Thursday, October 1, 2015

Zatarga: "THE BATTLE OF ROANOKE ISLAND: Burnside and the Fight for North Carolina"

[The Battle of Roanoke Island: Burnside and the Fight for North Carolina by Michael P. Zatarga (The History Press, 2015). Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:142/173. ISBN:978-1-62619-901-9 $21.99]

The Union army and navy's campaign to seize and occupy resource-rich and strategically important eastern North Carolina unfolded in two stages, the first in 1861 resulted in the seizure of key inlets along the Outer Banks the gains of which set up the following year's advance into the region's rivers and sounds. The success of the 1862 Burnside Expedition was a model of interservice cooperation that clearly demonstrated the potential of amphibious operations to have a real impact on the outcome of the war.

Both the 1861 and 1862 operations have had the benefit of detailed coverage in the literature and publisher The History Press has been a significant contributor, especially for the former. Absent from body of work this has been a reasonably full treatment of the February 8, 1862 Battle of Roanoke Island, one of those small Civil War engagements with large consequences. In this case, the Union victory and Confederate surrender on the island opened the entire breadth of the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds to invasion. Michael Zatarga's The Battle of Roanoke Island: Burnside and the Fight for North Carolina marks the first telling of the battle's history in book length format.

Zatarga does a nice job of presenting the many challenges involved in setting up the Union expedition, from recruiting soldiers to obtaining the necessary ships and supplies. All readers are familiar with Burnside's checkered Civil War career but the overall leadership quality of the Coast Division was exceptionally solid from the brigade leaders to the regimental commanders (many of whom would lead brigades and divisions of their own later in the war). Even so, with no specialized training and little in the way of institutional combined operations expertise, it's remarkable the landings went as well as they did.

However, the problems Union leaders faced paled in comparison to those of the Confederate defenders. Torn between the needs of Virginia and North Carolina, the island defenses were generally neglected by the high command. Progress in fort construction was fitful and requests for modern heavy cannon of the type necessary to ward off federal gunboats were repeatedly denied. The placement of political general Henry Wise in command of the island also did not bode well. Roanoke Island was one of many prime examples of Confederate mismanagement of the defense of fixed points located on or near waterways. Not enough equipment, men, and resources were allocated to successfully defend the island but enough were present to make their total loss materially damaging to the Confederate war effort.

The bibliography doesn't list much in the way of manuscript resources but the large body of published primary source materials and newspapers, along with a good selection of secondary sources, were leveraged well in creating a commendable narrative history of the operation, equally strong in its naval and army components. The six chapters recounting the amphibious landings on the island and the four-hour infantry battle fought on the following day together comprise the best available account of the Battle of Roanoke Island. The battlefield itself (a large expanse of open swampland bounded on all sides by dense thickets and dominated by Confederate trenches flanking a small battery topping a slight rise in the middle) and how its terrain features impacted the course and conduct of the battle are well described in the text. With odds eventually reaching 8 to 1, the Union attackers gradually infiltrated the woods on each flank and were able to overpower the Confederate defenders. The ensuing rout led to a complete, and probably unnecessarily hasty, Confederate unconditional surrender of the entire island, an act which placed in federal hands over 2,000 prisoners and dozens of heavy guns. Zatarga also briefly recounts the island's role as a magnet and safe haven for escaped slaves, who were valuable sources of local knowledge and also became a welcome labor force for the Union army.

The book does have some notable flaws. Factual errors in the background material and typos crop up with some frequency. Strangely enough, while the battle maps provide a more than adequate representation of terrain and troop movements, a map of Roanoke Island itself is absent. In order to really understand the flawed Confederate plan of defense and the naval phase of the battle, readers will want to print one out from another source for handy reference. That said, primarily on the strength of the author's account of the previously underexplored events of February 7-8, Michael Zatarga's The Battle of Roanoke Island is a useful addition to the literature of the 1862 Burnside Expedition.

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