Friday, January 13, 2012

Preparing for Battle in Northeast North Carolina

The combined fleet of the "Burnside Expedition," as it left Hampton Roads for Cape Hatteras
With Cape Hatteras secured Union ground forces in mid 1861, both sides recognized that one of the next targets would be the Albemarle Sound.  Confederate forces were under the command Norfolk-native Commodore William F. Lynch (most famous for leading a U.S. Navy expedition to the Holy Land in 1840s to prove the existence of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah) and the 33rd Governor of Virginia, Brigadier General Henry A. Wise. The two men did not get along very well, with Confederate Army officers not taking the threat of a Union attack seriously and not shipping more heavy guns to Roanoke Island. Most of the 179 guns guarding Norfolk and Portsmouth were geared towards an attack from Hampton Roads, not from the south.

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.

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