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The Federal Victory at Roanoke Island

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1136, p. 296.

March 22,1862

(From our Special Artist and Correspondent.)
Washington, Feb. 28.

At last the tide of fortune has turned in favour of the North, and the success attending the formidable preparations of the past six months is now recompensing the Federalists for the enormous expenditure which has weighed heavily upon them. In former letters I have had occasion to notice the improvement in the discipline of the Union Army, which has been gradually progressing towards a state of efficiency under the guidance and supervision of the new Commander-in-Chief. To brigade regiments, form divisions, and appoint divisional generals, were among the first tasks which M'Cllellan set himself to accomplish; and, having succeeded in these, he published a series of general orders for the better regulation and conduct of military matters, and providing for a more thorough and perfect state of discipline through every branch of the service. The consequence is, that during all these apparently idle months the soldier's taskmaster, the drill-sergeant, has been abroad, and now as the time approaches for action the Federal Government finds it has an army to rely on for support or vindication, astounding in its numbers as the growth of only nine months, and wonderfully efficient considering the short period it has been in the field. The combinations of the General-in-Chief are now being seen and understood, and those who have arraigned him in judgment before the court of their displeasure are now compelled to acknowledge their error, confuted by the successes that have inaugurated the first part of a new campaign. The victories in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Tennessee, have dealt a staggering blow at secession; while the Federal troops, hitherto depressed by their early discomfitures, are now elated and confident, placing implicit reliance in their General, and being eager to carry the flag of the Union into the heart of Secessia. I am no "Sir Oracle," so I will not attempt to prophesy a triumph for the Federalists; but, seeing the improved condition in the morale of the Union forces, and feeling somewhat competent to give an opinion, I am inclined to believe that these first successes are not to be their last. I have watched the Northern army almost from its first appearance in the field. I have seen it a stripling, and known it in its hobedeyhoyhood the prey of bullying politicians, who by their pernicious counsels are responsible for its earliest defeats. I now see it arrived at man's estate, and it should or ought to achieve for itself an honorable future.

My last letter was dated from Pamlico Sound, North Carolina, on the eve of the departure of the expedition to which I was attached to attack Roanoke Island. The rumours of an impending advance of the army of the Potomac and the distant sounds of victory from the west reached us even there, and I determined, immediately Roanoke was taken, to hasten back to head-quarters, ready to witness what must be the most decisive and important movement of the campaign—the attack on the Confederate centre at Manassas. And here I am, after a delay of some days, caused by the prevalence of fearful storms on the coast, heartily sick of combined naval and military expeditions, and thoroughly determined to have nothing more to do with them, unless I can first of all make a satisfactory arrangement with the clerk of the weather.

The telegraphic accounts of the success of General Burnside reached New York, and thence were dispatched to England long before I could send you sketches in connection with the capture of Roanoke, so I will not attempt to give any elaborate details, and will simply confine myself to a brief description of the incidents which form the subjects illustrated by my pencil.

On the morning of the 7th the fleet of transports and gun-boats which had lain off the entrance of Crotan Sound during the previous night weighed anchor, the latter forming into line of battle in three divisions. The entrance into Crotan Sound is by a narrow channel scarcely more then one hundred feet in width, the navigation of which is exceedingly difficult, as a sandbar lies immediately off the mouth. However, the entire fleet, with one exception, were safely through by 10 a.m., and at half-past the first gun was fired from the Confederate battery, evidently as a signal of some kind or other. The mainland of North Carolina lay on our left, and this we had to hug closely for two miles or so, the deep water running there. Every moment I expected to see a puff of white smoke followed by a whiz come from among the tall brakes on the bank, but for some reason or other the Confederates had neglected placing a battery here, which appears to me the more astonishing from the fact that at any time during this two miles I could have almost thrown a biscuit on shore. After the above distance the channel made a curve to the right towards Roanoke, passing under the guns of the first fort and continuing along the sands to the extreme point of the island, with two other forts commanding it at equal distances from the first, they being so arranged that a cross fire could be brought to bear on vessels attempting to force their way through. Between the first and second forts lay the Confederate steamers, seven in number, and the action was commenced at long range between them and the Federal gun-boats as the latter advanced steadily in line to the attack. At half-past eleven Fort Bartow chimed in as the Federal squadron came within its range, and it was now that the Spalding, on board which ship I was, with the General and his Staff, opened fire from her rifled Parrott. In a few minutes the plan of the action was somewhat changed, the Confederate steamers retiring behind some obstructions placed in the channel, and moving up towards the entrance to Albemarle Sound, evidently with the purpose of drawing a portion of the Union vessels through the narrow opening left, and immediately under the guns of the second fort. This was seen and understood by Commodore Gouldsborough, who detached half a dozen of his boats to block their passage back again, and to engage them as nearly as the obstructions in the channel would admit. This is the period of the action I have chosen for one of my Sketches (engraved on the preceding page). About two p.m. the Confederate fleet retired out of range, the largest vessel, the Curlew, being so damaged that they had to run her ashore under the shelter of a battery near the upper point of the main land to prevent her sinking. She was afterwards burnt by her crew, and the battery blown up to prevent it falling into the hands of the Federalists. At 3 p.m. the troops commenced landing, protected by the guns of the Picket and Delaware, who shelled from amongst the pines the force that had been drawn up to oppose the debarkation. At six the firing ceased between the Federal gun-boats and Fort Bartow, and by midnight upwards of 9000 men had been safely put on shore without accident.

The difficulties the troops had to contend against in landing were great, the place chosen being a perfect swamp, which extended inland a distance of a quarter of a mile, and in which the men sank to their knees and waists. To make matters more uncomfortable, a thin cold rain fell throughout the night, the soldiers having no other shelter than what they stood in, and many of them were completely benumbed by daylight. Nothing disturbed the stillness of the dark hours save one solitary report of a gun which heralded the death of a Massachusetts soldier who was thrown out in the forest as a picket: this was the only collision that occurred during the night. There was something peculiarly impressive in the gloom of the dark pine woods with the knowledge that perhaps within a dozen yards lurked the enemy, and that at any moment the watcher might be sent to his last account.

Day broke cold, damp, and miserable; and, after a drink of water and a biscuit each men, the Federal force prepared to advance into the interior, following a path which led to the main artery running through the island. About ten the first collision took place between the opposing forces, at the point where the pathway alluded to above intersects the main road. Foster's brigade was the first to move forward, and he deployed his men to the right of the road in the woods, engaging the enemy's skirmishers as he felt his way step by step through the breast-high swamp. I followed this force. General Reno then occupied the road with his brigade, forming the centre, while General Parke forced an opening through the roads and swamps on the left contending against the same difficulties that Foster and his men were encountering on the right. General Burnside directed the whole of the movements. From the cross road to the clearing in which the Confederates had three guns in a fieldwork, there was a continuous rattle of musketry, the fire from the concealed Secessionist skirmishers cutting up the Union men severely; in fact, even I, who you may be sure kept in pretty safe place, heard the bullets humming round as though a beehive had been overturned in the neighbourhood. At midday the clearing was reached by the head of Reno's column, and its appearance was saluted by roundshot and grape from the fieldwork already mentioned. Daring this time Foster and Parke were each pushing on through immense obstacles to outflank the battery, the latter getting up two of his regiments first, the 9th New York, or Hawkins's Zouaves, and the 21st Massachusetts. General Parke, immediately he reached the flank of the breastwork, ordered the above two regiments to charge, which they did in the most brilliant manner, dashing through the swamp and over the stumps of the pine-clearing, and into the battery which the Confederates were hastily leaving. One officer alone, Lieutenant Selden, of the Richmond Blues, remained to dispute its possession. In my sketch (engraved on page 298) he is seen falling back from the parapet, dying as a gallant soldier should, with his face to the enemy. All could see him to the very last proud and erect, waving his sword and encouraging the men to stand. But his example was lost upon them, their panic was complete, and Lieutenant Selden, whose gallantry had been unavailing, I saw laid carefully in a sheltered spot ten minutes after he fell. The Confederates now retreated to the upper portion of the island, hastily pursued by Reno, who had with him but a small portion of his force. Foster also passed on with his men towards the rear of the water battery that had engaged the gun-boats throughout the previous day, and, coming upon an intersecting path that led to it, he ordered the 4th Rhode Islanders to advance at the double and take it, which they proceeded to do with a deafening cheer. On rushing into the works they found, to their astonishment, the place deserted and guns spiked. The garrison, hearing of the defeat of their force in the centre of the island, and foreseeing an attack in the rear, had evacuated the place and retired in the sane direction as their beaten comrades. At Camp Georgia the entire Confederate force that had not succeeded in making its escape by way of Nag's Head was come up with by General Reno, and, after firing a few shots, they surrendered in a mass, numbering nearly 3000 all told, 1500 having got across Roanoke and retired to Currituck with old General Wise, whose son was killed in the engagement at the fieldwork. Thus was Roanoke Island captured by the Federalists, their success giving them the command of all the inland waters of North Carolina, and a capital basis for operations on the mainland, which will be commenced immediately. The entire loss of the Unionists does not exceed 260 killed and wounded, though had the Confederates shown anything like a fight at their fieldwork the number might have been quadrupled. I am inclined to think that the latter, with 4500 men and their strong natural positions, should have held at bay the Federal force brought against them: but more" kudos," therefore, is to be allowed the victors.

With regard to the sentiment of the people on the island, it appears to me to be quite as much one way as the other. I think all they want is to be let alone by both parties. The following were more especially the sentiments of a Mr. Jarvis, farmer and fisherman, whose house had been taken possession of by the Zouaves; he was a perfectly bewildered individual. His family was in one of the negro shanties, and he was outside, mourning over the events of the day. He had "nothing agin the North," and had sold a great many shad to go there. But the troops had killed one of his pigs, and his wife had lost her temper and her flat irons. "Do you own any negroes, Mr. Jarvis ?" queried I, "Well, I did, but three of 'em went to Hatteras last week, two more have run away, I don't know where, and there's one in the kitchen I'll give away if anybody wants him !" It was a clear case of unmistakable collapse. He was assured by one of the Staff who was present, that his remaining property should be protected, and that all deficiencies should be made good if he was loyal.

I shall now send you some interesting subjects of the difficulties of transport, and the cause of the delay in the advance of the army of the Potomac, owing, as it is, entirely to the dreadful state of the Virginia roads. The first sign of dry weather will be hailed with delight by the men, who know they are to move from the camps where they have passed six months of monotonous existence.

F. V.

Previous: The Civil War in America: Attack on the Confederate Batteries at Roanoke Island by the Federal Gun-boat.—From a Sketch by Our Special Artist—See Next Page and The Civil War in America.—General Burnside's Expedition: Fort Barrow, Roanoke Island, after its Capture by the Federalists.—From a Sketch by Our Special ArtistIllustrationVolume 40, no. 1125, p. 2 (1 paragraph)
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