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Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside

Many visitors to Fredericksburg consider Union Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside was either insane or stupid, based upon his repeated attacks upon the stone wall during the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862.

While Burnside made mistakes in this battle, many people view the general with tunnel vision, seeing only his actions at Fredericksburg. Was Burnside's performance at Fredericksburg typical or not? Was he stupid or did he simply make mistakes upon which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee capitalized?

At a meeting of the Rappahannock Valley Civil War Roundtable, Stafford County resident Milton Ford partially addressed this question by looking at Burnside's campaign along coastal North Carolina in early 1862 Ford's grandfather and other ancestors served under Burnside in this expedition. Ford grew up hearing stories about the affacble burnside, who was one of the great men in Rhode Island history.

It was not until Ford retired to this area and took a Civil War class at Mary Washington College that he began to hear negative things about his hero. He followed that with volunteer work at the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center, where he was constantly exposed to people's sharp criticism of Burnside. Reinforced by William Marvel's sympathetic biography of Burnside, Ford has attempted to set the record straight about his hero.

The year 1861 had not gone well for the Union armies. That winter, Burnside assembled a division of troops supported by a naval flotiila at Annapolis, Md. Burnside established three immediate objectives: the capture of Roanoke Island, New Bern and Fort Macon.

His troops would then move inland to Goldsboro to slice the Weldon Railroad, the Confederate lifeline transporting food and supplies from Wilmington near the coast to Confederate soldiers in Virginia. A unique feature of coastal North Carolina is its line of barrier islands, the Outer Banks. Roanoke Island lies just west of the modern-day resort community of Nags Head, at the entrance to Albemarle Sound. Burnside's plan was more like a World War II operation in the South Pacific than a Civil War action.

The invasinon would begin with a naval bombardment followed by an amphibious landing by 10,000 men. The 3,000 Confederates were badly outnumbered, and their fortifications were placed at the Northern end of the island. The invasion came of Feb. 7, 1862.

The much larger Union navy easily handled the Confederate navy, and by midnight the Federal landing force had swarmed ashore on the island's southern end. Burnside had caught his adversary by surprise.

The next day, the infantry began moving north on a causeway above the island's interior swamps. Aboout halfway up the 12-mile long issland, they finally met resistance. Burnside divided his command, sending a portion around each Confederate flank while the 9th New York Zouaves charged up the causeway. Enveloped, the Confederate line broke and rushed toward the island's northern tip.

Unable to find ships to transport them to safety, the Southerners surrendered. Burnside and his subordinates had performed well in achieving the victory, which boosted Union morale still suffering from defeats the previous summer. Leaving a small garrison on the island, Burnside pushed on toward his next objective, New Bern on the Neuse River approximately 100 miles southwest of Roanoke Island. Gen. Lawrence Branch placed his badly outnumbered forces across the main road several miles below the city, with inexperienced militia holding the center of the line. On March 14, Burnside again deployed a flanking force. He sent two of his three brigades up the road while the third followed a railroad track around the Confederate right flank.

The center gave way, but not all the Southern defenders received word to retreat and some were captured. It took five days for Branch to concentrate his command in Kinston. The loss of New Bern was a severe loss to the Confederates. The Union had captured 425 men and large numbers of guns, cannons and ammunition. The Confederates would need to rethink their policy of stripping coastal defenses. Most importantly, Burnside had secured a base for movement toward Goldsboro on the Weldon Railroad. The stage was now set for accomplishing Burnside's third objective. Fort Macon lay on the eastern tip of Bogue Ilsand near Beaufort at the southern end of the Outer Banks, about 35 miles southeast of New Bern.

A brick fort, Fort Macon was built in the same general style as Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began. A 500-man garrison under Col. Moses J. White manned the fort. Its strong walls were designed to protect Beaufort from an attack from the sea, but it was vulnerable from the north. It could be cut off and the garrison starved out. Burnside sent Gen. John G. Parke to receive the fort's surrender, which White refused. Parke's advance units landed on the west side of Bogue Island on March 29. For two weeks, Parke strengthened his beachhead.

By April 10, Parke had become convinced that a™ siege rather than an attack was prudent. Within five days, Parke had brought up enough heavy artillery to doom the fort, but still White refused to surrender. At dawn on April 25, a massive bombardment from the artillery on land from the navy proved amazingly accurate and effective. That afternoon,

White surrendered his command. It had been almost a bloodless siege, with both sides reporting only a total of eight killed and 28 wounded. Burnside had captured a deepwater port for use in blockading this section of the Atlantic Coast and for operations against Wilmington, an important seaport. Burnside had achieved all three of his objectives with little loss of life. The Confederates had helped him out by largely stripping their defenses along the North Carolina coast and then mismanaging the available troops.

Burnside had dealt with ocean storms, swamps and terrain problems and outgeneraled his opponents in establishing a substantial foothold on the North Carolina coast. At the time the Union was putting an important series of victories together in the West: Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Pea Ridge, Shiloh and Island No. 10 and the capture of Nashville and New Orleans.

In the East, Burnside's success in North Carolina stood in marked contrast to McClellan's plodding movement up the Peninsula while "Stonewall" Jackson had begun his famous campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. Burnside had become of the war's early Union heroes, a fact obscured by his later actions. By mid-May, Burnside had consolidated his troops on New Bern.

Awaiting orders from McClellan and horses ofr the movement toward Goldsboro, he sent an expedition against Washington, N.C. In the aftermath of McClellan's fiasco in the Seven Days Campaign, in early July most of burnside's command was ordered to Virginia to support McClellan. His North Carolina foothold had become nearly meaningless, and it would be nearly three years before the Yankees captured Wilmington and then Goldsboro.

- MAC WYCKOFF