|The combined fleet of the "Burnside Expedition," as it left Hampton Roads for Cape Hatteras|
On the Union side, Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside had begun assembling a combined task force in Annapolis and Hampton Roads. With the blessing of General George McClellan, Burnside assembled a 12,000-man division made up of men mostly from coastal towns. He then integrated with the division, a squadron of lightly armed steam gunboats. The U.S. Navy under the control Flag-officer Louis Goldsborough and Dublin, Ireland-native Commander Stephen Rowan assembled their own force of more heavily armed, light draft gunboats. By the beginning of 1862, sixty gunboats and transports had assembled in Hampton Roads.
Like the Port Royal expedition, Confederate intelligence saw the task force forming in Hampton Roads. Unlike the Port Royal expedition, they had know idea where it was going. Speculation ran from targets in North Carolina, South Carolina, or even an assault down the Elizabeth River and Norfolk. This was due to better secrecy on the Union side as individual ship commanders did not receive their orders until the day they left Hampton Roads. In early January 1862, the fleet deployed. Their target: Roanoke Island.