Today, the Roanoke Island Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the capture of the strategic rebel stronghold along the coast of North Carolina.
In the Memoirs of Rhode Island Officers, published in 1867, John Russell Bartlett told the story of Joseph Bridgham Curtis including his involvement in the Battle of Roanoke Island:
At length, on the 8th of February, 1862, Adjutant Curtis saw his first battle.
During the previous day, the fleet had been engaged, and, after a gallant fight, at about four o’clock in the afternoon, the brave sailors raised the flag upon Roanoke Island.
Meanwhile the military force, under Generals Foster, Reno and Parke, was landing.
Toward evening — and the night was thickening again, with the chilly fog driven by a wild winter’s wind — the fourth Rhode Island, of General Parke’s brigade, stood on the low, marshy shore of Roanoke Island, and, pushing a little forward, bivouacked upon a bleak, sandy field beyond.
It rained heavily all night.
The enemy felt Burnside’s picket line, but found it thoroughly alert.
At dawn of the 8th, the jubilant thunder of the fleet began again, and, in the gray, cold twilight, General Foster’s brigade advanced through swamps and underbrush and deep mud and water, toward the centre of the Island, where the main rebel fortification lay.
Soon after, General Reno moved; then General Parke, and the action became general on land and water.
The fort was in a morass, and approached only by a log causeway enveloped with batteries.
The ground was, therefore, almost hopelessly difficult.
“We turned into the vilest swamp I ever saw,” writes the Adjutant; “we sank from the ankle to the knee. It was full of trees and thorny bushes seven or eight feet high, and growing close together. We were two hours forcing our way through this swamp.”
But the spirit of Burnside’s troops was irresistible, and the victory was complete. At one point upon the narrow causeway, Lieutenant Curtis stood for twenty minutes in the full fire of the enemy, to direct the passage of the troops.
“The enemy’s balls, both cannon and musket, flew here very thickly with their pleasant whistle,” he writes calmly, saying at the end of the clear description of the battle which he wrote to his mother, and illustrated with an interesting sketch: “The fight was gay and exciting, and the balls sounded as I expected.”
The tranquil tone in which he speaks of the battle-music, perfectly illustrates the effect of an actual engagement upon him.
It tranquilized him.
The exhilaration put him in full possession of his powers, making him cool and thoughtful, with mind and eye equally alert.
On the fiery causeway at Roanoke, his voice rang out firmly and clearly: “This way fourth Rhode Island!” as two regiments approached, the fourth to make a flank movement, the other to file off another way.
So, he is described as cutting a path through the jungle with his sword, for the men to follow, as quietly as if he were striking through a swamp upon a railroad survey.
General Burnside, who naturally watched the conduct of his Rhode Island boys, said of the adjutant of the fourth: “No one knew him thoroughly till after a battle. He was so quiet and retiring in his ordinary demeanor, that you would not have expected such gallantry; but he was always up — up in battle — and he and Richmond (the general’s adjutant) were the two most conspicuous men at Roanoke. I marked Curtis from the first, and knew he would make a splendid field-officer, as he did. I saw him often, but he was not a man to spend much time at head-quarters, for he was always attending to his own duties.”
This fidelity told at length upon his delicate frame. After the battle of Roanoke, he served constantly upon courts-martial, and at last fell seriously ill.
He was kindly ordered home by the general, upon the representation of the surgeon that the result would otherwise be fatal. Lieutenant Curtis therefore reluctantly returned to New York in early March, and was absent from the army when the battle of Newbern was fought and won.
A soldier, wounded in that battle, said to his attendant: “Ain’t Curtis the bully man? We missed him at Newbern, for he always shouted the orders so that we heard him over everything.”
In the soft repose of home the soldier rapidly recovered. But loving hearts almost regretfully saw the roses blooming again in his young cheeks, for they knew he would not stay longer than his sense of duty required.
The yearning eyes that watched him were to see him no more, and, as if by some vague foreboding, the few weeks of family intercourse were hallowed by an infinite tenderness of affection.
Lieutenant Curtis sailed from New York, to rejoin his regiment, on the 3d of April, 1862 — several days before the expiration of his furlough.
Colonel Rodman was surprised and pleased by his adjutant’s unexpected return, and, when they were alone in his tent, told him that he had himself been named for brigadier. “If I am confirmed, I wish you to be my assistant adjutant-general.”
Of this offer the lieutenant writes in a manly strain: ” It is a great pleasure to me to have had the position offered to me by Colonel Rodman, whether I get it or not. It proves that my labors in the regiment — and they have not been child’s play — have been appreciated, and show that the reason why he has never nominated or offered to nominate me for the captaincy of any of our companies, when such a commission was vacant, was that he wished to keep me attached to himself. The promptness and spontaneousness with which the appointment was offered, show that he has always intended advancing me with himself when the opportunity occurred.”
In the same letter, he says: “If anything could compensate me for losing the battle of Newbern, it is the warmth with which I have been welcomed by all those whom I know in the department of North Carolina.”
Young Curtis rose in rank to Lieutenant Colonel, but sadly, lost his life in battle on December 13, 1862.
“He is sitting quietly upon his horse at the head of his own regiment, and, as he speaks, a bullet strikes him in the left cheek just below the eye, and pierces the brain. Painlessly, as if sleeping, he sinks gently from the saddle into the arms of his comrades, while the soft, sweet smile of his earliest childhood steals over his face.”
The Roanoke Island Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows against a picture of Joseph Bridgham Curtis.