Category Archives: North Carolina

North Carolina: Confederate Deserters Executed

February 15, 1864 – Thirteen men who deserted the North Carolina militia to join the Federal army were executed by Confederate officials, even though they had never officially belonged to the Confederate army.

Confederate forces withdrawing from New Bern captured several Federal troops near Beach Grove and identified 22 of them as former members of the North Carolina Home Guard. They had served in J.H. Nethercutt’s battalion of the 66th North Carolina, under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. The men had apparently deserted and joined the Federal cause when rumors swirled that the Home Guard would be drafted into the Confederate army.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina, confronted these prisoners and exclaimed, “God damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert!” He later told his subordinates, “We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting… every God-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.”

However, a court-martial had no authority over these men because they had belonged to a state militia unit, not the national army. Nevertheless, two were executed by firing squad before Pickett even approved the creation of a court-martial to try the remaining 20 men. The Fayetteville Observer reported, “Among the prisoners captured by our forces near Newbern were several deserted from our army. We learn by an officer just from the spot that two of these have already been executed, and others are undergoing trial.”

The tribunal consisted of Pickett’s officers, headed by Hoke. According to one of the defendant’s brothers, “the court-martial refused to admit an attorney, or to receive any evidence in favor of the accused.” Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, received a list of 53 Federal prisoners who had once belonged to the North Carolina militia. He forwarded this list to Pickett and wrote, “I ask for them the same treatment, in all respects, as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.”

Before Pickett responded, seven men were found guilty and hanged less than 24 hours after the verdict. On the 14th, the remaining 13 men were found guilty and sentenced to death the next day. According to Reverend John Parris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina:

“The scene beggars all description. Some of them were comparatively young men; but they had made a fatal mistake; they had only 24 hours to live, and but little preparation had been made for death. Here was a wife to say farewell to a husband forever. Here a mother to take the last look at her ruined son; and then a sister who had come to embrace, for the last time, the brother who had brought disgrace upon the very name she bore, by his treason to his country. I told them they had sinned against their country, and that country would not forgive; but they had also sinned against God, yet God would forgive if they approached Him with penitent hearts filled with a godly sorrow for sin, and repose their trust in the atoning blood of Christ.”

Nethercutt urged Hoke to intervene on the condemned men’s behalf, but Hoke told him (according to Nethercutt) that “he could do nothing, as he had an order for their execution.” Parris wrote:

“The 13 marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear not. On the scaffold they were arranged in one row. At a given signal the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling; but it was as truly the deserters’ doom. Many of them said ‘I never expected to come to such an end as this.’ But yet they were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom.”

Pickett replied to Peck’s letter the day after the executions. He told Peck that he had only executed 22 of the 53 men on the list, but because the list had been “so kindly furnished me,” it would help Pickett “bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts.” Pickett wrote, “Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors.”

Before Peck received Pickett’s reply, he was shown the article in the Fayetteville Observer stating that two men had been executed and the rest were awaiting trial. Peck wrote, “Having reported this matter to higher authority, I am instructed to notify you, that if the members of the North Carolina regiment who have been captured are not treated as prisoners of war, the strictest retaliation will be enforced.”

Peck warned Pickett that the Federals held “two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and two captains” at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula “as hostages for their safety.” Peck received information from various sources, some accurate and some not, and he tried sorting it out with his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, before learning the truth in March.

After the war, Nethercutt testified before a Federal war crimes commission regarding those executed: “As far as I can recollect, these men were never borne on the rolls and returns of the (66th North Carolina) regiment.” In response to the question why these men deserted before their unit was absorbed into the Confederate army, Nethercutt said that he did not believe “their sympathies were with the rebellion.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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Pickett’s New Bern Campaign

February 2, 1864 – Confederates captured one of the largest Federal ships on the North Carolina coast, but their main mission was more difficult to accomplish.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederates in North Carolina, sought to take back New Bern, one of the largest cities in the state, because the Federal warehouses there could feed Confederates in both North Carolina and Virginia through the winter. Pickett planned to advance on New Bern with three infantry columns, supported by Commander John T. Wood’s naval flotilla on the Neuse River.

As the month began, Pickett had moved within striking distance of the town, with the Federals unaware of his approach. Pickett traveled with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s division as it came upon Batchelder’s Creek from the northwest. Federal advance units destroyed the bridges over the creek before retreating. Hoke’s men made makeshift bridges out of nearby logs and drove the Federals back into town. The Confederates halted on the night of the 1st, as Pickett awaited word from his other two columns and Wood’s navy.

Pickett’s second column, led by Brigadier General Seth M. Barton, advanced from the southwest with orders to destroy railroad tracks and telegraph lines along the way. The march was slowed by rain and mud, and locals warned Barton that the Federal defenses outside New Bern were “of the most formidable character, deemed by the enemy impregnable.” As Barton advanced, he came upon an unexpected line of Federal forts south of the Trent River. He reported:

“I was therefore unprepared to encounter obstacles so serious, and was forced to the conviction that they were insurmountable by any means at my disposal. Had it even been practicable to carry the fortifications on the south side of Trent, the possession of them would have been useless for the accomplishment of our object.”

Meanwhile, Pickett’s third column under Colonel James Dearing stopped at Fort Anderson, northeast of New Bern, where Dearing judged the fort too strong to take. Wood’s naval cutters began moving down the Neuse as planned, but two of Pickett’s three columns had not reached their objective in this operation, which relied on the precise execution of all its elements to succeed.

Pickett continued waiting to either receive word from his other column commanders or hear gunfire to the south. Hoke later wrote, “We remained in front of New Berne all day Tuesday (the 2nd) waiting Barton’s move, when, much to my disappointment, a dispatch was received from him stating that it was impossible for him to cross the creek.”

Federals soon discovered the Confederate presence, ruining the element of surprise. Pickett urged Barton to join forces with Hoke, but Barton stated he would have to try finding another place to cross the river. Pickett reported, “Thus, the earliest possible moment at which he could have joined me would have been the evening of the 3rd instant. I could not have attacked before the 4th instant.”

Infuriated, Pickett ordered a general withdrawal. He blamed Barton for the failure, but he also blamed General Robert E. Lee, who had devised the three-pronged plan. Pickett wrote, “Had I have had the whole force in hand, I have but little doubt that we could have gone in easily taking the place by surprise.”

But as it stood, this was a Confederate failure. The Petersburg (Virginia) Register reported simply that “the place was stronger than we anticipated.” Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer, commanding the Federals at New Bern, called his losses during Pickett’s operation “trifling.”

Cmdr J.T. Wood | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile on the Neuse, Wood’s flotilla continued downriver as planned. Using muffled oars, the boats quietly came upon the U.S.S. Underwriter, a four-gun sidewheel steamer and the largest Federal ship in the area. The Federals discovered the approaching boats at 2:30 a.m. on the 2nd, when they were within less than 300 feet of the Underwriter. The alarms were sounded, but the Federals could not depress their guns low enough to fire on the attackers.

The Confederates boarded the vessel and engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Acting Master Jacob Westervelt, commanding the Underwriter, was killed in the fighting. The Confederates captured the vessel, but they could not get her steam up, and the Federal shore batteries began firing on her. Wood ordered the ship burned to prevent recapture.

Wood relayed the valor of the Confederate marines to Colonel Lloyd J. Beall, Confederate Marine Corps commandant. Lieutenant George W. Gift, an officer in the Confederate flotilla, declared, “I am all admiration for Wood. He is modesty personified, conceives boldly and executes with skill and courage.” Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory called this action a “brilliant exploit,” and Wood later received the thanks of the Confederate Congress. But the Federals still held New Bern.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-94; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 365-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 459-60; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 477, 524

Confederates Target New Bern

January 20, 1864 – Confederate commanders looked to take back a key point on the North Carolina coast to better feed their armies.

Federal forces had captured New Bern, one of North Carolina’s largest cities, in early 1862. Since then, the Confederates made sporadic attempts to take it back, but by this time, it had become an important objective because the Federal warehouses there could feed the Confederate armies through the winter.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

New Bern was especially important to General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain itself in ravaged, war-torn Virginia. If Confederate forces could seize the town, they could use the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad to transport the foodstuffs and supplies north into Virginia.

Now that the Federal and Confederate armies in northern Virginia had gone into winter quarters, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The time is at hand when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done. I can now spare troops for the purpose, which will not be the case as spring approaches.”

Lee acknowledged that the Federal garrison at New Bern had been strongly fortified, but it “has been so long unmolested, and experiences such a feeling of security, that it is represented as careless.” So were the Federal gunboats patrolling the nearby waters.

Lee stated, “A bold party could descend the Neuse (River) in boats at night, capture the gunboats, and drive the enemy by their aid from the works on that side of the river, while a force should attack them in front.” To do this, and to secure the “large amount of provisions and other supplies” there, “a bold naval officer” and experienced men would be needed. Lee asked, “Can they be had?”

Davis responded two days later, “Your suggestion is approved, but who can and will execute it?” Davis stated that a naval fleet could not be assembled any time soon. He also suggested that Lee should lead the New Bern operation himself:

“You could give it form, which would insure success… without your personal attention, I fear such failures as have elsewhere been suffered… It would be well to send the brigade, and if circumstances permit, you had better go down; otherwise, I will go myself, though it could only be for a very few days, Congress being in session.”

Lee waited over two weeks to reply, “until the time arrived for the execution of the attempt on New Berne.” Without acknowledging Davis’s offer to personally lead the troops in the attack, Lee stated he would take command, “but I consider my presence here (in northern Virginia) always necessary, especially now, when there is such a struggle to keep the army fed and clothed.” Lee also reiterated the need for a gunboat fleet, writing, “With their aid I think success would be certain.”

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Leadership ultimately devolved upon Major General George Pickett, who had taken command of the Department of North Carolina last fall. Pickett’s force would consist of 13,000 infantrymen, 900 cavalry troopers, and 17 guns. Lee worked with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, Pickett’s second-in-command, to develop the attack plan. It began with 14 naval cutters under Commander John T. Wood clearing the Federal gunboats off the Neuse River, thus “driving the enemy from their guns” on shore. Pickett would then launch a three-pronged advance:

  • An infantry force, Brigadier General Seth M. Barton’s 600 cavalry, and 14 guns would attack New Bern from the southwest, below the Trent River.
  • An infantry force, Colonel James Dearing’s 300 cavalry, and three guns would advance from the northeast and capture Fort Anderson, across the Neuse from New Bern.
  • Hoke’s division, joined by Pickett, would advance on New Bern from the northwest.

In addition to these joint army-navy operations, Brigadier General William H.C. Whiting, commanding Confederates at Wilmington, would move 35 miles southeast to attack the Federal garrison at Morehead City. Lee wrote Pickett, “Everything will depend upon the secrecy, expedition, and boldness of your movements.” Lee recommended troop placements and authorized Pickett to abort the attack if necessary. He then stated, “If successful, everything in New Berne should be sent back to a place of security.”

From there, Lee urged Pickett to oversee “the enemy driven from Washington, Plymouth, &c., and much subsistence for the army obtained.” Offering more specifics, Lee instructed, “If you have to use the telegraph, merely say, ‘The day is’–name the day of the month; he (Whiting) will comprehend. Commit nothing to the telegraph that may disclose your purpose.”

Lee directed Hoke to personally deliver the instructions to Pickett and “explain to him fully the plan of operations.” As Hoke moved his Confederates south into North Carolina, he was to coordinate efforts with draft officials “to get conscripts and recruits.”

The mobilization began on the 30th, and Pickett’s forces began arriving outside New Bern the next day. The operation continued into February.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524

The Siege of Washington

April 3, 1863 – Confederates within Major General D.H. Hill’s military department tried destroying a Federal garrison on the North Carolina coast.

Hill had tried regaining New Bern in March. When that failed, he turned to nearby Washington. The Confederates blocked the roads to prevent the transfer of reinforcements from New Bern, while the Federals at Washington built an elaborate trench system to repel the attackers. The Confederates positioned batteries along the Pamlico River, east of Washington, to prevent Federal gunboats from rescuing the garrison. Guns were placed at both Hill’s Point and Swan’s Point on the river’s south bank, and obstructions were placed in the river.

Gen J.G. Foster | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federals were led by Brigadier General John G. Foster, commanding the Department of North Carolina. The Confederates began laying siege to Foster’s garrison by encircling the Federals and cutting off their supply line. Federal gunboats hurried to relieve the Federals under siege, and on the 2nd they silenced the Confederate battery at Hill’s Point. This naval aid indicated that Federal communications were still operational.

The next morning, the Federals got a morale boost when the gunboats silenced the Confederate battery just outside Washington. However, the Confederates met Federal relief forces under Brigadier General Francis B. Spinola at Blount’s Creek and sent them running. This was the second failed attempt to relieve the garrison over the last 10 days. Foster resolved to escape from Washington himself and personally lead Federal reinforcements from New Bern.

On the 13th, the Federal transport steamer Escort delivered food, ammunition, and reinforcements to the Federal garrison at Washington while under heavy fire from Confederate batteries along the Tar River. The Escort’s crewmen had placed hay bales on the decks to absorb the fire, but no shots hit the vessel.

Two days later, Foster left Washington aboard the Escort. Confederate guns scored nearly 40 hits on the ship near Hill’s Point, but none did serious damage as the ship made it past the guns and the obstructions. This opened a line from which the Federals could get reinforcements and supplies, thus breaking the Confederate siege. Also, some Confederates had been pulled out of the siege line by Lieutenant General James Longstreet, overall Confederate commander in the region, to join in his siege of Suffolk.

This further weakened the operation until Hill decided to pull out. His rear guard clashed with Federals at Kinston as the Confederates withdrew. Although the Confederates had failed to capture either New Bern or Washington, they kept the Federals occupied in those towns while other Confederates gathered much needed foodstuffs in the region for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Nevertheless, Hill was disgusted by the failure to capture Washington. He issued General Order No. 8, which praised his troops’ conduct but rebuked the North Carolina militia for failing to join his cause.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 87-88, 90; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 266, 270, 275; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 258; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 273, 276-77, 281-82; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 362

From Amos Steere, 25th Massachusetts

Letter from Private Amos Steere, 25th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, to his sister.

New Bern, N.C.

May 2, 1862

Massachusetts state flag | Image Credit: all-flagsworld.com

Dear Sister Lucy:

… In one of your letters written to me I believe you wrote asking of me to give you some information in regard to a person’s feeling when upon the battlefield. I can only speak for one, but have heard the remarks of a great number and their feelings are as different as their minds are at home or upon any subject.

As for my own, when we were marching along (on our march up the river road to New Bern) the next morning (after encamping out all night in the rain without any covering) up the road in front of the enemy’s works, I was startled by the sound of a cannon directly ahead of us, the Regt. having just turned in to the right along the woods, we being in the rear of the Regt. They had just got past the turn of the road, which left us in front, then the 27th (regiment), being the next in advance.

The instant I heard the report, whiz and spat came the ball. I struck in the road about ten feet from me, spattering the mud into some of the boys’ faces. At that time I thought it best to get out of the range of that gun and acted accordingly. I crossed the road into an open field, with two or three buildings upon it. There we established our hospital, or at least were to do so, but before we had got halfway across, the fire had begun to be terrible. I did not expect to get to the buildings without being hit, but fortunately there was not one of us hurt through the engagement.

After crossing the field and arriving at those houses, we found we were in more danger than before, for we were directly in front of their field pieces. The distance was short of a half mile and only but a trifle farther from their water battery–of which four of their heavy guns could be brought to bear upon us. I believe there was only three or four shots fired from that battery, as they were waiting to get a larger haul but was whipped before they were aware of it. As I said before, when we were at those houses the cannon balls, shells and bullets in abundance were flying all around us.

To add to our misery, one of our gun boats opened fire, intending to throw the shells over in amongst us. One burst in the ground just seven rods from where we stood. The next burst over the house. Then we thought best to make our quarters somewhere else, so we did, but how we got out of it without one of us being wounded is a mystery to me.

I felt the need of religion then if I ever did, and wished that I might be a Christian so that I shall in time of battle and at all other times be prepared to meet my God in peace. I have met with no change of heart as yet, but long for the time to come when it will be as easy for me to do right as it is for me to do wrong. Others say that they had not the least feelings of fear from the beginning and others say that they began to think they were cowards, and others something else.

I think as a general thing those at home that are naturally timid are the ones here that have the least fear. For a sample, I will give Patrick Cronan, Co. E, 25th Mass. He was a sort of street bully as they term it at home and has fought one prize fight here at New Bern. He skulked out of the fight and afterwards was court marshaled and sentenced to wear at guard mounting and through the day a wide board on the back with the word coward with capital letters marked on it for five days, then to have his head shaved, the buttons cut from his coat and drummed out of the service. All of that was executed.

Others that it was thought would not fight at all fought the best…

I have no particular news to write except our Fort is nearly completed just outside of the city, of which I will give you a plan. Give my love to Mary if you see her, and all the rest of my friends.

From your brother,

AMOS STEERE

The Fall of Fort Macon

April 26, 1862 – A formal surrender ceremony took place after the Confederates gave up a formidable stronghold on the North Carolina coast.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Federal forces led by Major General Ambrose E. Burnside had established footholds at various points on the North Carolina coast since the beginning of the year. These points included New Bern, which isolated the Confederate garrison at Fort Macon.

Located on Bogue Banks in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Fort Macon was one of the strongest and most strategically positioned works in the state. It guarded the water approaches to Morehead City (terminus of the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad), as well as Beaufort.

Burnside directed a brigade of 3,000 men under Brigadier General John G. Parke to capture Fort Macon. In late March, Parke laid the groundwork by seizing both Beaufort and Morehead City, thus cutting the fort off from communications with other nearby Confederates. Parke’s Federals then occupied Bogue Banks, but the fort commander, Colonel Moses J. White, refused to surrender. Parke resolved to lay siege rather than directly attack.

Parke and Burnside spent the first two and a half weeks of April gathering and positioning heavy artillery to bombard the fort. By April 17, Burnside reported to the War Department, “I hope to reduce the fort within ten days.” Burnside repeated Parke’s demand to surrender on the 23rd, but despite having just 300 effectives, White refused once more.

The Federals opened a heavy bombardment on the morning of the 25th. The Confederates fired back but could do no damage because sand dunes protected the Federal cannon. The Confederates were also at a disadvantage because the fort had been designed to withstand attacks from the sea, not inland.

Federal attack on Fort Macon | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Federal attack on Fort Macon | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Commander Samuel Lockwood’s nearby Federal naval squadron–consisting of the steamers U.S.S. Chippewa, Delaware, and State of Georgia, and the bark Gemsbok–responded to the sound of gunfire by joining the fight on the fort’s sea side. However, the ships were forced to retire after an hour due to high winds and strong waves. The naval fire served mostly as a diversion from the main firing.

By late afternoon, the Federal gunners had become tremendously accurate, disabling 19 the fort’s 56 guns. Colonel White, fearing that his magazine would soon be exposed to fire, ordered the white flag raised at 4:30. He lost 25 men killed or wounded. The Federals had fired 1,150 rounds at the fort, with about half hitting their targets.

White sent two officers to ask the Federals for terms, and when they came back and told him that the surrender must be unconditional, he withdrew his capitulation. The next day, Burnside relented and offered to parole the men until formally exchanged, allowing them to take all their personal property with them. White accepted, and a formal surrender ceremony took place on April 26, the same day that the fort changed hands.

The capture of Fort Macon, combined with those of Roanoke Island, Elizabeth City, and New Bern, gave the Federals virtual control of the entire North Carolina coast. This helped strengthen the Federal blockade and opened a path for an inland thrust toward either Richmond to the north or Charleston to the south.

Federal forces soon took over many nearby towns and ports along the Pamlico and Albemarle sounds, and the navy quickly established a coaling station for the North Atlantic Blockade Squadron at Beaufort.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 172; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (25 Apr 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 164; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 142-43; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 203-04; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 275-76; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition), p. 53-54; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 295-96

The Fall of New Bern

March 14, 1862 – Federals occupying points on the North Carolina coast advanced to the mainland in hopes of capturing one of the state’s largest cities.

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Gen. Ambrose Burnside | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Since the Federal capture of Roanoke Island the previous month, 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 the 13th, 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.

The Federal troops advanced to where it was believed Branch’s lines were, but the Confederates had already fallen back. The Federals continued advancing 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 defensive line extended 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 also seized two steamers, large quantities of cotton, and an artillery battery.

The fall of New Bern created another port and useful supply base for Federal inland expeditions. It also gave the Federals easy access to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad. The Confederate government, realizing the importance of North Carolina too late, sent reinforcements that should have been sent months earlier.

With a foothold on the mainland, Burnside soon looked back to points on the Atlantic, particularly Fort Macon near Cape Lookout.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 33-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (14 Mar 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 141; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 121-23; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 184-85; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 51-53; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 294-95