Battle of Roanoke Island
On February 7, Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside landed 7,500 men on the southwestern side of Roanoke Island in an amphibious operation launched from Fort Monroe. 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.
As part of his overall strategic scheme against the Confederates McClellan issued orders to Burnside on 7 January, 1862 that authorized him to cross the Hatteras Inlet and take Roanoke Island as the first step in gaining a wider footprint in North Carolina. He also betowed on his friend the lofty title of commander of the Department of North Carolina. The journey began at Annapolis, Maryland where the army and navy components united. The journey got off to a rocky start for the 6th New Hampshire Infantry aboard the Louisiana with Martha Greenwood lashed to the side. The pair of boats collided with a schooner in the dark as they attempted to move out of the harbor. Things would not improve for the Granite Staters. The journey to the North Carolina coast was slowed by a vicious storm that pounded the armada. With conditions so crowded "that it was impossible to move about" they rode out the storm. The full force of the hit about 1400 and the below decks became a madhouse of men "vying with one another to see who would empty his stomach the quickest." Charles B. Amory of the 24th Massachusetts found the experience of riding out the storm "most uncomfortable" while members of Company B, 4th Rhode Island Infantry resorted to tying themselves off to avoid being swept away by the high seas. Although all were elated to enter the partially sheltered waters of the inlet it proved no guarantee of safety. Two officers of the 9th New Jersey were lost as the small boat they were using to deliver dispatches swamped in the high surf.
The storm widely dispersed the fleet and sent five vessels to the bottom of the Atlantic. These important losses included the City of New York with its valuable cargo of ammunition and the Pocahontas beached losing 106 of the 123 horses on board. The Union commanders were again delayed reassembling the scattered parts. Further delays were encountered when many of the deeper draft vessels had to be significantly lighten so that they could be dragged over the obstacle. In desperation to speed the transit of the bar some of the boats used their propellers as augers to clear a path through the stubborn muck. It wasn't until January 25th that the fleet was completely assembled and prepared to conduct its role.
On Febuary 5th three naval columns finally stood ready to begin operations, but were again delayed by foul weather. The assault was postponed until the 7th. Nineteen Union gunboats, mounting 57 pieces moved into position to remove the meager Confederate naval presence. The USS Underwriter opened the attack at 1125 and by noon two of the seven Confederate gunboats present were out of action, the CSS Curlew was battered and run aground while the CSS Forrest was damaged to such an extent that she had to leave the scene. The remaining five boats fired there ammunition and gladly escaped the fight before they could be "utterly demolished." The encounter was not with loss for the victorious Union sailors. On board the Hetzel, an 80lb gun burst and wounded six of the crew. Enemy fire accounted for another three killed and one wounded before they were driven off. With the naval threat gone the Union ships turned there guns on the land batteries at Fort Bartow. By 1630 return fire from these guns was determined to be insufficient enough to allow the landing of assault troops. The landing location was determined when a teenage "contraband" directed them to Ashby's Harbor. Foster's 1st Brigade troops landed first followed by Reno's 2nd joined by Colonel Hawkins' 9th New York Zouaves. The Confederate commander Colonel H. M. Shaw (serving in place of BG Henry Wise who was sick on the mainland) with only 2500 troops available to meet the attack wisely retreated to Suple's Hill to consider his options. After a cold rainy night bivouac at the Hammond House about 10,000 Union troops moved on the defenders at 0730. The battle for the island was on.
The Battle of Roanoke Island
At 0730 the 25th Massachusetts led the way out of the makeshift camp followed by the 23rd and 27th Massachusetts and the 10th Connecticut of the 1st Brigade.They marched north up the central road until they reached a water filled ravine in their path. As they were crossing the natural obstacle they were engaged by the fire of the Confederate pickets. The road beyond was covered by a three gun battery reinforced by a mixture of troops from the 8th and 31st North Carolina. The remainder of his force was witheld at the northern tip of the island. As the fight developed around the guns the 2nd Brigade troops of Jesse Reno struggled into position through the swampy ground. Also present were the brighly attired Zouaves of the 9th New York. The increase of firepower quickly gained fire superiority over the badly outnumbered defenders allowing the 21st Massachusetts to manuever on the Confederate works. "Led by BG Reno himself the 21st waded into the deep swamp on the left of the road." Emerging from the swamp the 21st found itself in perfect position to assault the small, but lively, Confederate works. As the regiment organized a line of battle Reno went to the front and ordered the charge. Seeing the inevitable turning of the tide against them the Confederate commanders decided not to put up a useless fight. The defenders fired a last volley and fled. CPL Ethan Blodgett of Company A mounted the parapet and planted the Massachusetts state flag claiming the three abandoned brass pieces for his regiment.
Eager to join the attack, Hawkins Zouaves moved into position to strike the enemy position. As they made their final preparations the 10th Connecticut, dressed in gray coats, arose and fired a volley in their front. Stunned by the troops that had suddenly appeared in front of them and somewhat confused by the actions unfolding around them a portion of the regiment fled the scene. The remainder only managed to join the attack as the Confederate defenders retreated. As the other Union troops flooded into the position, Company E of the 21st fired the last shots of the battle at the fleeing enemy. Some of the Confederates attempted to avoid capture by rowing for the mainland in small boats. A few rounds splashing around their craft convinced them of the folly of their effort. They were soon waving white handkerchiefs ina "comical" display to save themselves.
After securing their gains the First brigade troops took up the pursuit of the retreating enemy. As the approached the northern end of the island LTC Fowle of the 31st North Carolina appeared under a flag of truce representing Colonel Shaw. Fowle asked terms of surrender and was told by BG Foster that the only acceptable terms would be "those of unconditional surrender." Asked time for consultation with Shaw and returned to the Confederate fort accompanied by Major Stevenson of the 24th Massachusetts. When a prompt reply was not forthcoming Foster became impatient and started advancing the 24th toward the camp. Before any further hostilities could take place a flag of truce bearer met the column and announced acceptance of the terms. The 23rd Massachusetts was sent forward to secure the camp without incident. Colonel Shaw surrendered 2488 officers and men. The casualty list for the brief fight showed 24 Confederates killed and 222 wounded. The surrender led to an investigation by the Confederate Congress. In the end the committe there absolved BG Wise of responsibility and blamed MG Benjamin Huger and Secretary of War J. P. Benjamin for failing to adequately support the outpost. Union losses amounted to 41 killed and 242 wounded or missing. The small, sloppy affair granted Burnside his first victory of the campaign. Roanoke Island was his.