March 7, 1865 – General Braxton Bragg hoped to prevent Federals from joining forces in North Carolina by blocking a detachment moving inland from the coast.
Major General John Schofield’s Federal Army of North Carolina had begun moving inland after capturing the vital port city of Wilmington. Schofield’s X Corps under Major General Alfred H. Terry moved north from Wilmington, while a division led by Major General Jacob D. Cox moved via water up the coast to New Bern. Once there, Cox’s command was expanded to three divisions known as a Provisional Corps.
Cox’s new corps established a supply base at New Bern and began repairing the railroad to Goldsboro. Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals moving north from South Carolina were to link with Schofield’s army at Goldsboro, using the railroad as their supply line. After Sherman and Schofield joined forces, they would confront the remaining Confederates in the state now led by General Joseph E. Johnston.
Bragg commanded the Confederate department covering the Wilmington area, which included Major General Robert F. Hoke’s 5,500-man division. Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee directed that Johnston absorb Bragg’s department into his command. This gave Johnston about 23,500 effectives against nearly 100,000 Federals under Sherman and Schofield. Johnston looked to attack before Sherman and Schofield could unite.
Bragg was disgusted that Johnston now superseded him, and even worse, a man who despised him, John C. Breckinridge, was now Confederate secretary of war. Bragg felt no longer needed in North Carolina and therefore wrote to President Jefferson Davis, “I seek no command or position, and only desire to be ordered to await assignment to duty at some point in Georgia or Alabama.” Davis did not immediately respond due to more pressing matters at hand.
Johnston looked to concentrate all available Confederate forces near Fayetteville, where Sherman was headed, to block him from linking with Schofield. Johnston asked Lee to send elements of the Army of Northern Virginia down from Petersburg to help him “crush Sherman.” Once Sherman was defeated, Schofield would be isolated on the coast, allowing the Confederates to turn north and break the siege of Petersburg.
Lee did not have much faith in this plan, but there were few other options. He only asked that Johnston leave supplies at railroad depots alone: “Endeavor to supply your army by collecting subsistence through the country. That at depots is necessary for Army of Northern Virginia. In moving troops on North Carolina Railroad please do not interrupt transportation of supplies to this army.”
Johnston asked for guidance on how best he could link with Bragg and Hoke near the coast. Lee answered that that “must be determined by you. I wish you to act as you think best.” By the 6th, Johnston realized that Sherman’s army was moving too fast toward Fayetteville to be stopped. He wrote to Lieutenant General William Hardee, whose command was retreating from that town, “It is too late to turn to Fayetteville. (Take) the best route to Raleigh. It may be through Egypt, crossing both Deep and Haw Rivers, near their junction.”
Meanwhile, Bragg’s Confederates were close to Cox’s Provisional Corps moving on Goldsboro, and Bragg saw a chance to destroy Cox before Schofield or Sherman could rescue him. Bragg therefore positioned his troops on the Neuse River near Kinston and informed Johnston on the 6th, “The enemy’s advance was this morning nine miles from Kinston. They are in heavy force and moving in confidence. A few hours would suffice to unite the forces at Smithfield with mine and insure a victory.”
The “forces at Smithfield” were 2,000 Confederate veterans from the Army of Tennessee under Major General D.H. Hill. Johnston directed Hill to rush these troops to Bragg and join him in attacking Cox. Hill was then to hurry back to Smithfield so he could reinforce Hardee and stop Sherman between Fayetteville and Raleigh.
The next day, Bragg entrenched Hoke’s division on the west bank of Southwest Creek, about three miles east of Kinston. This important position connected the creek to the Neuse River and blocked Cox’s advance along the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad. Cox reconnoitered the Confederate positions and informed Schofield that they were “the last point the enemy can make a stand” in front of Kinston.
Cox learned from scouts that the enemy consisted of Hoke’s North Carolina veterans, augmented by junior reserves. Cox did not know that Hill’s Confederates were on their way as well. He directed Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer’s division to guard a crossroads a mile and a half in front of Wyse Fork. Major General Samuel P. Carter’s division came up to support Palmer, and both sides traded artillery fire.
Hoke’s men had destroyed the three nearby creek crossings, but Federal cavalry rode off to the far left and secured a crossing at the Upper Trent Road. Some troopers went farther left and found the Wilmington Road unguarded. Cox reported to Schofield:
“The cavalry was ordered to observe carefully the Wilmington road on the left and to picket the crossings of the creek, giving prompt notice of any movement toward that flank. All the troops were ordered to be on the alert, though the command was not expected to take the aggressive until the railroad should be farther advanced or supplies received by the river, since it had been found impossible to feed the troops regularly where they were.”
Cox stated that his troops “will practically invest the bridge-head at Kinston by occupying the line of Southwest Creek, my right being within reaching distance of the (Neuse) River.” A fight would come the next day.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22103; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 544; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 17189-218; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 562-63; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 647-48; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 418-19