Two days after the fall of the strategically important Fort Henry in the west, the Confederacy has suffered another blow, this time in the east, with the loss of Fort Huger on Roanoke Island. This loss, many believe, may be more severe, as it opens up a back door entry to the nation’s capitol in Richmond.
Since October of last year, forces have been building up inside the fortifications around Roanoke Island, but not the supplies. Most of the guns carried by the soldiers were their own shotguns. Food has been often scarce, and medical supplies are so rare than as many as a quarter of the soldiers have been on the sick list at any given time. Pleas to Richmond for better supplies have gone largely unanswered. Their forts were under-gunned as well. Fort Huger had 12 guns, Fort Blanchard had four, and Fort Bartow had eight guns.
The Federals, meanwhile, have been stepping up their attacks all along the North Carolina Coast, invading strategic points like Hatteras Island with regiments of fishermen, dockworkers, and others used to the sea who would know where to strike most effectively. Their commander, Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside, has been carefully organizing the attacks in his “Burnside Expedition” to maximize their effects. On retrospect, it seems that the earlier attacks were a lead-up to this moment.
He approached the North Carolina Sounds where Roanoke Island sat with 29 gunboats, most of them converted from merchant vessels since they were more suited to sailing in the sound while still being sturdy, along with several floating batteries with howitzers protected by sandbags and bales of hay. Accompanying them were several transports with more than 10,000 fully armed soldiers.
As the Federal fleet sailed into Pamlico Sound, the Confederates remained strangely inert, not reinforcing their garrison of approximately 2,000 men.
One February 7th, as stormy winds abated, the gunboats opened fire on the three forts. The Confederates sent out their navy, a small armada referred to as the “Mosquito Fleet,” which is made up of seven gunboats with eight guns, all commanded by Flag Officer William F. Lynch. Though all performed admirably, they had little effect compared to the forts’ concentrated fire on the Federal fleet. General Henry A. Wise, in charge of all Confederate forces on the island and within the sound, was not impressed, and is quoted as saying, "Captain Lynch was energetic, zealous, and active, but he gave too much consequence entirely to his fleet of gunboats, which hindered transportation of piles, lumber, forage, supplies of all kinds, and of troops, by taking away the steam-tugs and converting them into perfectly imbecile gunboats."
The bombardment lasted all day, and was concluded with a landing, which was contested by a small force that was driven away by the Federal gunboats. Ten thousand infantry lined up on land, but the day was ending, and they struck camp for the night.
The second day was the land battle. The Union numbers were offset by the Confederate defense at a choke point where a mere 400 infantry was able to withstand the pressure for a little while. It was short lived, however, as Brigadier General John G. Foster, in charge of the Federal infantry, sent regiments around the flanks, through swamps the Confederates had thought were impenetrable, and hit them in both flanks.
As the Confederates pulled back, Colonel Henry M. Shaw, in charge of the fort after Henry Wise was injured in the battle, saw the futility of continuing to fight, and so he surrendered to the invaders to avoid the useless effusion of blood.
The surrender gives the Federals a strategically vital point from which they can invade both North Carolina and Virginia. Roads lead directly to Richmond, with perfect supply points along the way. This opens up a back door to Richmond, so to speak, should the Federals choose to come at it from this direction rather than from Washington.