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Burnside's North Carolina Expedition

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Title: Burnside's North Carolina Expedition  
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Subject: Burnside's North Carolina Expedition, Campaigns of the American Civil War, John Parke, Daniel Webster Flagler, Rush Hawkins
Collection: Campaigns of the American Civil War
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Burnside's North Carolina Expedition

Burnside's North Carolina Expedition (also known as the Burnside Expedition) was a series of engagements fought along the North Carolina Coast between February and June 1862. The expedition was part of Winfield Scott's overall Anaconda Plan, which aimed at closing blockade-running ports inside the Outer Banks. The amphibious operation was carried out primarily by New England troops under Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside and assisted by the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron under Captain Louis M. Goldsborough.


  • Expedition 1
    • Coast Division 1.1
    • District of Roanoke 1.2
    • Roanoke Island 1.3
    • New Bern 1.4
    • Fort Macon 1.5
    • End of the Expedition 1.6
    • Aftermath 1.7
  • Battles 2
  • Forces Involved 3
    • Union 3.1
    • Confederate 3.2
  • Notes 4
  • References 5


In August 1861, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside to lead the expedition.

Coast Division

Being careful not to ask for reinforcements from McClellan's own Army of the Potomac, Burnside set about recruiting regiments from states along the North Atlantic sea coast intending to make use of their familiarity with the sea.[1] Burnside's army, known as the Coast Division, was divided into three brigades, each commanded by a friend of Burnside's from his days at West Point.[2] The first brigade was commanded by Brig. Gen. John G. Foster, the second by Brig. Gen. Jesse L. Reno and the third by Brig. Gen. John G. Parke. In January, 1862 Burnside set out from Fort Monroe and rendezvoused with Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough at recently captured Hatteras Inlet where the two assembled their forces. Burnside's first objective was the Confederate fortifications on Roanoke Island guarding Albemarle Sound.

District of Roanoke

Brigadier General Henry A. Wise commanded the District of Roanoke and had a mere 1,400 men and few artillery pieces to defend his district. Besides a lack of infantry and artillery, the Confederates also lacked a significant naval force. A group of 8 work boats were converted into gunboats commanded by William F. Lynch. Wise contemptuously referred to the boats as the "mosquito fleet". Wise pleaded with his superior, Benjamin Huger in Virginia to send reinforcements. Huger declined to give aid but eventually Wise's reserves and a battalion of the 2nd North Carolina from Norfolk bolstered the defenses.[3] The Union expedition was having problems of its own. Severe weather hampered progress so much at times it seemed as if the whole mission would have to be scrapped.[4] The expedition, accompanied by 63 navy vessels, finally arrived off the coast of Roanoke Island.[5]

Roanoke Island

By the time Burnside arrived, Roanoke Island was guarded by 3,000 Confederate troops under the commanded of Colonel Henry M. Shaw. District commander Henry Wise remained in overall command of the forces but was confined to his sickbed at Nag's Head. Burnside and Goldsborough defeated the Confederate force and took roughly 2,500 prisoners. A few days later, the Federal navy destroyed the remnants of the Confederate "Mosquito Fleet" which had escaped from Roanoke Island.

New Bern

Burnside then returned to Hatteras Inlet and was reinforced by more ships from the navy for his next objective, the railroad town of New Bern along the Neuse River. New Bern would also serve the Union Army as a base for any further movement into the interior of North Carolina. Brigadier General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch commanded the Confederate forces at New Bern. Once Roanoke Island fell, Branch braced himself for the inevitable attack upon his command. Branch had about 4,500 green troops from North Carolina. The Confederates prepared a line of breastworks straddling the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad south of the town. Fort Thompson anchored the defenses along the Neuse River. Believing the main attack would come from the water, Branch's men faced most of Fort Thompson's guns toward the river.[6]

Burnside's main attack did not come from water. Instead he marched his three brigades up along the railroad and attacked New Bern from the south. After fighting along his breastworks, Branch's defeated Confederates fled into New Bern. Hundreds of troops continued on to the railroad depot in town and boarded an outbound train. Branch ordered the rest of his troops to fall back to Kinston to regroup.[7]

Fort Macon

Burnside's next objective after New Bern was the terminus of the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad at Morehead City and Beaufort along the southern end of Pamlico Sound. Jesse L. Reno was dispatched to destroy the Dismal Swamp Canal locks to prevent Confederate ironclads from moving down from Norfolk. Reno's division was halted by Colonel Ambrose Wright's Confederates near Camden. Although the fighting was inconclusive, Reno abandoned the expedition. It was the first setback at the hands of the Confederates during Burnside's whole campaign. On April 26 Fort Macon surrendered.

End of the Expedition

By June 1862, Burnside had occupied Roanoke Island, New Bern, Morehead City, Beaufort and Washington, North Carolina. Colonel Jefferson Davis's new military adviser, Robert E. Lee, saw the importance of North Carolina and now Confederate reinforcements were pouring into the region. Burnside was preparing for a drive against Goldsborough, his next major objective, when he received orders to return to Virginia with any reinforcements he could spare to aid in the withdrawal of General McClellan's forces after being defeated attempting to capture the Confederate capital.[8] Burnside departed on July 6, 1862 with 7,000 troops and returned to Virginia. These troops would become the nucleus of the IX Corps.


Burnside left behind General Foster in command of 8,000 troops. Foster mounted an expedition against the railroad at Goldsborough, which he destroyed at the end of 1862. The fighting in North Carolina would then devolve into a series of raids and skirmishes. Not until the capture of Fort Fisher and the march of William T. Sherman's armies in 1865 would there be another major campaign in North Carolina.


Forces Involved


Before April 2, 1862
Coast Division – BG Ambrose E. Burnside

North Atlantic Blockading Squadron – Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough

After April 2, 1862[9]
Coast Division – BG Ambrose E. Burnside

North Atlantic Blockading Squadron – Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough


Department of North Carolina
BG Richard C. Gatlin (19 Aug 1861-15 Mar 1862)
BG Joseph R. Anderson (15 Mar 1862-24 Mar 1862)
MG Theophilus H. Holmes (24 Mar 1862-17 July 1862)


  1. ^ Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: The Opening Battles p.660
  2. ^ The Burnside Expedition
  3. ^ Chaitin p.21-22
  4. ^ Chaitin p.21-23
  5. ^ McPherson p.60
  6. ^ Chaitin p.35
  7. ^ Chaitin p.37
  8. ^ Chaitin p.38
  9. ^ Official Records


  • Burnside, Ambrose E., "The Burnside Expedition," Battles and leaders of the Civil War, Johnson, Robert Underwood, and Clarence Clough Buell, eds. New York:Century, 1887–1888; reprint, Castle, n.d.
  • Chaitin, Peter M., and the Editors of Time-Life Books, The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande, Time-Life Books, 1984
  • McPherson, James M., editor, "The Atlas of the Civil War", MacMillan, 1994
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