One Evening in October 1861

Many of you know that the plan for the Burnside Expedition to North Carolina was hatched by George McClellan and Ambrose Burnside then presented to the Secretary of War before being reluctantly approved by President Lincoln.

What you may not know is the flippant manner in which Burnside described the formation of the plan almost twenty years after the fact. It is somewhat surprising that Burnside remembered the occasion as an almost “by the way, I’ve been thinking about this plan” moment between the two famous Union leaders. Clearly, Burnside had put great thought into the plan that would become the largest amphibious operation to that point in American history. But, looking back on it, the general remembered it as such:

One evening in the following October, General McClellan and I were chatting together over the affairs of the war, when I mentioned to him a plan for the formation of a coast division to which I had given some thought. After giving him a somewhat detailed account of the plan, he asked me to put it in writing as soon as possible, which was done. The next day it was presented to him, and it me his approval. He laid it before the Secretary of War, by whom it was also approved. The general details of the plan were briefly as follows: To organize a division of 12,000 to 15,000 men, mainly from States bordering on the Northern sea-coast, many of whom would be familiar with the coasting trade, and among whom would be found a goodly number of mechanics; and to fit out a fleet of light-draught steamers, sailing vessels, and barges, large enough to transport the division, the armament and supplies, so that it could be rapidly thrown from point to point on the coast with a view to establishing lodgments of the Southern coast, landing troops, and penetrating into the interior, thereby threatening the line of transportation in the rear of the main army then concentrating in Virginia, and holding possession of the inland waters on the Atlantic coast.[1]

Burnside would move out quickly on executing the plan by acquiring the vessels, organizing and the training the troops, and establishing a training base at Annapolis, Maryland. By the first week of January 1862, the troops were loaded on the ships and headed south.

But, it all began on one evening in October 1861…

A “chat” one evening in Washington led to the creation of Burnside’s Coastal Division that would invade North Carolina in early 1862.

Also overheard that evening at dinner, “Burney, this Army’s not big enough for two Napoleonic posers!” (I apologize…that was too easy to pass up!)

ENDNOTES:

[1] From Leaders and Battles of the Civil War, Volume I, The Century Company, New York, 1887 (pages 660-661). Previously from a paper read by Burnside before the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Historical Society of Rhode Island, July 7th, 1880.

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