Lincoln gives the green light for the Burnside Expedition

On December 29, 1861, Ambrose Burnside met with General McClellan and President Lincoln in Washington for a final review of the plan for his expeditionary force’s North Carolina operation. The idea for what Burnside originally termed the “Coast Division” was first pitched to McClellan in October 1861 with the purpose as recounted by General Burnside in an 1882 publication:

To organize a division of from twelve to fifteen thousand men, mainly from states bordering on the northern seacoast, many of whom would be familiar with the coasting trade, and among whom would be found a goodly number of mechanics, to fit out a fleet of light-draught steamers, sailing vessels and barges, large enough to transport the division, its armament and supplies, so that it could be rapidly thrown from point to point on the coast with a view to establishing lodgments on the southern coast, landing troops, and penetrating into the interior, thereby threatening the lines of transportation in the rear of the main army then concentrating in Virginia, and hold possession of the inland waters on the Atlantic coast.[1]

When first briefed on the plan, President Lincoln expressed substantial reservations with both the objective and the worthiness of the vessels procured for the operation. The objective of the briefing on December 29th of 1861 was to obtain Lincoln’s final approval.

Much discouragement was expressed by nautical men and by men high in military authority as to the success of the expedition. The President and General McClellan were both approached, and the President was frequently warned that the vessels were unfit for sea, and that the expedition would be a total failure. Great anxiety was manifested to know its destination, but the secret had been well kept in Washington and at our headquarters.[2]

The generals understand that operational security is the key to the success of the invasion of the North Carolina coast and even the president is keenly attuned to the need to keep it secret.

As Mr. Lincoln afterwards told me, a public man was very importunate, and, in fact, almost demanded that the President should tell him where we were going. Finally, the President said to him, “Now I will tell you in great confidence where they are going, if you will promise not to speak of it to any one.” The promise was given, and Mr. Lincoln said, “Well, now, my friend, the expedition is going to sea.” The inquirer left him without receiving any further information.[3]

After being assured of the great potential for success by McClellan and Burnside, the president finally gives his approval to commence operations as soon as practical.



Generals McClellan and Burnside convinced Lincoln to approve the operations against the Confederates in coastal North Carolina


In preparation for pending movement of the expeditionary force, General Burnside orders all sick soldiers to be moved from the camp to a general hospital or loaded abroad a hospital transport.

Although Oliver Case claims to feel “as well as I ever did in my life,” the surgeon excuses him from duty the night before and he is ordered to report to the hospital ship “Recruit” the next morning. Oliver describes the ship as “fitted up full of good berths and is a very different affair from those steamers we came in on.” He also mentions in his letter on December 30th that about 30 soldiers of the 8th Connecticut have contracted measles.[4]

[1] The Burnside Expedition, Ambrose E. Burnside, N. Bangs Williams and Company, Providence, 1882.

[2] IBID

[3] IBID

[4] Case Letters, 1861-1862. (30 December 1861)



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