A Union Soldier’s View of the Burnside Expedition

Chauncey W. Curtis was born in 1843. During the Civil War, Curtis was a private in the 51st New York Volunteers. His regiment moved from Chesapeake Bay to North Carolina as part of General Reno’s brigade in Burnside’s Expedition.

Chauncey W. Curtis wrote a twenty-six page manuscript entitled, The Burnside Expedition to Roanoke. The manuscript was to be read at a Union Veterans’ meeting, probably about 1900. The text recounts the movement of Curtis and his regiment, the 51st New York Volunteers down Chesapeake Bay to North Carolina. Page three of the manuscript includes a clear statement as to the military importance of the expedition and states two strategic goals – capturing the coast to end pirating attacks and threatening the Confederate position at Norfolk/Gosport naval yards. There is also a spot-on assessment of Ambrose E. Burnside on page four. Curtis speaks fully of the hazardous passage from the ocean into the sound during a violent storm, the difficulty of getting the fleet through the channel of the Roanoke marshes, and the landing of Union forces on the beach at Roanoke Island. His account of the assault on the island is written from the personal perspective of a private soldier engaged in battle, and not from that of a field officer surveying the whole scene. In his manuscript, Curtis also briefly describes the Battle of New Bern and mentions an April 19, 1862, expedition against “the town of Camden”, by which one assumes he means South Mills and the Dismal Swamp Canal lock located there.

Barbara Richter donated this manuscript to the State Archives of North Carolina back in 1998. She had contacted the Minnesota Historical Society about the manuscript, but at the time it was outside their collection scope. Minnesota contacted us on the matter to see if we would be interested in the manuscript. George Stevenson, the Private Manuscript Archivist at the time, was interested in the manuscript and so Barbra Richter was kind enough to donate it to the State Archives of North Carolina. In a letter from George Stevenson to Craig Wright of the Minnesota Historical Society, he writes “True it is that the Curtis manuscript adds no fresh tactical details, but one does not look for fresh tactical details in a memory of a private solder. It is, however, particularly valuable for its introspective aspects—the recording, years after the event, of the emotional and psychological reactions of a young soldier in this battle. It is valuable, too, as a corrective to reading Confederate accounts, only.”


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