Burnside Biography: Chapter 3

Excerpted from:
Major-General Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Army Corps:
A Narrative of Campaigns in North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee, During the War for the Preservation of the Republic.
Augustus Woodbury, 1866
Available on Google Books: http://goo.gl/1xx3Qq

Chapter III: Hatteras Inlet (pp. 18-28)

THE issue of the battle of Bull Run had demonstrated the necessity of a complete organization of the forces, which a patriotic but impatient country was placing in the field. To arm, to equip, and to organize five hundred thousand men, who had just been drawn from peaceful pursuits, from farm, workshop and counting room, and to make of them an effective military force, was a task of no small magnitude. It was felt that more energetic counsels should prevail at Washington than had thus far characterized the conduct of the war. A younger man was needed to invigorate the army. General Scott, an old and highly meritorious soldier, was thought to be — and thought himself to be — incapacitated for so arduous a service as would naturally devolve upon a General-in-Chief. The most prominent of our younger officers, at that time, was General George B. McClellan, who had won distinction in a rapid and brilliant campaign in Western Virginia. He was called to Washington, placed in command of the Army of the Potomac, and immediately engaged in the work of putting that army into a condition fit for successful operations. The rebel army had gradually extended its posts from Manassas to the neighborhood of Washington, till its advance was encamped within sight of the Capitol. Our own army was encamped around the city, and a cordon of forts was projected and put in process of construction.

Most of the superior officers engaged in the battle of Bull Run had been promoted. Among these, Colonel Burnside had been conspicuous, and he was accordingly appointed a Brigadier General of Volunteers, his commission dating August 6, 1861. General McClellan desired his services in aiding him to organize the army, and for a month or two, General Burnside was employed in that important work. But it soon became evident that General McClellan’s policy was one of inaction, so far as his own army was concerned, while the enemy was to be harassed by expeditions sent out to make a lodgment at different points upon the southern coast. These points were to become the bases for future operations, when a simultaneous advance would be made upon the enemy, and the rebellion would be crushed by overwhelming pressure upon all sides. Some of the islands off the coast of South Carolina had already been secured. The coast of North Carolina was selected as another section to be occupied. An expedition was projected to secure that important result, and the duty of arranging and carrying this to a successful end was intrusted to General Burnside.

General Burnside at once entered upon the discharge of his duties. His headquarters were established in New York city, and the months of November and December were occupied in contracting for transportation, in organizing the troops assigned to him, in procuring arms, ammunition, supplies and material of war of all kinds. The entire land force concentrated at Annapolis, Md. The naval cooperating force assembled at Hampton Roads. General Burnside’s personal staff was composed of Captain Lewis Richmond, Assistant Adjutant General, Captain Herman Biggs, Division Quartermaster, Captains T. C. Slaight and Charles G. Loring, Jr., Assistant Quartermasters, Captain E. R. Gooodrich, Commissary of Subsistence, Captains James F. De Wolf and William Cutting, Assistant Commissaries, Lieutenant D. H. Flagler, Ordnance Officer, Dr. W. H. Church, Division Surgeon, Lieutenants Duncan A. Pell and George Fearing, Aides de Camp.

The land force was divided into three brigades. The first was composed of the 23d, 24th, 25th, 27th Massachusetts, and 10th Connecticut regiments of infantry, and was under the command of Brigadier General J ohn G. Foster. The second was composed of the 6th New Hampshire, 9th New Jersey, 21st Massachusetts, 51st New York, and 51st Pennsylvania regiments of infantry, and was under the command of Brigadier General Jesse L. Reno. The third was composed of the 4th Rhode Island, 8th and 11th Connecticut, 53d and 89th New York regiments of infantry, a battalion of the 5th Rhode Island infantry, and Battery F, 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery, and was under the command of Brigadier General John G. Parke. A naval brigade, recruited in New York by the name of the Volunteer Marine Artillery, under the command of Colonel Howard, was also specially organized for this expedition. The regiments were full, and the command numbered twelve thousand strong. For the transportation of the troops and their materiel, forty-six vessels were employed, eleven of which were steamers. To these were added nine armed propellers to act as gun-boats, and five barges fitted and armed as floating batteries, carrying altogether forty-seven guns, mostly of small calibre. These formed the army division of the fleet, and were commanded by Commander Samuel F. Hazard. A fleet of twenty vessels, of different sizes — mostly of light draft, for the navigation of the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, but carrying a heavy armament of fifty-five guns — accompanied the expedition, under the command of Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough.[1. The names of the vessels composing the army division were as follows:
Picket, 4, Captain Thomas P. Ives;
Hussar, 4, Captain Frederick Crocker;
Pioneer, 4, Captain Charles E. Baker;
Vidette, 3, Captain John L. Foster;
Ranger 4, Captain Samuel Emerson;
Lancer, 4, Captain U. B. Morley;
Chasseur, 4, Captain John West,
Zouave, 4, Captain William Hunt;
Sentinel, 4, Captain Joshua Couillard.
The barges were the Rocket, 3, Master’s Mate James Lake;
Grenade, 3, Master’s Mate Wm. B.Avery;
Bombshell, 2, Master’s Mate Downey;
Grapeshot, 2, Master’s Mate N. B. McKean;
Shrapnel, 2, Master’s Mate Ernest Staples.
The gunboats of the naval division were the Philadelphia, (flagship,) Acting Master Silas Reynolds;
Stars and Stripes, 5, Lieutenant Reed Werden;
Louisiana, 5, Lieutenant A. Murray;
Hetzel, 2, Lieutenant H. K. Davenport;
Underwriter, 4, Lieutenant William N. Jeffers;
Delaware, 3, Lieutenant S. P. Quackenbush;
Commodore Perry, 4, Lieutenant Charles W. Flusser;
Valley City, 5, Lieutenant J. C. Chaplin;
Commodore Barney, 4, Acting Lieutenant R. T. Renshaw;
Hunchback, 4, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant E. R. Colhoun ;
Southfleld, 4, Acting Volunteer Lieutenant C. F. W. Behui;
Morse, 2, Acting Master Peter Hayes;
Whitehead, 1, Acting Master Charles A. French;
I. N. Seymour, 2, Acting Master G. W. Graves;
Sbawshecn, 2, Acting Master Thomas G. Woodward;
Lockwood, 3, Acting Master C L. Graves;
Ceres, 2, Acting Master John McDiarmid;
General Putnam, 1, Acting Master W. J. Hotchkiss;
Henry Brinker, 1, Acting Master John E. Giddings;
Granite, 1, Acting Master’s Mate E. Boomer.
The naval division was under the general command of Commander S. C. Rowan, second to the Flag Officer. Most, if not all these vessels were improvised men-of-war, fitted from ferry boats, propellers, river steamboats, canal boats, &c,]

On the 19th of December General Burnside broke up his headquarters at New York, and proceeded to Annapolis. On the morning of the 5th of January, 1862, the troops commenced embarking, and by the morning of the 8th all were on board the transports. General Burnside selected the gunboat Picket as the flagship of the expedition. She was under the command of Captain Thomas P. Ives. On the 9th and 10th, the fleet of transports dropped down Chesapeake Bay and anchored in Hampton Roads. On the morning of the 11th, the Picket came into the roads and cast her anchor under the guns of Fortress Monroe. During the subsequent night, most of the vessels of the expedition went to sea, and at 10 o’clock on the morning of the 12th General Burnside himself sailed. For the next ten days no intelligence of the movements of the fleet was made public.

But on the 23d of January, the public mind at the North was wonderfully excited by reports of shipwreck and disaster. It was supposed at one time, that the entire movement had proved a failure, and that a useless expenditure of materiel, money, and men had been made. As more trustworthy accounts reached the public ear, it became evident that, although there had been extreme peril, yet there had been no serious calamity, and that the officer in charge of the expedition was to be relied upon for success by an expectant country. Through storm and darkness, he had ever remained calm, collected, and hopeful, and by his perseverance had won a victory over the elements, which presaged a brilliant and triumphant result.

The entire fleet had been ordered to rendezvous at Hatteras Inlet, preparatory to its subsequent operations. When it left Hampton Roads, the weather was fine. But after getting clear of the capes of Virginia, it became dull and foggy. There was much delay in consequence. The steamers could make but slow progress in towing the sailing vessels and barges, and it was not till the 14th, that the fleet was off Cape Hatteras. This dread of mariners, the abode of storms, was true to its former repute. It seemed as though a tempest had been lurking behind this fearful point, ready to dash out and sweep to ruin any adventurous vessel that should dare approach. A few steamers with their convoy succeeded in passing safely, and, making the inlet, crossed the bar, and came to anchor in the comparatively smooth waters of Pamlico Sound. But the remaining vessels of the fleet were caught by the rising storm, and were dispersed. By the 17th, most of the vessels had made a harbor, but it was not till more than a week later, that the expedition could be said to have escaped the perils of the sea.

For nearly two weeks a succession of storms beat upon the “dark-ribbed ships” and the heroic men who filled them. There was scarcely a lull of more than two or three hours in duration, and even then the sea was running very high, and a movement of any of the vessels was extremely dangerous to the rest. At times, the sea would break over the island itself, and the fort upon its southern point was completely isolated. One or two regiments managed to get on shore, and found a precarious shelter beneath their tents. One steamer, the City of New York, loaded with ammunition, and another, the Pocahontas, with horses on board, went ashore and were lost. One gunboat, the Zouave, dragged her anchors, and staving a hole in her bottom was wrecked. A floating battery, the Grapeshot, was swamped. One or two schooners loaded with forage and provisions were driven upon the beach. But fortunately, amid all the terrors of the storm, there was but little loss of life. Six men of the crew of one of the transports were drowned in attempting to reach the land, and the vessel was wrecked. Two officers of the army, Colonel J. W. Allen and Dr. F. S. Weller, both belonging to the 9th New Jersey infantry, were lost on the 15th, by the swamping of a boat in which they were returning from the flag ship of the commanding general to their transport. They had gone on board, in company with others, early in the morning, to consult with General Reno. After spending an hour or two very agreeably, they left the ship, went onboard their boat, and put off towards their own vessel. But in moving through the surf, the boat was capsized, and the entire party, twelve in number, were thrown into the waves. They succeeded however in clinging to the boat, and for half an hour they were in this perilous position. At last, the steamer Highlander came within hailing distance, sent out her boats, and picked up the drenched and exhausted men. But no means availed to bring back to life the two insensible officers. They had passed away from earth. Colonel Allen was a native of Burlington County, in New Jersey, had been a member of the State Senate, and had acquired considerable reputation as a civil engineer. He resided in Bordentown, where he left a widow and several children. Dr. Weller was a resident of Paterson, where he was highly esteemed as a man and a physician.

The storm, which had well nigh proved the ruin of the expedition, was the severest which had visited that region for several years, and it burst upon the fleet at the very moment when it was capable of inflicting the greatest injury. Hatteras Inlet is a passage made by the sea breaking across the narrow spit of land which, in its bolder and more prominent point, is known as Cape Hatteras. The channel, if so it might be called, is simply the place where the water, for the time, happens to be deepest. Outside the island, at the entrance of the inlet from the ocean, is a bar, and just inside the island, where the waters of the inlet meet those of the Sound, there is another bar. The channel between the two, in the vernacular of that section, is called the “swash.” As the bottom is loose and sandy, its depth varies, at different times, from five to nine feet, according to the force of the winds and the current. The tide rises but a few feet. The inlet is scarcely over a mile wide, and at the entrance of the Sound, is the bar or “bulk head,” on which the water, in the height of the tide, can be no more than six or eight feet deep.[2. Scarcely an inch more than seven and a half feet,” says Flag Officer Goldsborough.]
Beyond the point, a slight curve in the shore makes a small harbor. In the Sound itself, there is sufficient water to float in safety vessels of considerable draft and tonnage. It is in general about twenty feet in depth, but abounds in shoals, which render its navigation somewhat difficult and dangerous. Into the narrow passage called Hatteras Inlet, and immediately beyond, the storm had driven over one hundred vessels of different sizes. Some were found too large and of too great draft of water to pass through the shallow channel. The anchorage was uncertain. Even before their arrival, the vessels had been considerably shaken by the heavy weather. They were, moreover, filled to their utmost capacity, with troops, many of whom had never before sailed a mile upon the ocean, and were overcome by seasickness. Crowded into this narrow and uncomfortable anchoring place, which could hardly be called a harbor except by an extreme stretch of courtesy, with no secure ground to catch the anchors, the vessels were forced about by the wind in a most uncomfortable and vexatious manner. It was no uncommon thing for hawsers to become entangled, for schooners, brigs, and steamboats to fall foul of each other, for the bow sprit of a sailing vessel to run itself unceremoniously through a steamer’s saloon, or for a gunboat to come drifting along, threatening destruction to some poor defenceless shell of a transport. It was indeed providential that the inhospitable shores of Hatteras were not thickly strewn with the wrecks of vessels, the bodies of men, and the debris of an expedition which had been fitted out with a generous expenditure of money and with every material of war.

The officers of the navy, on their part, did all that could be reasonably expected. Commander Rowan was especially active in this respect. From the beginning of operations in North Carolina till the end, the most cordial relations existed between the army and the navy. The officers of each arm of the service seemed to vie with those of the other in doing all that could be done for the promotion of their country’s cause. No feeling of jealousy ever showed itself, for none was provoked. The Flag Officer and his subordinates were ready to aid the transport fleet in this emergency to the extent of their power. But, of necessity, they could not accomplish a great deal. Their own vessels required their constant supervision and care. It is true, that they had none of that narrowness of opinion which sometimes induces one to feel that he has no responsibility beyond the strictest line of his own duty, and no inclination to go beyond the established routine of his life; but they were compelled, by the circumstances of the case, to pay more attention to their own ships than to the army transports. With the most willing disposition, the ability was lacking. Gunboats and transports were in equal peril, and demanded the vigilance and faithful service of every officer and man.

General Burnside, therefore, was obliged to act the part of Admiral as well as General, and to manage his great fleet of transports and supply-vessels as best he could. With no experience at sea, he suddenly found himself called upon to perform the duties of a skillful navigator at a time when the sailor is compelled to summon up all his resources. All accounts agree that General Burnside proved himself to be fully equal to the trying occasion, and was completely master of the situation. He was indefatigable, unwearied, ubiquitous. Generals Foster, Reno, and Parke gave him their ablest assistance, and were always ready with counsel and help. The commanders of regiments, and indeed all the officers and men behaved in a manner beyond all praise, and performed the duties and bore the extraordinary burdens of the time with great fidelity and fortitude. They saw in their commanding general an example of patience and hopefulness which they were glad to imitate.

A correspondent of the London News, who accompanied the expedition, published at the time a very graphic account of the storm off Hatteras and in the Inlet, and, in the course of his narrative, took occasion to speak of the commanding general in very warm terms of commendation. “Bravely we breasted on in our little boat,” he wrote, ” staggering beneath the giant blows of each successive sea, our decks swept fore and aft, and all on board reeling from side to side like drunken men. One figure stood immovable, grasping by the bitts, scanning the horizon for traces of ships, as we rose on each glittering mass of foam. It was the square, manly form of General Burnside, whose anxiety for the fate of his army was intense.” After speaking of the manner in which the general bore himself in the storm, he adds: “He has performed all the duties of a harbor master, narrowly escaping being swamped on more than one occasion, and there is not a grade in his army that he has not filled during the last fortnight, so anxious is he for the well being and comfort of his troops.”

This community of danger, and the courage and skill with which the emergency was met and its duties performed by all parties, endeared the officers and men to each other more closely than a well fought and victorious battle could have done. The troops gave to their commander their entire confidence, regard, and admiration, and they were ready to go with enthusiasm to meet any danger to which he led the way. It was with grateful hearts that, when on the 25th of January, the storm finally broke, and calm weather came again, they felt that they had a leader whose hopefulness and patience even the elements could not subdue, and whom they could implicitly trust. He also was glad to feel that he had a command willing, eager, and able to accomplish every result that he could reasonably wish. Fortunate was the storm in the revelation of character which it had so fully made!