150 Years Ago This Week: Roanoke Island falls to Gen. Burnside

With the fall of Fort Henry in Tennessee on Thursday, Feb. 6, Gen. Albert S. Johnston, in command of Confederate troops in the western theatre of war, hurried available troops in Kentucky to Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. Most of Gen. Tilghman’s troops at Fort Henry had been moved to Fort Donelson, the next intended target of the Federal advance in Tennessee.

At Bowling Green, Ky., on Feb. 7, Gen. Johnston met with his subordinates, Gen. Beauregard and Maj. Gen. William Hardee, to discuss the extremely serious situation in Tennessee. In North Carolina, Maj. Gen. Burnside’s combined land and sea forces finally got over the shallow sand bar at Hatteras Inlet and headed towards Roanoke Island. In Virginia, Federal troops reoccupied Romney as Gen. Loring’s Confederates pulled back to Winchester. At the White House in Washington, the Lincolns were concerned over young Willie Lincoln, critically ill with typhoid fever, apparently from drinking contaminated water.

On Feb. 8, Gen. Burnside with 7,500 Federals quickly moved inland on Roanoke Island against fewer than 2,000 Confederates under Brig. Gen. Henry Wise. Gen. Wise was ill and command devolved to Col. H.M. Shaw. Burnside’s troops attacked and overwhelmed the inferior Confederate entrenchments, pushing the Southerners to the northern end of the island. Col. Shaw surrendered more than 2,000 men and 30 pieces of artillery, with casualties numbering 23 killed, 60 wounded. The Federals casualties numbered 37 killed, 214 wounded, 13 missing. While the battle was considered a relatively minor affair, the loss of Roanoke Island gave the Federals control of Pamlico Sound and a base of operations for operations against North Carolina. In addition, an indirect back door to Richmond was now open.

In the New Mexico Territory Feb. 9, the Confederate Army of New Mexico, numbering 2,600 men consisting largely of Texas troops, and commanded by Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley, was advancing north along the Rio Grand River towards Fort Craig. The Federal fort was commanded by Col. Edward R.S. Canby and numbered about 3,800 troops. The Army of New Mexico’s intent was to secure the gold fields of Colorado for the Confederacy and to provide the South with an unlimited amount of capital to fund the war effort and operation of the government. Another objective was, after defeating the Federals, to strike out to southern California, strong in Southern sentiment, and establish seaports on the Pacific to circumvent the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic coast blockade of the South.

Gen. Burnside and his troops fought a successful engagement at Elizabeth City, N.C., on Feb. 10, opening up an important inland waterway to Virginia. The Federals soon had firm control over coastal North Carolina, and turned their attention to New Bern. In Tennessee, Gen. Grant’s troops were gathering in force around Fort Donelson. The next day, Grant’s army began its march on Fort Donelson. Flag Officer Foote’s gunboats, fresh from victory at Fort Henry, were moving south on the Tennessee River to the Ohio at Paducah, Ky., and then would go north on the Cumberland towards Fort Donelson. Brig. Gen. Simon B. Buckner arrived at Fort Donelson to assume command of the Confederates there.

U.S. Navy forces captured Edenton, N.C., on Feb. 12, as they expanded their operations from Roanoke Island. Gen. Grant’s troops arrived at Dover, Tenn., near Fort Donelson, and aligned themselves in a semicircle around the town and the fort, waiting for the Federal gunboats to arrive. A mild form of siege began. The next day, the fair and relatively mild weather of the past few days gave way to sleet and rain, with the temperature at 10 degrees that night. After additional Confederate troops managed to get into the fort, the attack began when the Union gunboat Carondelet bombarded the fort. Meeting in Wheeling, the West Virginia Constitutional Convention adopted a provision on this day that “no slave or free person of color should be admitted to the state for permanent residence.”

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.