Since the Federal capture of Roanoke Island in February, Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough had expanded their control of the North Carolina sounds and connecting waterways. They now set their sights on the state’s mainland, primarily New Bern, North Carolina’s colonial capital, on the Neuse River. New Bern was the state’s second largest city and an important railroad center.
About 11,000 Federal troops of Burnside’s Coastal Division boarded army transports at Roanoke Island to link with 13 gunboats near Hatteras Inlet. The gunboat fleet was led by Commander Stephen C. Rowan, who took over when Goldsborough was recalled to Hampton Roads after the attack by the C.S.S. Virginia. Burnside told his men that they would be part of a major offensive designed to support Major General George B. McClellan’s upcoming Peninsula campaign.
About 4,000 Confederates defended New Bern under Brigadier General Lawrence O. Branch, a lawyer and politician whose only military experience was in the Seminole Wars. Branch’s men were posted at the several earthworks below New Bern, including Fort Thompson, the strongest work, six miles south. A lack of slave labor in the area prevented Branch from bolstering the defenses.
On March 13, the Federal gunboats covered Burnside’s three brigades as they debarked without resistance at Slocomb’s Creek, on the west bank of the Neuse, about 16 miles south of New Bern. As the troops advanced on land, the gunboats advanced on the river, shelling the five Confederate forts in the woods as they went. Rowan later reported, “I commenced throwing 5, 10, 15 second shells inshore, and notwithstanding the risk, I determined to continue till the general sent me word. I know the persuasive power of a 9-inch (shell), and thought it better to kill a Union man or two than to lose the effect of my moral suasion.”
Learning of the Federal advance, Branch pulled his troops out of their first line of defenses and concentrated them in a front about six miles southeast of New Bern, near Fort Thompson. This inadequate force guarded the road that Branch suspected the Federals would take. Burnside’s men advanced to where Branch’s lines were believed to be, but Branch had already fallen back. The Federals continued forward amid some skirmishing; driving rain and muddy roads not only made the march difficult, but they made it impossible for the Federals to bring up artillery. Nevertheless, Burnside planned to launch an assault the next day.
At dawn, Burnside ordered his brigades to advance up the muddy west bank of the Neuse with Brigadier Generals Jesse Reno, John G. Parke, and John G. Foster on the left, center, and right respectively. Branch’s defense line stretched from Fort Thompson on the Neuse to his left, a road leading west to his right, and the main road to New Bern in his center. Like at Roanoke Island, the Federals would have to cross a swamp to get to the Confederates.
As the Federals surged forward, the gunboats on the Neuse began bombarding Fort Thompson. The Confederates, outflanked and low on ammunition, held firm until a militia unit in the center of the line suddenly broke. The Federals exploited the gap and sent the enemy fleeing around 10:30 a.m.
Some Confederates on the right did not get the order to retreat and were captured. Those who got away crossed the Trent River into New Bern and burned the bridge behind them. But by this time, the Federal gunboats commanded the town. The Confederates set fire to New Bern without orders and continued fleeing. Branch arranged to withdraw his force by rail to Kinston, 35 miles west, but it took him nearly a week to reassemble all his remaining men.
Meanwhile, the Federals entered New Bern that afternoon and received a similar reception to the one at Winton: only blacks and poor whites celebrated their arrival. Panic spread among the other local residents, as people fled on trains to Goldsborough and other towns. Only 100 of the 1,200 New Bern residents remained when the Federals arrived.
The Federals sustained 471 casualties (90 killed and 381 wounded or missing). The Confederates lost 578 (64 killed, 101 wounded, and 413 captured or missing). In addition to capturing New Bern, the Federals also gained control of all the outlying forts along the river, including Fort Thompson. A landing party from Rowan’s fleet seized two steamers, large quantities of cotton, and an artillery battery.
New Bern became another useful port and supply base for Federal inland expeditions. It also gave the Federals easy access to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. Burnside, who now had a foothold on the mainland, began looking back to points on the Atlantic to capture, particularly Fort Macon near Cape Lookout. The Confederate government, realizing the importance of North Carolina too late, sent reinforcements that should have been sent months earlier.
- Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.
- Hubbell, John T. (Patricia L. Faust ed.), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.
- Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971.
- McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865. Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press (Kindle Edition), 2012.
- Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (facsimile of the 1866 edition). New York: Fairfax Press, 1990.