March 8, 1865 – A small Confederate force under General Braxton Bragg tried making a stand east of Kinston to stop Major General Jacob D. Cox’s advance inland from the North Carolina coast.
By the morning of the 8th, Bragg had about 8,000 troops under Major Generals Robert F. Hoke and D.H. Hill entrenched on the west bank of Southwest Creek, about three miles east of Kinston. In their front was Major General Jacob D. Cox’s 13,000-man Provisional Corps, detached from Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina and fortified at Wyse Fork. Bragg hoped to destroy Cox’s command before he could be reinforced by larger Federal forces under either Schofield or Major General William T. Sherman.
Bragg’s line consisted of Hoke on the right and Hill on the left. Major General Samuel P. Carter’s division held Cox’s left, while Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer’s division held the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad on the right. The Federals were not aware that Hill had reinforced Bragg until Carter received a message “that negroes reported some 2,000 rebels had passed down the Trent road early that morning.”
Cox doubted the report’s accuracy and wrote Carter, “The movement on the left can scarcely be more than a reconnaissance.” He instructed Carter to send out cavalry and an infantry regiment, adding, “These reconnoitering parties must go out boldly and learn definitely what they can.” As Cox and Schofield rode for the front, Hoke’s troops attacked Carter’s unprepared Federals.
The Confederates drove an advance Federal brigade back in confusion and then began pushing back the entire Federal left. Hoke’s men captured a gun, nearly the entire 15th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, and gained control of the crossroads near Wyse Fork. Hill advanced and attacked the Federal right, and both of Cox’s flanks began crumbling. It seemed that the Federals would be routed.
However, Bragg ordered Hill to disengage and try moving around into the Federal rear. This inadvertently allowed the Federals to build new defenses and hold their ground. From their newly fortified positions, Cox’s men repulsed several Confederate probes.
As the day ended, the Confederates held the two roads on the Federal left and repaired the Southwest Creek crossings in their rear. Fighting continued the next day near the important railroad, but Bragg could not break through the Federal lines. Cox brought up his third division, led by Major General Thomas H. Ruger, to fill the gap the Confederates had opened between Palmer and Carter.
Bragg tried to turn the Federal left one more time on the 10th, with Hoke’s men attacking just before noon. The Confederates initially drove some of Carter’s men out of their trenches, but Federal artillery proved too deadly and the Confederates had to fall back. At the same time, Hill gained some ground against Palmer, but Ruger’s men came up to reinforce the line. Hill was forced to withdraw.
Bragg learned that the two other divisions from Cox’s XXIII Corps had just arrived at New Bern and would soon reinforce the Federals. Having failed to defeat three of Cox’s divisions, Bragg could not hope to beat five. He therefore ordered his men to withdraw west to Kinston. The Confederates fell back across the Neuse River, burning the bridges behind them. They camped near Kinston that night and then moved on to Smithfield by train.
Cox reported, “The enemy was severely punished, and has during the night evacuated his lines in my front and fallen back toward Kinston.” The Confederates lost 134 men killed, wounded, or missing. The Federals sustained 1,257 casualties, most of which were captured on the 8th. This battle temporarily stopped Cox’s advance from New Bern to Goldsboro, but it did little to prevent Schofield and Sherman from joining forces as planned.
CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 545; 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 17188-208, 17237-56; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563-64; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 65-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 648-50; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 418-19