Burnside’s men encountered the battery and a force of 1,500 but soon outflanked them. The Confederates retreated once again, then surrendered near the northern tip of Roanoke Island.

Fort Bartow, North Carolina Coast
Fort Bartow.jpg
(Historical Marker)

Fort Bartow’s guns opened the Battle of Roanoke Island on Feb. 7, and while the fort subsequently was bombarded by the Federal fleet for seven hours, it would continue to return fire but with little effect.


On Feb, 7, Federal ships began a bombardment of the three Confederate earthen forts (Fort Bartow, Fort Blanchard, and Fort Huger) on the west side of Roanoke Island. Fort Huger was the northernmost and largest of the forts with twelve guns mounted in its sand parapets. The forts were designed to protect the mainland from Federal invasion and to complement obstructions placed in the channel. Forts Huger and Blanchard were not actively engaged in the Battle of Roanoke Island and were ineffective in the battle because the Union fleet maintained a safe distance relative to the range of the cannons placed at those forts. Bartow was the only island fort actively engaged in the fight.

Confederate Inlet Obstructions
Confederate Obstructions.jpg
(Historical Marker)

The Confederate fleet, under the command of Captain W. F. Lynch, waited to engage the Federals behind a line of obstructions placed in Croatan Sound to retard the Federal advance. The line of obstructions in the channel consisted of 16 sunken ships and pilings, which were meant to damage the undersides of ships passing through the waters However, the Confederates, after a sharp engagement which was ended only by darkness, were forced to retire due to lack of ammunition.


Southern strongholds in the region included Fort Bartow, which was the southernmost Confederate defense. It was one of three Confederate earthen forts on the west side of Roanoke Island (the others were Fort Huger and Fort Blanchard) and it fort mounted nine guns. Of the three forts, Bartow was the only one actively engaged in the Battle of Roanoke Island.


Constructed in the fall of 1861 of reinforced sand, Fort Blanchard was the smallest of the three and mounted four guns. The fort saw no action during the Battle of Roanoke Island as its guns were out of range of the main Federal operations. Fort Blanchard was surrendered on February 8, 1862. Mounted with twelve guns, Fort Huger was the principal Confederate fort on Roanoke Island. It too was surrendered on Feb. 8.

Fort Forrest, North Carolina
Fort Forrest.jpg
(Historical Marker)

Fort Forrest was a small mainland Confederate fortification on the western side of Croatan Sound and it consisted of two shore bound barges equipped with seven 32 pound cannon. The position was directly opposite Fort Blanchard on Roanoke Island and its construction amounted to an attempt to block passage through the channel by Union gun boats. Fort Forrest would be destroyed by Federal forces during the second day of fighting.

Fort Blanchard, NC
Fort Blanchard Civil War North Carolina Coast.jpg
(Historical Marker)

On Feb. 8, the Federal fleet again bombarded various positions on Roanoke Island including Fort Blanchard and Fort Forrest in support of General Burnside’s land offensive. After the Union victory on the afternoon, a detachment of Federal ships under the command of Commodore S. C. Rowan was sent into Albemarle Sound in pursuit of the Confederate fleet. As a consequence, Union forces were in control of most of the inland waters of northeastern North Carolina.


Burnside next turned his attention and efforts on New Bern (spelled New Berne at the time). Confederate General Lawrence O. Branch, commanding an inadequate number of troops in that area, decided to defend the city in fortifications located approximately six miles south and adjacent the Neuse River. Burnside, however, landed his men twelve miles downriver on March 13 and began marching toward New Bern. Determined to smash the Union invaders, Branch had redeployed his Rebel force closer to the city, and his men now braced for the attack, which began the next morning.
Although the Confederates withstood the advancing Union troops for several hours, eventually the Rebel center collapsed, and Branch’s soldiers retreated. Some Confederates, after they crossed the Trent River into New Bern, and as Federal gunboats shelled them, burned the bridge behind them.
Realizing his position was untenable, Branch withdrew his men by rail to Kinston. Burnside’s powerful force occupied New Bern the next day, and remained in Federal hands until the end of the war. Confederate General George E. Pickett attempted to recapture it in 1864 but failed. Burnside would next move on and then capture both Beaufort and the Southern stronghold Fort Macon. For his laudable successes, Burnside would be promoted on March 18.

North Carolina Coastal Defenses
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North Carolina Outer Banks and its Defenses during the Civil War

Vital Fort Macon (Center) and City of Beaufort
Fort Macon Civil War Map.jpg
Vital Fort Macon (Center) and City of Beaufort

(Map) Entrance to Beaufort harbor, N.C., showing the position of Fort Macon and vicinity.

(Right) The Atlantic Coast of North Carolina was protected by a series of barrier islands, and control of the islands and the bodies of water west of them known as sounds was crucial for both sides during the Civil War. Losing the coast would place most of eastern North Carolina in danger and threaten the critically important supply line on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad.
By June 1862, Burnside had occupied Roanoke Island, New Bern, Morehead City, Beaufort and Washington, North Carolina. Colonel Robert Brown Potter was placed in command of the Union garrison at Washington. Potter ordered a reconnaissance from the garrison under Lt. Col. Francis A. Osborne. Osborne's men ran into the 44th North Carolina under Col. George Singletary. After a brief fight, the Confederates retreated and Osborne returned to Washington. It was a small fight with no far reaching consequences but it was to be the last battle of Burnside's expedition. Confederate President Jefferson Davis's new military adviser, Robert E. Lee, saw the importance of North Carolina and now Confederate reinforcements were pouring into the region. Burnside was preparing for a drive against Goldsborough, his next major objective, when he received orders to return to Virginia with any reinforcements he could spare to aid in the withdrawal of General McClellan's forces after being defeated attempting to capture the Confederate capital. Burnside departed on July 6, 1862, with 7,000 troops and returned to Virginia. These troops would become the nucleus of the IX Corps.
By direction of Burnside, General Foster remained in the area with a command of 8,000 troops. Foster commanded an expedition against the railroad at Goldsborough, which he destroyed at the end of 1862. The fighting in North Carolina would next devolve into a series of raids and skirmishes. Not until the capture of Fort Fisher and the march of William T. Sherman's armies in 1865 would there be another major campaign in North Carolina.

(References listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: Gray Raiders of the Sea: How Eight Confederate Warships Destroyed the Union's High Seas Commerce. Reader’s Review: This subject is one of the most fascinating in the history of sea power, and the general public has needed a reliable single-volume reference on it for some time. The story of the eight Confederate privateers and their attempt to bring Union trade to a halt seems to break every rule of common sense. How could so few be so successful against so many? The United States, after Great Britain, had the most valuable and extensive import/export trade in the world by the middle of the 19th century. The British themselves were worried since they were in danger of being surpassed in the same manner that their own sea traders had surpassed the Dutch early in the 18th century. Continued below…

From its founding in 1861, the Confederate States of America realized it had a huge problem since it lacked a navy. It also saw that it couldn't build one, especially after the fall of its biggest port, New Orleans, in 1862. The vast majority of shipbuilders and men with maritime skills lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in the United States, and mostly in New England. This put an incredible burden on the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory. When he saw that most of the enemy navy was being used to blockade the thousands of miles of Confederate coasts, however, he saw an opportunity for the use of privateers. Mallory sent Archibald Bulloch, a Georgian and the future maternal grandfather of Theodore Roosevelt, to England to purchase British-made vessels that the Confederacy could send out to prey on Union merchant ships. Bulloch's long experience with the sea enabled him to buy good ships, including the vessels that became the most feared of the Confederate privateers - the Alabama, the Florida, and the Shenandoah. Matthew Fontaine Maury added the British-built Georgia, and the Confederacy itself launched the Sumter, the Nashville, the Tallahassee, and the Chickamauga - though these were generally not as effective commerce raiders as the first four. This popular history details the history of the eight vessels in question, and gives detailed biographical information on their captains, officers, and crews. The author relates the careers of Raphael Semmes, John Newland Maffitt, Charles Manigault Morris, James Iredell Waddell, Charles W. Read, and others with great enthusiasm. "Gray Raiders" is a great basic introduction to the privateers of the Confederacy. More than eighty black and white illustrations help the reader to visualize their dramatic exploits, and an appendix lists all the captured vessels. I highly recommend it to everyone interested in the Confederacy, and also to all naval and military history lovers.

Burnside's North Carolina Expedition [February-June 1862]
Battle of Roanoke Island (aka Fort Huger)
Battle of New Bern (aka New Berne)
Battle of South Mills (aka Camden)

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Related Studies:

North Carolina Coast and the American Civil War

Recommended Reading: Ironclads and Columbiads: The Coast (The Civil War in North Carolina) (456 pages). Description: Ironclads and Columbiads covers some of the most important battles and campaigns in the state. In January 1862, Union forces began in earnest to occupy crucial points on the North Carolina coast. Within six months, Union army and naval forces effectively controlled coastal North Carolina from the Virginia line south to present-day Morehead City. Continued below...

Union setbacks in Virginia, however, led to the withdrawal of many federal soldiers from North Carolina, leaving only enough Union troops to hold a few coastal strongholds—the vital ports and railroad junctions. The South during the Civil War, moreover, hotly contested the North’s ability to maintain its grip on these key coastal strongholds.


Recommended ReadingThe Civil War in North Carolina. Description: Numerous battles and skirmishes were fought in North Carolina during the Civil War, and the campaigns and battles themselves were crucial in the grand strategy of the conflict and involved some of the most famous generals of the war. John Barrett presents the complete story of military engagements across the state, including the classical pitched battle of Bentonville--involving Generals Joe Johnston and William Sherman--the siege of Fort Fisher, the amphibious campaigns on the coast, and cavalry sweeps such as General George Stoneman's Raid.


Recommended Reading: The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina (175 pages) (North Carolina Division of Archives and History). Description: From the drama of blockade-running to graphic descriptions of battles on the state's islands and sounds, this book portrays the explosive events that took place in North Carolina's coastal region during the Civil War. Topics discussed include the strategic importance of coastal North Carolina, Federal occupation of coastal areas, blockade-running, and the impact of war on civilians along the Tar Heel coast.


Recommended Reading:  Storm over Carolina: The Confederate Navy's Struggle for Eastern North Carolina. Description: The struggle for control of the eastern waters of North Carolina during the War Between the States was a bitter, painful, and sometimes humiliating one for the Confederate navy. No better example exists of the classic adage, "Too little, too late." Burdened by the lack of adequate warships, construction facilities, and even ammunition, the South's naval arm fought bravely and even recklessly to stem the tide of the Federal invasion of North Carolina from the raging Atlantic. Storm Over Carolina is the account of the Southern navy's struggle in North Carolina waters and it is a saga of crushing defeats interspersed with moments of brilliant and even spectacular victories. It is also the story of dogged Southern determination and incredible perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds. Continued below...

For most of the Civil War, the navigable portions of the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Chowan, and Pasquotank rivers were occupied by Federal forces. The Albemarle and Pamlico sounds, as well as most of the coastal towns and counties, were also under Union control. With the building of the river ironclads, the Confederate navy at last could strike a telling blow against the invaders, but they were slowly overtaken by events elsewhere. With the war grinding to a close, the last Confederate vessel in North Carolina waters was destroyed. William T. Sherman was approaching from the south, Wilmington was lost, and the Confederacy reeled as if from a mortal blow. For the Confederate navy, and even more so for the besieged citizens of eastern North Carolina, these were stormy days indeed. Storm Over Carolina describes their story, their struggle, their history.


Recommended Reading: The Civil War in the Carolinas (Hardcover). Description: Dan Morrill relates the experience of two quite different states bound together in the defense of the Confederacy, using letters, diaries, memoirs, and reports. He shows how the innovative operations of the Union army and navy along the coast and in the bays and rivers of the Carolinas affected the general course of the war as well as the daily lives of all Carolinians. He demonstrates the "total war" for North Carolina's vital coastal railroads and ports. In the latter part of the war, he describes how Sherman's operation cut out the heart of the last stronghold of the South. Continued below...

The author offers fascinating sketches of major and minor personalities, including the new president and state governors, Generals Lee, Beauregard, Pickett, Sherman, D.H. Hill, and Joseph E. Johnston. Rebels and abolitionists, pacifists and unionists, slaves and freed men and women, all influential, all placed in their context with clear-eyed precision. If he were wielding a needle instead of a pen, his tapestry would offer us a complete picture of a people at war. Midwest Book Review: The Civil War in the Carolinas by civil war expert and historian Dan Morrill (History Department, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and Director of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historical Society) is a dramatically presented and extensively researched survey and analysis of the impact the American Civil War had upon the states of North Carolina and South Carolina, and the people who called these states their home. A meticulous, scholarly, and thoroughly engaging examination of the details of history and the sweeping change that the war wrought for everyone, The Civil War In The Carolinas is a welcome and informative addition to American Civil War Studies reference collections.

References: John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963); John Stephen Carbone, The Civil War in Coastal North Carolina (2001); Lorenzo Traver, Burnside Expedition in North Carolina: Battles of Roanoke Island and Elizabeth City (1880); Richard Allen Sauers, The Burnside Expedition in North Carolina (1996); North Carolina Office of Archives and History; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; Library of Congress; National Archives.

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