Jersey ‘Muskrats’ Take Roanoke Island
On Feb. 8, 1862, the men of the 9th New Jersey Volunteers, which included most of the enlistees from Ocean County, were bogged down in a swamp on Roanoke Island, N.C., under heavy Confederate fire. They were far from home under the command of Gen. Ambrose Burnside as part of the strategy to blockade Southern ports and force the South to surrender.
Capt. Jonathan Townley Jr. of the 9th wrote, “Few cases of greater individual courage are recorded than that of Corporal Lorence, of Carpenter’s Landing. In the early part of the action at Roanoke, both of his legs were shot off just below the knees. As he was carried to the rear, his shattered limbs dangling in the bushes, he repeatedly said to the men passing on to the conflict, with all the energy he could command, ‘Go in, boys, go in; give it to them; I can’t do any more.’ He was taken to the Surgeon’s tent in the back-ground, where his limbs were amputated and dressed. At length, the shout of victory rang through the forest. The Corporal inquired, ‘Who has won?’ and upon being told that the rebels were running, raised himself on his stumps, swung his cap over his head, and, with an enthusiasm that thrilled every beholder, gave three cheers for the Union and the New Jersey Ninth! General Burnside being informed of the Corporal’s brave conduct visited him several times in the hospital, as did many other officers. Once when I was with him, as he lay suffering, he said that if his limbs would only heal, he would procure ‘a pair of wooden legs and fight on them.’”
What his comrades had done to win the victory was recorded by 24-year-old James Madison Drake, a lieutenant in the 9th, who watched as Lorence was carried to the rear.
“Still the Ninth stood fast, waist deep in water, firing with ardor, determined to maintain the reputation that had ever characterized ‘Jersey Blues.’ Under the inspiration gained from their intrepid commander, Adjutant Zabriskie and other officers, the men of the Ninth had already become veterans.
“Adjutant Zabriskie, who stood with his arms folded against that tree, corroborating this statement, the colonel ordered the firing to cease and an assault to be made upon the works.”
Drake was ordering his men to fix bayonets when “this movement was about to be put into execution, when horror of horrors, the regiment was fired upon from the rear, producing momentary confusion. Looking back in terror, and fearing that the Ninth itself had been flanked, Colonel Heckman saw that the volley had come from the Ninth New York regiment (Hawkins’ Zouaves.) Nor was this all – a second volley was poured into the Jerseymen, ere the New Yorkers could be brought to reason and a sense of the situation. This blunder on the part of the hot-headed New York regiment delayed the progress of the Ninth New Jersey, but did not prevent some of its members, from Companies D and I, being the first to reach and enter the works.”
A Connecticut captain watched.
“The Ninth New York broke up in utter confusion, rushed back down the road in a crowd, firing their muskets in every direction killing and wounding each other. The generals sprang in among them and I did the same, catching hold of their muskets, at the same time trying to stem the tide of confusion; no less than three muskets were fired while I had my hands on them to throw them up; fifteen of the Zouaves were killed and wounded by each other, and one of my own men had his gun shattered and his hand nearly shot away, so that he was disabled for life.”
A Massachusetts captain later wrote, “The Zouaves fell back, at least a portion of them did, upon the Twenty-fifth Massachusetts, which was on its feet in an instant, the men using the bayonet and the officers drawing swords, while, with one breath the cry went up ‘No Bull Run here!’”
Company D was made up almost entirely of men from Ocean County, including 12 from Stafford Township alone. Col. Charles A. Heckman’s report of the battle read, “I ordered the regiment to charge, and in company with the Twenty-first Massachusetts volunteers we entered the battery.
“The officers of the regiment conducted themselves with courage and coolness, and I am perfectly satisfied with them. The ground was very swampy, and for the most time the men were up to their waists in water, though notwithstanding these discouraging circumstances they behaved themselves admirably.
“The regiment sustained the following losses: One officer killed, six enlisted men killed, thirty enlisted men wounded – total, thirty seven.”
But the men of the 9th soon learned there was a political side of war. The New York Times and others ran headlines crediting the victory to the New Yorkers of the Hawkins Zouves. New Jersey historian John D. Foster wrote shortly after the war in his book The Rebellion, “John S.C. Abbott, in a paper published in Harper’s Magazine, and Greeley, in his American Conflict, both give the credit of the operations here performed by the Ninth, to Hawkins’ Zouaves, who, in fact, as appears in this narrative, had no part whatever therein, except to annoy and embarrass the assailing column.”
As the world heard about New York’s glory, the Newark Advertiser reported on Feb. 10, “By an order of General Burnside, promulgated on the evening of February 10th, the Ninth Regiment are to have the words ‘Roanoke Island, February 8, 1862’ emblazoned on their banners. The only ordnance which could be brought to bear upon the enemy, owing to the deep morass which our troops traversed, and the almost impenetrable thickets, was a small rifled-cannon, manned altogether by men detailed from the Ninth. Besides, the gunboat that did the most execution to the fort that was attacked on Friday, had her guns manned by Jerseymen. … One Jerseyman, who had been wounded by a bullet through the head, said it was not much, and walked alone back to the hospital tent, as he said, ‘to get something to keep the blood out of his eyes, when he would come back to his company.’ The poor fellow fell dead just as he got to the tent.”
On the 18th, the Advertiser proved who had really carried the day.
“The prisoners have acknowledged since that it was the fire of the Ninth New-Jersey that not only drove them from the battery, but scattered the reserve which was posted in the rear, to the number of twenty-five hundred men. The rebels have given the title of ‘Jersey muskrats’ to our boys, who waded waist-deep in mud and water within one hundred yards of their guns, and at this distance picked off their gunners.”
Even the Ocean Emblem of Toms River chimed in.
“From the special correspondence of the New York papers, it would appear that the Ninth New Jersey Regiment had but a small hand in the fight at Roanoke Island. It now turns out that this regiment was in the thickest of the engagement and lost more men than any other regiment engaged – more than three times that of the Hawkins Zouaves.
From letters before us we learn that the Ninth New Jersey landed in a marsh and marched through a corn field where the regiment halted and laid their arms in the mud with no shelter above them and a cold rain drenching them throughout the whole night. Soon after daylight the regiment was ordered to advance through an almost impenetrable thicket through the muck and water up to their middle, to a position where they could outflank the enemy. The Ninth finally reached a position where they could pour their volleys into the fort, much to the surprise of the rebels who thought it was impossible for any body of men to advance through such a place, and from the deadly aim of the Jerseymen the rebels for the severest punishment yet received, and who after the battle dubbed them, ‘The Bloody Ninth.’”
Whether they were called the Jersey “muskrats” or the Bloody 9th, the story of this group of Jersey heroes has been overlooked for a long time … exactly 150 years too long.
Next Week: On to New Bern.