A change in mission for the Burnside Expeditionary Force
By the end of May 1862, Ambrose Burnside and his expeditionary force had spent five difficult, but rewarding months conducting operations against the Confederates on the North Carolina coast. Combat success at Roanoke Island, Newbern and Fort Macon had battle hardened Burnside’s troops who now turned their attention to occupation duty as the Union high command contemplated their next mission. Oliver Case and his comrades in the 8th Connecticut where given various missions in and around the city of Newbern. In late June 1862, after enjoying an extended stay in what Oliver called “one of the pleasantest cities I ever saw for its streets are shaded by large trees which meet overhead which makes the streets pleasant,” the expeditionary force commander received an urgent telegram from the Secretary of War.
WASHINGTON CITY, June 28, 1862.
New Berne, via Fort Monroe:
We have intelligence that General McClellan has been attacked in large force and compelled to fall back toward the James River. We are not advised of his exact condition; but the President directs that you shall send him all the re-enforcements from your command to the James River that you can safely do without abandoning your own position. Let it be infantry entirely, as he said yesterday that he had cavalry enough.
EDWIN M. STANTON,
Secretary of War.
View of the City of Newbern from across the Neuces River, 1862
Ambrose Burnside was now forced to change his focus from future offensive operations toward the inland of North Carolina and the monotony of occupation duty. His force had a new mission that would eventually bring them to northern Virginia to support the embattled forces of Union commander George B. McClellan. During the past four months, McClellan had deliberately marched his army from Fortress Monroe up the Virginia peninsula to the gates of the Confederate capital city. The Union army stalled outside of Richmond as its commander prepared for a long siege against an enemy force that he believed to be 2 to 3 times its actual size.
After the Confederate commander, Joseph Johnston was wounded by an artillery shell on June 1, 1862 during the fighting outside of Richmond, he was replaced by the more aggressive Robert E. Lee. Lee began to reinforce the defensive positions surrounding Richmond during a long lull in the fighting for most of the month of June. On June 25, 1862, Lee began a series of bold attacks known as the Seven Days Battles that caused McClellan to panic and began the withdrawal of his army back down the peninsula. The “large force” referred to in Secretary Stanton’s telegraph message to Burnside was a Confederate force of about 50,000 troops attacking a total Union force of over 100,000. McClellan’s proclivity for overestimating the enemy troop numbers and calling for reinforcements caused the Lincoln administration to recall Burnside from the coast of North Carolina.
The previous evening, McClellan had sent an urgent message to the Secretary of War creating the urgency to act on the part of the administration.
June 27, 1862-8 p.m.
Honorable E. M. STANTON,
Secretary of War:
Have had a terrible contest. Attacked by greatly superior number in all directions on this side; we still hold our own, though a very heavy fire is still kept up on the left bank of Chickahominy. The odds have been immense. We hold our own very nearly. I may be forced to give up my position during the night, but will not if it is possible to avoid it. Had I 20,000 fresh and good troops we would be sure of a splendid victory to-morrow.
My men have fought magnificently.
GEO. B. McCLELLAN,
However, Secretary Stanton and President Lincoln were unaware at the time of their first dispatch to Burnside that the overcautious McClellan had already contacted his friend and subordinate commander. Upon learning of McClellan’s earlier telegraph message to Burnside, Stanton quickly deferred the decision about moving Burnside’s forces to McClellan in a message that same evening.
June 28, 1862-6 p.m.
Major-General BURNSIDE, New Berne:
Since the dispatches of the President and myself to you of to-day we have seen a copy of one sent to you by General McClellan on the 25th, of which we were not aware.
Our directions were not designed to interfere with any instructions given you by General McClellan, but only to authorize you to render him any aid in your power.
EDWIN M. STANTON,
Secretary of War.
Interestingly, on the same day, President Lincoln had also sent a personal message to Burnside directing him to assist McClellan.
WASHINGTON CITY, June 28, 1862.
I think you had better go with any re-enforcements you can spare to General McClellan.
Stanton, Lincoln and McClellan traded a flurry of messages regarding the situation of the Army of the Potomac in late June 1862
Lincoln and Stanton obviously believed the reports of the desperate situation that McClellan claimed to find himself trapped in. The commanding general of the Army of the Potomac was now constantly calling for reinforcements and his pleas even convinced President Lincoln to ask commanders in the western theater of operations about providing troops to McClellan. From contemporary communications, it is evident that Stanton (and likely Lincoln) envisioned a very rapid movement of at least part of Burnside’s force by water to the James River to relive McClellan. McClellan’s vision for Burnside was a bit different as expressed in the dispatch sent three days before Lincoln and Stanton communicated with him.
GENERAL McCLELLAN’S HEADQUARTERS,
June 25, 1862-7 p.m.
Major General AMBROSE E. BURNSIDE,
New Berne, N. C.:
Reports from contrabands and deserters to-day make it probable that Jackson’s forces are coming to Richmond and that a part of Beauregard’s force have arrived at Richmond. You will please advance on Goldsborough with all your available forces at the earliest practicable moment. I wish you to understand that every minute in this crisis is of great importance. You will therefore reach Goldsborough as soon as possible, destroying all the railroad communication in the direction of Richmond in your power.
If possible, destroy some of the bridges on the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad and threaten Raleigh.
GEO., B. McCLELLAN,
Ambrose Burnside readied his forces to assist McClellan
This seems to be conflicting guidance from Major General McClellan warning that “every minute is a great crisis” while prescribing an overland route that could take up to two weeks for the troops of Burnside to cover. McClellan’s suggested route of march would take the three divisions initially to the northwest and then to the north crossing into Virginia approaching Petersburg from the south. It’s certainly possible that McClellan believed that Confederate intelligence reports of Burnside’s movement from the south could cause Lee to suspend offensive operations and focus on defending Richmond and Petersburg against this new threat.
Whatever McClellan’s logic, Burnside would not use the overland route. Within the week, the expeditionary force would begin loading ships for a trip to Virginia. On the 2nd of July, the 8th Connecticut and other regiments of Burnside’s Expeditionary Force were transported by rail to Morehead City, NC where they boarded the steamer “Admiral” and travel to Newport News, VA.
Croffut and Morris, historians of the Connecticut regiments described the movement and the soldiers’ new home at Newport News:
On July 2, the Eighth moved to Morehead City, and thence on the transport Admiral to Newport News, where a camp was set on an exposed sandy plain. The Eleventh followed closely. The beach of Hampton Roads, near at hand, protracted the delight of bathing. A few oysters were scattered along the clean bottom; and the boys felt out with their bare feet, dived down, and captured enough of the toothsome bivalves to break the monotony of salt pork and hard-tack.
Another regimental historian of Burnside’s force offered a detailed view of Newport News:
At first view, Newport News had the appearance of a place where nothing new ever occurred or was likely to happen. A sandy plain, fifteen or twenty feet above the river, with a few old barracks, and some earthworks and ditches, constructed by General Butler’s troops; a gray sky, with spits of rain, made up the desolate picture. Beyond the plain was a swamp, with immense southern pitch-pines…
View of Civil War Newport News from the James River
For the next month, Burnside’s troops would sit at Newport News and wait for the call that would never come to assist the embattled Army of the Potomac.
 The Military and Civil History of Connecticut: The War of 1861-1865, W.A. Croffut and John M. Morris, Ledyard Bill, New York, 1868
 History of the Thirty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteers, 1862-1865; Mills, Knight and Company, Boston, 1884.