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America's Civil War: Expedition to Destroy Dismal Swamp Canal

Originally published by America's Civil War magazine. Published Online: August 31, 2006 
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In January 1862, an amphibious expedition under the command of Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside was dispatched to the North Carolina coast to deprive the Confederacy of its vital blockade-running ports. Hatteras Inlet had been seized by Major General Ben Butler in 1861. Now Burnside was sent to take Roanoke Island, capture the town of New Bern, move against Fort Macon, outside Beaufort, and proceed against the railroad at Kinston and Goldsboro. Despite the handicap of adverse weather, the first three objectives of the expedition were successively achieved. The last objective, however, would have to wait.

After capturing New Bern in March 1862, Burnside's command garrisoned the town. The monotonous routine of camp life was broken at last by rumors of a move. On the evening of April 17, the 21st Massachusetts Infantry, under Lt. Col. William S. Clark, and the 51st Pennsylvania, under Lt. Col. Thomas Bell, embarked from New Bern aboard the Union transport Northerner. They were heading north through Albemarle Sound to Elizabeth City. The purpose of the expedition, while initially clear, quickly became clouded by controversy.

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Burnside's subsequent reports of the strategic venture maintained that the expedition had been intended to drive out the enemy, proceed north to South Mills, blow up the lock of the canal leading through the Dismal Swamp to Norfolk, Va., and cave in the banks of the canal so that the waterway would be impassable to gunboats. Burnside noted that the venture had been arranged in conjunction with Commodore S.C. Rowan. Colonel Rush C. Hawkins of the 9th New York (also known as Hawkins' Zouaves) followed a similar tack in his version of events, implying that the plan had originated with himself and Rowan and then had been presented to Burnside, who merely approved the concept.

Where the plan really originated cannot be determined. The threat of gunboats would certainly have given Rowan cause for thought — although Federal control of Roanoke Island and Croatan Sound (which separates the island from the mainland) might have negated the threat unless ironclads were involved — and CSS Virginia (formerly Merrimack) was lurking near Hampton Roads, Va. Later, expedition commander Brig. Gen. Jesse L. Reno would state the assault was merely intended as a demonstration toward Norfolk, Va., but that was after the best-laid plans had gone astray. The truth lay buried in Dismal Swamp.

Hawkins was certainly itching for action to redeem the earlier near-fiasco his Zouaves had suffered at Roanoke Island in February. In that action, part of the 9th New York had been spooked by a Connecticut regiment dressed in gray overcoats and had bolted to the rear. Only the leveled bayonets of the 25th Massachusetts Infantry and their scornful cry, 'No Bull Run here!' had restored order. The rest of the 9th, however, helped carry the day. Still, the debate raged over whether the Zouaves had helped or hurt the Union effort.

Hawkins' regiment, left on garrison duty at Hatteras Inlet and Roanoke Island, was not attached to Burnside's main force. Sent on a side expedition to Winton on February 19, Rowan and Hawkins had run into an ambush and had finished by burning the small town — an act that at this point in the war was unacceptable. While Hawkins attempted to justify the burning by claiming that the buildings were used to house Rebel troops, it did smack of war on civilians. Burnside's follow-up report contained a sharp strain of displeasure. When Burnside moved on to New Bern, he left the troublesome New Yorkers behind. The South Mills venture would be a last chance for Hawkins and his Zouaves to redeem themselves.

As presented in the plan, Hawkins would take three regiments from Roanoke, the 9th and 89th New York and the 6th New Hampshire, and join two other regiments sent by Burnside, the 21st Massachusetts and the 51st Pennsylvania. Hawkins would be in charge of all five units. However, Burnside soon had second thoughts about Hawkins and sent Reno with his two regiments to take command. By his own admission, Hawkins was surprised to see Reno. This surprise would not bode well for the enterprise.

Hawkins' brigade arrived about 11 p.m. on the evening of April 18 and began landing on the left bank of the Pasquotank River about four miles below Elizabeth City. Once landed, Hawkins was to make a forced march to South Mills, some 15 miles away, and destroy the canal lock. The brigade set out about 3 a.m., or so Hawkins claimed. Reno charged that Hawkins had to be prodded to move. Was the New York colonel being recalcitrant because he had been upstaged? If the reports of the official records are to be believed, Hawkins had gotten underway reasonably expeditiously. Reno's contention that his initial orders were not obeyed promptly, that he had sent two aides to hurry Hawkins along, and that finally he 'was obliged to go in person…to force obedience,' is contradicted by his own statement that after the confrontation he had landed his last two regiments. The 51st Pennsylvania had landed between 6 and 7 a.m., followed by the 21st Massachusetts, and had then set out at 7:30 a.m. Hawkins claimed that he had completed his landing by 2:30 a.m. in one account and 3 a.m. in another, and then begun his march. Since Hawkins had landed in the dark, his delay is not unreasonable.

'The road to South Mills,' wrote Reno, 'was open, plain, and perfectly direct, known to every resident in the country, and nothing but design or negligence could have caused him [Hawkins] to miss it.' But Hawkins did miss the road. Misled by a mulatto guide, whom he subsequently shot, Hawkins continued on a long, circuitous route, marching through terrible heat and choking dust. To compound the fiasco, Hawkins double-timed his regiments to make up for lost time. By the time his Zouaves arrived before the enemy, more than half of the column had dropped out and fallen by the wayside, exhausted.

Reno was livid. Having landed his 51st Pennsylvania and 21st Massachusetts, he proceeded north along the most direct route, apparently expecting to encounter Hawkins somewhere up ahead. Then, about 12 miles out, he passed the debris of the New Yorker's column coming up from the right; the Zouaves had not yet reached the main road. Everything that could go wrong had. Reno's regiments had been delayed because the transports carrying them had run aground at the mouth of the river. Hawkins had been slow getting started, and then had gotten lost. The march in the intense, oppressive heat in wet gear had left a trail of sunstruck men passed out behind the column.

Hawkins' subsequent statement that he had marched 32 miles is an obvious exaggeration, unless he was walking in circles. He admitted that he had discovered the deception after his guide had taken him a mere 10 miles out of the way. Since he and Reno arrived at the same spot 12 miles out just before noon, he would have had to march 32 miles in nine hours, an exceedingly good pace under the best of conditions. Stonewall Jackson's famous 'foot cavalry' would have been envious. In any event, Hawkins' men were in poor condition to fight when they arrived.

A Confederate picket of eight horsemen had been eyeing Reno's men as they marched. Detailed to keep watch and nothing more, the pickets withdrew, staying discreetly out of rifle range. They kept their superiors informed of the enemy's progress.

The Confederate defenses at South Mills consisted of a single regiment, the 3rd Georgia, some 900 men under the command of Colonel Ambrose R. Wright; 300 North Carolina militia, under Colonel D.D. Ferebee; and a four-gun battery, bronze 6-pounders, under Captain W.W. McComas. As it was, Wright's contingent was well scattered. On the 18th, McComas' battery and five companies of the 3rd Georgia were at Elizabeth City; two companies were nine miles north in the entrenchments at Richardson's Mills, and Wright was at South Mills with three companies of his 3rd Georgia and Ferebee's militia. That evening, Wright ordered the troops at Elizabeth City to march to Richardson's Mills. Somehow, the order failed to be carried out. The artillery set out immediately, but the five companies of infantry did not leave until the next morning. Fortunately for Wright, the Federals were having their problems, too, and the layout of the battlefield was such that a large number of men could not be utilized anyway.

About three miles below South Mills, the road emerged from a thick wood into an open field that extended nearly 200 yards in width on either side of the road and nearly a mile in length. On the edge of the woods was a natural fortification, a small ditch that ran at right angles to the road. The dirt from the ditch had been mounded on the south side as a ridge, and topped with a heavy rail fence. Some 300 yards farther south was a second ditch, deeper and wider, which ran parallel to the first. Both ditches were anchored on their flanks by swamps and thick woods.

Wright had selected this position because of its excellent field of fire. Since the road was so narrow, only two guns could be posted on the road; the others were placed in the rear to cover the flank positions and to act as a reserve. When Lt. Col. James S. Reid of the 3rd Georgia arrived around 11 a.m., his three companies were placed at the junction of an old road to cover the flank. Wright, with five companies, took position along the small ditch.

Just beyond the large ditch were some dwellings and outbuildings that Wright ordered burned to prevent the enemy from taking shelter there. The large ditch was filled with fence rails and set on fire, Wright's object 'being to have the ditch so hot by the time the enemy came up they could not occupy it.' This hot spot became known as 'the Roasted Ditch.' Fences along the road were knocked down for some 300 yards beyond the guns, and other fences near the woods were torn down and stacked in front of the ditch.

About noon, the advance wing of Reno's column, the 51st Pennsylvania, arrived near the line of buildings fired by Wright. Reno was about to call a rest halt when the Confederates opened up with solid shot from their battery. The Pennsylvanians were ordered to move across an open field to the woods on the Rebel left. The 21st Massachusetts, which had halted some distance to the rear, was ordered to follow the 51st into the woods and menace the enemy flank. Because of the weariness of the men and the denseness of the underbrush, the going was slow and tedious. Reaching the line of the Pennsylvanians, the 21st was sent farther to the right to feel out the enemy skirmishers and cover the flank.

Lieutenant Colonel William S. Clark probed through the greenbriars and tangled underbrush with the 21st until fired upon — about 3:15 p.m. — by Rebel skirmishers. Clark quickly formed two companies into line and sent them into the woods after the enemy. Company K, under Captain Charles W. Davis, chased the skirmishers into the swamp, and Company G, under Lieutenant Asahel Wheeler, moved forward to a fence line at the edge of the woods and engaged the Georgians. 'This difficult task was performed in the most admirable manner amid a perfect storm of bullets,' Wheeler reported, 'and the company gallantly formed along the fence and drove out the enemy, some of whom fired upon them from a distance of not more than 20 yards.' Company G was shortly joined by the rest of the regiment.

It was a costly venture. Corporal Harrison C. Cheney took a Minié bullet in the left arm, and Joseph B. Brown and George G. Hadley caught slugs in the upper thigh. Both would be crippled as a result. John F. 'Juba' Pickering, a 27-year-old shoemaker from Blackstone, Mass., was loading his musket when he was instantly killed by a bullet to his forehead. After the battle he was found with the end of the cartridge still clutched between his lips.

The 21st had worked its way to the left of the Georgians and the rear of the battery. The firing of Reno's two regiments was furious, and cut down the flag-bearer of the 3rd Georgia, who was 'waving defiantly his traitorous flag.' It was probably a bullet from the 21st that killed Captain McComas of the Confederate artillery at about the same time.

Once the 4th Brigade came up, Reno directed the two New York regiments to the right to connect with the Pennsylvanians. The 6th New Hampshire was sent into the woods on the left of the road to support the artillery stationed on the road. Reno contended that after he had ordered his own two regiments to the right, he had to go back and get Hawkins' outfit, which although ordered to assist, had been slow in doing so. Whatever the case, Hawkins came up around 3 p.m. and arrived within 600 yards of the enemy, having marched (so he said), 'about 2 miles through a swamp covered with thick undergrowth.' Reno disputed this contention. 'The route pursued did not lead through a swamp or almost impenetrable undergrowth,' he said, 'as is shown by the fact that two regiments had already passed over this ground, and that I had been over the ground myself and found it dry and perfectly practicable for passage.'

It had already been a bad day for Hawkins, and now he compounded it. Even though Reno's two regiments were heavily engaged on the right, they were making progress. The death of McComas had unnerved the Southern artillerymen, and they had unceremoniously bailed out. Wright was struggling to get them back in line when Hawkins thought he saw his moment for glory. About 3:30 p.m., he decided that 'it would be impossible to outflank them on the right, the undergrowth and swamp being almost impenetrable. A charge through an open field directly in front of the enemy's position was thought to be the only way in which they could be dislodged. I then returned to where I had left the 9th New York and found them lying on the ground completely exhausted. I stated to the regiment what I proposed to do, and asked the men if they felt equal to the task. Their answer was, 'We will try, colonel, and follow wherever you may lead us.' Immediately the command, 'Forward!' was given, the Ninth New York taking the lead, followed by the Eighty-ninth New York. We proceeded to within about 200 yards of the enemy's concealed position when the Ninth received the full and direct fire from the enemy's infantry and batteries. This completely staggered the men and the order was given for the regiment to turn to the right, where it would be partly sheltered from the fire. This order was executed, but slowly.'

It was a brave but futile gesture that only succeeded in getting more good men killed. In less than two minutes, some 67 men of the 9th New York went down. The rest staggered back to join the line of the 51st Pennsylvania.

The Confederate concentration of fire on the Zouaves ironically opened the gate to victory. Reno, if for no other reason than to give the New Yorkers some covering fire and enable the exposed men to get back, ordered the 21st and 51st to move out of the woods, and with a cheer they charged across the cleared field. On the left, the 6th New Hampshire poured in a devastating volley. The Confederate line gave way. While Wright had gotten two of his artillery pieces back in time to repel the Zouaves, as soon as he turned his back the artillerymen departed again. As the Union men charged, the Confederates gave them a volley at 50 yards that slowed the attack, and Wright was able to get away in fairly good order to his line at Joy's Creek, some two miles to the rear.

Reno's men, occupying the Rebel works, were too exhausted to pursue Wright. The victorious Federals settled down on the battlefield while Wright's disgruntled Confederates eyed them malevolently from Joy's Creek. Gathering together his various elements, the Georgian put up a brave front. Once the enemy headed back, he retired to the canal locks at South Mills. The action had cost Reno 127 casualties: 13 killed, 101 wounded and 13 missing. Wright reported his Confederate losses at 28: six killed, 19 wounded and three prisoners of war.

While resting his command, Reno found himself in something of a dilemma. His mission had not been accomplished, whatever the reason. His initial reaction was to bivouac on the field and then proceed to South Mills the next morning. But in all likelihood, he felt, the Rebels were being reinforced, as indeed they were. The Zouaves were 'whipped and demoralized,' and that 'rascal' Hawkins was urging retreat. Finally, when Clark of the 21st and Lt. Col. Thomas Bell of the 51st warned that both regiments were short of ammunition and would be in a serious predicament if they found themselves in a fight, Reno reluctantly reached the decision that retreat was the only proper course of action.

Accordingly, large campfires were kindled to serve as deception; about 9 p.m., Reno ordered the column southward. The Zouaves took the lead to secure a drawbridge at Camden Courthouse. Despite an evening rain that soon turned the roads to glue, the column reached its landing place by 6 a.m. the next morning. The 21st served as both a rear guard in case the Rebels tried to follow and as a scoop to pick up stragglers. Because of the lack of transportation and the severity of some wounds, many of the wounded and dead had to be left behind.

Hardly a raging success, the Dismal Swamp expedition had failed to achieve its objectives. Perhaps to divert attention elsewhere, Hawkins now made matters worse by sending his written report, not to Reno, the expedition commander, but directly to Burnside. In his report there was no mention of Reno or of the role played by his regiments. Hawkins followed up with a letter to Burnside that cast aspersions on Reno's leadership. 'It seems that both parties were badly frightened,' said Hawkins. 'The enemy ran like quarter-horses toward Norfolk, and we as fast as our weary legs would carry us toward Roanoke, leaving quite a number of our wounded and destroying the bridges behind us.'

Burnside and his brigade commanders were personal friends, and Hawkins' brutal letter made its way down to Reno. In strong language, Reno denounced 'that infernal scoundrel Hawkins.' (Since the New Yorker had gone outside the chain of command, Assistant Adj. Gen. Lewis Richmond sent the report back to Reno for his endorsement.) Reno in turn wrote a stinging indictment of the 'rascal Hawkins,' citing his many errors during the expedition, including his 'unauthorized and unnecessary charge.' Ordered to make an amended report, Hawkins submitted the same report he had originally filed, with two minor changes. Unfortunately for Hawkins, a slight wound in the arm that compelled him 'to lay up for repairs' carried no weight with his superiors, and he was assigned as commanding officer of the garrison at Roanoke Island.

But Hawkins' tribulations were not yet over. At the same time that Burnside was preparing to move north to join Maj. Gen. George McClellan's Army of the Potomac, he received a dispatch from Hawkins that announced Union forces had taken Richmond. Hawkins had gotten the information from a 'reliable' source in the hinterland. The command was celebrating the momentous victory when word came that the Rebels still held their capital. Disgusted, Burnside brought the 9th New York Zouaves north with him but left Colonel Hawkins behind at Roanoke.

Ever one to promote lost causes, especially his own, after the war Hawkins would claim that it was he who had persuaded Burnside not to make the planned attack on the second day at Fredericksburg and thus saved the Union Army from further destruction. In view of their previous relationship, that scenario is highly unlikely. As for Reno, his death at South Mountain eliminated him as a threat to Hawkins' postwar version of events.

Mustered out of the service on May 30, 1863, Hawkins achieved a resounding victory in Danube, Ill., later that year. Speaking before a large crowd and continually heckled by a Copperhead (Southern sympathizer) element, he stormed off the platform, made a typical Hawkins charge into the crowd, and tore off the badge of the Copperhead leader. A general brouhaha ensued in which the Copperheads were soundly driven into hasty retreat. Hawkins received a brevet brigadier generalship on March 13, 1865, a common fate for officers who were less than successful militarily, but more so politically. He returned to his legal practice, became active in political reform movements, and served one term in the New York House of Representatives.

Hawkins' greatest success came in the form of matrimony. In June 1860 he had married the daughter of Nicolas Brown, the wealthy philanthropist whose contributions to Rhode Island College resulted in the name change to Brown University. A collector of art and rare books related to the early history of printing, Hawkins established the Annemarie Brown Library at Providence, R.I. He died in New York on October 25, 1920, having achieved in peace what he had failed to achieve in war — a good name.


This article was written by Joseph von Deck and originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of America's Civil War magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to America's Civil War magazine today!



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