From February through June 1862 General Ambrose E. Burnside commanded United States soldiers and sailors during the Federal assault and occupation of the northern two-thirds of coastal North Carolina. Initial actions in February (Roanoke Island and Elizabeth City) and in March (New Bern and Beaufort) captured key points along the inner-coastal waters of North Carolina. Actions in April (South Mills and Fort Macon), May (skirmishes at Trenton and Pollocksville) and June (skirmish at Tranter’s Creek) strengthened Federal occupation of the coastal area. The battles and skirmishes in North Carolina not only proved a national pick-me-up to the United States after a string of defeats (Big Bethel, Manassas/ Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek) but also produced seven United States Medal of Honor recipients: Quarter Gunner John Davis (Navy), Surgeon James Harry Thompson (Army), Sgt. John D. Terry (Army), Pvt. Orlando E. Caruana (Army), Drummer boy Julius Langbein (Army), Sgt. John S. Kenyon (Army) and Lt. William B. Avery (Army).
Quarter Gunner John Davis’ story was quite extraordinary and reflected quick thinking as well as self sacrifice. Davis was onboard the USS Valley City during the naval engagement at Elizabeth City February 10, 1862. The Valley City took a cannon ball to the side, which passed through the magazine and exploded inside the vessel. Davis was stationed to pass powder from below decks to the guns above. The explosion shattered bulkheads that screened the powder area and set fire to the forward berth deck. In the midst of the wreckage sat an open keg of powder. In a flash Davis knew he must seal that powder-keg before a spark from the fire ignited the open keg. Having no other item with which to seal the top of the keg, Davis jumped on the keg and placed his hindquarters in the open barrel thus sealing it. When the lieutenant commander arrived to help suppress the fire he found Davis perched coolly on the keg while continuing to pass powder to the decks above.
The next three men – James Thompson, John Terry and Orlando Caruana – all earned the Medal for their actions during the Battle of New Bern, March 14, 1862. Thompson who as a surgeon was a noncombatant offered his services to reconnoiter the Confederate force’s positions. Additionally, he volunteered to carry orders to men under heavy fire from Confederate positions. Terry, a Sgt. in company E, 23rd Massachusetts Infantry, was wounded in a leg while fighting in the woods to the left (west) of the Beaufort Road and near the rail road line. Despite a wound so severe that he would eventually lose the leg, Terry continued to encourage his men to attack until he was carried off the battlefield. Pvt. Caruana, born in Malta, won the first of two medals of honor for his actions in the New Bern fight. Part of the 51st NY Infantry, Caruana’s Company K attacked along the rail road line. Suddenly the 51st New Yorkers found themselves in an opening looking headlong at nearby Confederate redans. The Confederates opened fire on the exposed Yankees. The 51st Regiment advanced and returned fire but took heavy casualties. During this exchange the color sergeant was wounded and fell. Pvt. Caruana seized the regimental flag and helped the color sergeant off the battlefield. Caruana would receive a second Medal of Honor for his actions at South Mountain, MD, in late 1862.
On April 19, 1862, Union and Confederate forces clashed at the Battle of South Mills in Camden County, N.C. During the fight Adjutant Thomas Bartholomew of the 9th New York Infantry – know as Hawkins’ Zouaves – was struck by a Confederate shell. In April 1861 Bartholomew had agreed to look after a young family friend who insisted upon joining the Zouaves as a drummer boy. Julius Langbein was all of fourteen years old when Bartholomew promised Langbein’s mother that he would take care of the young soldier. The shell that struck Bartholomew also dazed him and he stumbled forward towards the enemy lines after being hit. Seeing his mentor wounded and heading into heavy gun fire, Langbein dashed to Bartholomew’s side and guided him from the battlefield and towards medical aid.
The last two men earned their medals in skirmishes fought to secure the occupied areas. John Kenyon on May 15, 1862, voluntarily returned from a retreating column of men and in the face of enemy gun fire helped a wounded man mount a horse and escape to safety. William B. Avery was a lieutenant in the 1st New York marine artillery. In action at Tranters Creek (about 8 miles from Washington, N.C.), Avery, directing a battery of two boat howitzers, engaged Confederate forces near Hodge’s Mill. Although the Confederate small arms fire was “hot,” Lt. Avery coolly handled the battery and eventually suppressed the small arms fire of the Confederates. After the war, Avery published a memoire of his time in the 1st New York Marine Artillery: The Marine Artillery with the Burnside Expedition and the Battle of Camden, N.C.
The Burnside Expedition made several people famous and introduced into the lexicon of North Carolina Civil War such names as Zebulon Vance, Henry King Burgwyn, Ambrose Burnside, Stephen C. Rowan, Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, Ambrose A. Wright, Charles Flusser, Vincent Colyer, Rush Hawkins, and Edward Stanly, to name but a few. These seven Medal of Honor recipients, with perhaps the exception of John Davis, however, are little remembered. On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Burnside Expedition I call your attention to them.