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ENTION has been made of the very peculiar CHAP. XIV.
sea-front of the State of North Carolina. Other States on the Atlantic have, like it, the narrow fringe of sand-bank constituting the extreme outer coast within which lies a network of inlets, islands, bayous, and rivers. But North Carolina, unlike the rest, contains behind this false coast a magnificent crescent-shaped inland sea whose sweeping outline covers more than a degree of latitude. This vast water-sheet has two separate names. The upper or northern part, called Albemarle Sound, extends sixty miles west into the mainland, with a width of fifteen miles near the ocean and tapering to a point at the entrance of the Chowan River. The lower or southern part, called Pamlico Sound, is perhaps twice as large, extending eighty miles to the southwest, having a width of from ten to thirty miles and a depth of twenty feet varied by shoals. Both sounds would probably have been combined under a single name were it not that nearly midway of the arc lies Roanoke Island, twelve miles long and three miles wide, indicating a division though by no means separating them; for their waters remain connected
CHAP. XIV. by the narrower Croatan Sound on the west and
Roanoke Sound on the east of the island.
When Forts Hatteras and Clark were captured by the Union forces on the 29th of August, 1861, the Confederates fixed upon Roanoke Island as the nearest defensible point, and began the erection of batteries to hold the narrow channels. While the possession of the forts at Hatteras Inlet was of vast importance to the Union blockading fleet, it soon became evident that other lodgments must be made to afford full control of the interior waters of North Carolina. The Hatteras forts, built on the narrow banks of the outer coast-line, were not very defensible; in high water they were nearly submerged, and there was constant danger that they might be seriously damaged by the severe storms frequent on that coast. Officers of good judgment reported that they formed no suitable base for operations into the interior, and recommended the capture and occupation of Roanoke Island. Its strategic value was so evident that it needed little urging upon the attention of the Government. It would form a safe and useful base of operations; it would render blockade-running in that locality well-nigh impossible; more important than all, the complete occupation of the interior coast would open a practicable back door to Richmond. “Roanoke Island," wrote the local rebel commander, “is the key of one-third
of North Carolina, and whose occupancy by the 1861. W.'R. enemy would enable him to reach the great railroad
from Richmond to New Orleans."
Chance favored the gradual growth of an expedition for this work. During the summer and autumn of 1861, while McClellan was so tediously
Hill to Cooper, Oct. 18, Vol. IV.,
organizing his great army, refusing to allow detach- CHAP. XIV. ments and postponing all movements, the Potomac River fell into a condition of quasi blockade from rebel batteries hastily established at eligible points, and which, though from time to time shelled out and driven away, persistently reappeared to endanger navigation. “ For several months,” says the report of the Secretary of the Navy, “the commerce on this important avenue to the national capital was almost entirely suspended, though at no time was the passage of our armed naval vessels prevented." General McClellan felt unwilling or unable to relieve this stress by a forward movement. Yet not entirely insensible to such a military disgrace almost at the tent-doors of the army, he took refuge in a half-way measure suggested by General Ambrose E. Burnside, his classmate and intimate friend, and recommended the formation of a " coast division” with suitable vessels such as might be enlisted and collected from the various sea-coast towns of New England; the officers and men to be sufficiently conversant with boat service to manage steamers, sailing vessels, surf-boats, etc.; in short, to be as expert in the duty of the sailor as of the soldier; the whole to form an integral part of the Army of the Potomac, but specially intended for operation in the inlets of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River.
It was in the day of McClellan's highest popularity, when the Government eagerly gratified his slightest wish; accordingly General Burnside was sent to carry out his own suggestion and succeeded without difficulty in raising the desired force. The selection of commander was not injudicious; VOL. V.-16