Symposium Spotlight: Burnside’s Sand March: The Forgotten North Carolina Expedition

In this installment of our 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium Spotlight we a take a behind-the-scenes look at Dwight Hughes’ presentation on the North Carolina Expedition. Continue to follow our series each Wednesday morning for another look into this year’s speakers and Forgotten Battles.

Poor Ambrose Burnside. He gets no respect. Bumbling his way across Burnside Bridge at Antietam, through the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg and the Mud March. But before all that, Burnside’s innovative planning and effective leadership brought significant victory, catching the attention of the commander-in-chief.

General Ambrose Burnside

We tend to think not much happened in the East between First Bull Run and the Peninsula Campaign. However, a series of engagements from February to June 1862 in the sounds and along the barrier islands of North Carolina produced long-term consequences. It was the first and ultimately one of the few operations effectively integrating the respective strengths of army and navy forces. With aggressive follow up, it might have shortened the Civil War. Much can be learned from a look at the “Burnside Expedition.”

Colonel Burnside’s leadership of the 1st Rhode Island at Bull Run earned a promotion to brigadier general. He found himself drilling brigades of raw troops streaming into Washington to join Major General George McClellan’s new Army of the Potomac. This was boring; he desired more active duty, and he had an idea.

Chatting with his good friend McClellan one evening in the fall of 1861, Burnside proposed to form a “coast division” of 12,000 to 15,000 men, mainly from Atlantic seaboard states, many with experience in the coasting and mechanical trades. He would fit out a fleet of light-draft vessels to transport the division, its armament and supplies. This division, noted Burnside, “could be rapidly thrown from point to point on the coast.” He would land troops, capture strategic points, raid into the interior, disrupt enemy transportation and communications, and control inland waterways.

These were not new concepts for George McClellan. The “Young Napoleon” opposed Lieutenant General Winfield Scott’s “Anaconda Plan”—a tight navy blockade of Southern ports accompanied by an army advance down the Mississippi River—as too slow. He advised the president to apply “overwhelming physical force” to “crush the rebellion at one blow, terminate the war in one campaign.”

McClellan’s comprehensive strategic framework was grounded in his army career, experience as a railroad engineer, and observations of the Crimean War. And it reflected an appreciation for combined army/navy operations. Along with the force of 273,000 men, he would employ “a strong naval force” to support the same goals outlined by Burnside.

The primary effort through Virginia, McClellan suggested, “should be directed that water transportation can be availed of from point to point, by means of the ocean and the rivers emptying into it.” Secondary advances “both by land and water” in the West and down the Mississippi would interdict major transportation and logistics routes and capture points of concentration, isolating the Virginia front from Rebel reinforcements and supplies.

The army commander proposed not only to drive the enemy out of Virginia and occupy Richmond, but to occupy major Southern seaports, and, “in other words to move into the heart of the enemy’s country, and crush out this rebellion in its very heart.” Burnside’s Expedition fit nicely into this thinking presuming of course that it did not interfere with the main thrust.

Secretary of War Stanton approved the plan and General McClellan issued detailed orders. Burnside and Goldsborough would enter Pamlico Sound though Hatteras Inlet, which had been taken and held the previous August after a brief naval bombardment.

The initial objective would be to capture and occupy Roanoke Island guarding the choke point between Pamlico Sound and Albemarle Sound, and then block the entrances to canals leading north to Norfolk’s back door. Once accomplished, the force would proceed to the southern end of Pamlico Sound, conquer first New Bern on the Neuse River, then the port of Beaufort and nearby Fort Macon.

Burnside was to seize the railroad from New Bern as far west as Goldsborough, instructed McClellan. If circumstances permitted and only with “great caution,” he might endeavor to take the State capital of Raleigh. “A great point would be gained in any event by the effectual destruction of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad,” the vital line north to Portsmouth and Petersburg often referred to as the “Lifeline of the Confederacy.” The next point of strategic interest would be the blockade-running port of Wilmington, but that would require additional forces.

This was indeed a dagger into the heart of the Confederacy. The navy supported the plan: control of the Sounds would facilitate the blockade while capture of New Bern would provide another support base. Even the president got on board with hopes that hordes of coastal North Carolinians would rally to the flag, perhaps providing his first opportunity to establish a loyal state government in Rebel territory.

But obstacles to this approach abounded. The Civil War army and navy had no common commander below the commander-in-chief. No protocols or mechanisms existed for directing what they called “combined operations,” now referred to as joint operations. There was no common staff. Officers of one branch, however senior, could issue no orders to an officer of the other, however junior.

The services conceived of themselves as separate arms with disjointed missions operating in distinct domains interacting occasionally on the margins. When required, coordination at the operational level was ad hoc, dependent on the personalities of field commanders—their abilities and willingness first to develop and then to ensure their subordinates executed a common plan. Service rivalry and a lack of joint perspective impeded many operations and negated strategic opportunities.

Rear-Admiral David D. Porter, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Mississippi River Squadron. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Burnside contradicted the pattern, setting an example for others including U. S. Grant and Admiral David D. Porter. He developed a close partnership with North Atlantic Blockading Squadron commander Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough. He integrated merchant vessels and naval units into his force structure for offensive operations, transportation, logistics, and heavy artillery support. He created the first dedicated, rapid-deployment, amphibious combined force. Talented and resourceful subordinates carried out well-conceived plans, but not without difficulties.

Burnside established training camps that winter near Annapolis for three brigades commanded by General J. G. Foster, General Jesse L. Reno, and General John G. Parke, his most trusted friends from cadet days at West Point. Recruiting and drill went well but procuring vessels of shallow draft was much more difficult. “Almost everything of that sort having already been called into service” for the blockade.

The general and the flag officer assembled a “motley fleet” including gunboats, passenger steamers, river and coastal barges and steamers, and tugs and ferry boats to transport 15,000 troops with baggage, camp-equipage, rations, etc. Another group of light-draft sailing vessels gathered in Baltimore to load building material for bridges, rafts, and scows, along with supplies including intrenching implements, quartermasters’ stores, ordnance stores, and tools.

“Much discouragement was expressed by nautical men and by men high in military authority as to the success of the expedition,” Burnside noted. President Lincoln and General McClellan frequently were told the fleet was unfit for sea and the expedition would be a total failure.

The Burnside Expedition of over eighty vessels departed Hampton Roads on January 11, 1862. After weathering a fierce gale off Cape Hatteras, the bedraggled fleet reassembled near Hatteras Inlet and straggled to anchor in Pamlico Sound only to be battered by another two weeks of terrible winds and raging waters. Ships dragged their anchors, grounded in the surf, or collided with others causing significant damage. A few were lost, one with supplies and ordnance stores and another with over a hundred horses.

Thousands of isolated men aboard the ships suffered confinement, seasickness, hunger, and thirst, but only two were lost as their boat swamped in the breakers. A despondent Burnside almost called the whole thing off when a “copious fall of rain” came to their relief and the weather began to calm. Inventive Yankee ship captains devised a method of forcing their vessels across difficult sand bars.

On February 7, 1862, Burnside and Goldsborough executed a textbook amphibious assault against Roanoke Island with no textbook and little precedent. Navy gunboats chased off or destroyed the small Confederate Navy squadron, cleared the landing site with suppressing fire, and bombarded Rebel forts and troop concentrations.

Burnside’s transports disgorged soldiers into surfboats, which were towed shoreward in long lines by light-draft steamers. In less than an hour, 4000 troops landed; before midnight nearly the entire force was ashore. The next morning the three brigades forged up the island though waist-deep marsh and near impenetrable thickets, overran every enemy position and captured the fort with its entire garrison. “The results of this important victory were great, particularly in inspiring the confidence of the country in the efficiency of its armies in the field,” Burnside recalled.

The command moved down the sound to New Bern and repeated the process in drenching rain along almost impassable roads. Troops struggled ashore, wallowing inland to confront a large fort with heavy armament and a long line of earthworks. Burnside: “This was one of the most disagreeable and difficult marches that I witnessed during the war.” Call this one the “sand march.”

Navy gunboats worked their way upriver flanking the advance, providing artillery support and covering the river crossing. In a sharp but brief contest on the afternoon of March 14th, blue lines took the works and occupied the town. Finally, they besieged Fort Macon near Beaufort and accepted the garrison’s surrender on April 26th. Several small expeditions were sent into the interior, all of which were successful. But much to his sorrow, Burnside and most of his troops were ordered to the Peninsula on July 3 to reinforce McClellan’s failing campaign.

The Burnside Expedition achieved its objectives; the Union dominated the Sounds and coasts of North Carolina for the remainder of the war. Wrote one historian: The Roanoke Island invasion was “the first amphibian force used on the Western continent.” Another describes it as “neat a combined operation as any executed over the course of the entire war.”

Shelby Foote claims the effort “[aroused] the immediate apprehension of every rebel posted within gunshot of salt water. No beach was safe. This newly bred amphibious beast, like some monster out of mythology-half half Army, half Navy: an improbable, unholy combination if ever there was one-might come splashing ashore at any point from here on down.”

Even allowing for hyperbole, concluded a historian of Civil War coastal operations, the expedition offers “an excellent example of how the absence of traditional command structures and doctrine can be overcome by unity of effort and innovative thinking.”

But could more have been achieved? The previous November, Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, fell to the Union Navy. Although the primary goal had been to acquire a logistical base for blockading operations, Port Royal had strategic potential far beyond that narrow purpose. Recognizing the threat from the sea, President Jefferson Davis dispatched Robert E. Lee to consolidate scarce resources and improve defenses along that vital coast.

Lee warned from Savannah in January 1862: “The forces of the enemy are accumulating, and apparently increase faster than ours.” Given maritime capabilities of rapid transportation and concentration, it would be impossible to oppose landings at all potential points of attack. The Union Navy’s heavy guns “sweep over the low banks of this country with irresistible force.” He could not mount a cordon defense.

Lee fully expected Federals to seize the Charleston and Savannah Railroad inland from Port Royal, sever communications between those two vital cities, and envelop both by land and water. “This would be a difficult combination for us successfully to resist.” He improved fortifications and built up defenses in depth around Savannah with what forces he could muster. But the enemy did not follow up.

This pattern repeated in North Carolina after the Burnside Expedition. Raleigh, Wilmington, and the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad remained in Confederate hands while the attention of the Federal government, senior army and navy commanders, and the public focused elsewhere. The potential for further combined operations remained unexploited. Scant Rebel forces blocked Federal advances in both areas for two and a half years, holding open critical port cities and supply routes and keeping alive the Army of Northern Virginia.

Don’t forget to register for the 2019 Emerging Civil War Symposium today.

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2 Responses to Symposium Spotlight: Burnside’s Sand March: The Forgotten North Carolina Expedition

  1. John Pryor says:

    Excellent! One of my biggest beefs with the Union war effort was its squandering of its naval supremacy on showpiece and peripheral campaigns-the eternal bombardment of Charleston being a case in point. In a way, Lincoln’s tenderness over Washington deprived the Union of infantry reserves that could have been used elsewhere down the coast to disrupt the fragile rail system of the Confederacy.

  2. Meg Groeling says:

    Well said. In our day of joint operations, this reluctance to capitalize on an obvious strength seems just short of idiotic. In my work on the South Sea Islands and how important they might have become, I am reminded again of this oversight.

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