Category Archives: North Carolina

North Carolina: Confederates Reclaim Plymouth

April 20, 1864 – Confederate army and navy forces regained a town that enabled them to open the vital Roanoke River to commerce on the North Carolina coast.

By dawn, the C.S.S. Albemarle had cleared the Roanoke River of Federal gunboats, enabling Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederate infantry to launch an all-out assault on the Federal fortifications at Plymouth. Hoke’s troops had spent the 19th getting into assault positions, with one of his brigades poised to attack Fort Williams from the east. Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells, commanding the Federal forces, reported that–

“… the enemy was very active, moving in different directions, withdrawing most of his force from the vicinity of Fort Gray, and apparently making a serious demonstration on my right. This state of things continued until dark, when the enemy in strong force succeeded in effecting the crossing of Coneby Creek below the town, and massed his column on my left. This disaster was unexplained, and placed me in a most critical position.”

Gen R.F. Hoke | Image Credit:

Hoke planned for his troops to demonstrate against the Federal right while attacking the Federal left. Wessells spent the night shifting troops to prepare for attacks from either direction, even though he was outnumbered by more than two-to-one. When the Confederates charged on the left and pushed the forward Federal line back, Wessells asked to confer with Hoke.

Wessells wrote that Hoke demanded unconditional surrender, and, “In failure of this, indiscriminate slaughter was intimated.” Despite Hoke’s efforts to be “courteous and soldierlike,” Wessells refused the demand. He reported:

“I was now completely enveloped on every side, Fort Williams, an inclosed work in the center of the line, being my only hope. This was well understood by the enemy, and in less than an hour a cannonade of shot and shell was opened upon it from four different directions. This terrible fire had to be endured without reply, as no man could live at the guns…

“This condition of affairs could not be long endured without a reckless sacrifice of life; no relief could be expected, and in compliance with the earnest desire of every officer I consented to hoist a white flag, and at 10 a.m. of April 20 I had the mortification of surrendering my post to the enemy with all it contained.”

The retaking of Plymouth was the greatest Confederate joint army-navy victory of the war. It was also the Confederates’ greatest victory in North Carolina after a series of defeats that dated all the way back to February 1862. The Federal blockade of the Roanoke River was now broken, allowing the Confederates to receive much-needed supplies from this key waterway.

Hoke received the official thanks of the Confederate Congress and a promotion to major-general. His aide-de-camp reported, “The prisoners will number about 2,500, 300 or 400 negroes, 30 pieces of ordnance, complete garrison outfit, 100,000 pounds of meat, 1,000 barrels of flour, and other provisions… Our loss about 300 in all.”

Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, frantically notified his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, “The ram (Albemarle) will probably come down to Roanoke Island, Washington, and New Bern. Unless we are immediately and heavily reinforced, both by the army and navy, North Carolina is inevitably lost.” As Peck feared, the Confederates planned to target New Bern next.

Many of the North Carolina Unionists, perhaps recalling that Major General George Pickett had executed their comrades, fled the ranks before the Confederates took over the works. Some black troops also fled to avoid being sent into slavery. Northern newspapers quickly published eyewitness accounts of Confederate troops murdering surrendered black soldiers in cold blood. Sergeant Samuel Johnson of the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry later recalled:

“When I found out that the city was being surrendered, I pulled off my uniform and found a suit of citizen’s clothes, which I put on, and when captured I was supposed and believed by the rebels to be a citizen. After being captured I was kept at Plymouth for some two weeks and was employed in endeavoring to raise the sunken vessels of the Union fleet…”

“Upon the capture of Plymouth by the rebel forces all the negroes found in blue uniform, or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him, was killed. I saw some taken into the woods and hung. Others I saw stripped of all their clothing and stood upon the bank of the river with their faces riverwards and there they were shot. Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butt end of the muskets in the hands of the rebels. All were not killed the day of the capture. Those that were not were placed in a room with their officers, they (the officers) having previously been dragged through the town with ropes around their necks, where they were kept confined until the following morning when the remainder of the black soldiers were killed.”

Confederate officials denied the accusations, and the southern press backed them. An editorial in the Richmond Daily Examiner declared, “General Hoke, judging from the large number of his prisoners, does not seem to have made such thorough work as that by which Forrest has so shocked the tender souls, and frozen the warm blood of the Yankees.”

Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg wrote North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance that President Jefferson Davis–

“… directs that the negroes captured by our forces be turned over to you for the present, and he requests of you that if upon investigation you ascertain that any of them belong to citizens of North Carolina you will cause them to be restored to their respective owners. If any are owned in other States you will please communicate to me their number and the names and places of residence of their owners, and have them retained in strict custody until the President’s views in reference to such may be conveyed to you.”

“To avoid as far as possible all complications with the military authorities of the United States in regard to the disposition which will be made of this class of (black) prisoners, the President respectfully requests Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to have the matter of such disposition kept out of the newspapers of the State, and in every available way to shun its obtaining any publicity as far as consistent with the proposed restoration.”

Thus, the official Confederate policy would be to send all captured black troops into slavery, regardless of whether they had been free before joining the Federal army, and the press would not report on the matter.



Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95-96;; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2444-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 422; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 487; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 365; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 793; 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), p. 184; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5


North Carolina: Confederates Target Plymouth

April 19, 1864 – Confederates prepared to attack an important Federal post on the North Carolina coast, with help from a new ironclad.

Gen R.F. Hoke | Image Credit:

By this time, Federal forces controlled most of the coast from garrisons at New Bern and Plymouth. Confederates under Major General George Pickett had failed to reclaim New Bern in February, so now they turned to reclaiming Plymouth. Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg bypassed Pickett and entrusted the operation to Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, who had performed well during the failed New Bern expedition.

The Plymouth garrison was stationed near the mouth of the Roanoke River, on the southern bank. It consisted of about 2,800 troops, including black soldiers and North Carolina Unionists under Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells. The Federal defenses ran from east to west, with their backs to the Roanoke. Four forts guarded Plymouth, along with the gunboats U.S.S. Ceres, Miami, and Southfield, and the army transport Bombshell. To retake Plymouth, the Confederates would need help from their navy.

After months of construction near Edwards’ Ferry on the Roanoke River, the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Albemarle was finally ready for action. Led by Commander James W. Cooke, the ship was patterned after the C.S.S. Arkansas and expected to drive the wooden Federal fleet out of North Carolina waters. Her first mission was to support Hoke’s infantry assault on Plymouth. As the Albemarle chugged down the Roanoke toward Plymouth on the 17th, Hoke’s 7,000 troops advanced on the town.

The Confederates knocked the Federal pickets and cavalry back to their fortifications. Federal artillery from the forts and gunboats opened on the approaching Confederates near sundown, which Hoke countered with his shore batteries.

Meanwhile, the Albemarle was unable to support Hoke’s planned assault on the 18th due to repairs. Hoke instead concentrated most of his guns on Fort Gray on the Federal right (west) while he divided his infantry for a two-pronged assault. One prong would attack Fort Wessells to the west, while the other would keep the Federals pinned in Fort Williams, the Federals’ strongest work, in the center.

The first prong began its assault around 6 p.m. and captured Fort Wessells within two hours. General Wessells reported:

“This work, after a desperate resistance, was surrendered, and, as I have understood, under a threat of no quarter. Its gallant commander, Captain Chapin, 85th New York Volunteers, fell nobly at his post, and Colonel Mercer, commanding the attacking column was killed.”

Hoke sent a message to Wessells demanding the surrender of the rest of the Federals at Plymouth. Wessells replied that he would only surrender if Hoke treated the black troops and North Carolina Unionists as prisoners of war. Since this violated the Confederate government’s policy regarding enemy combatants, Hoke refused.

Around 2:30 on the morning of the 19th, the Albemarle resumed her advance down the Roanoke. An hour later, she encountered the wooden gunboats Southfield and Miami. The Federals, led by Lieutenant Commander Charles W. Flusser aboard the Miami, knew the Confederates had been working on an ironclad and expected her; Flusser chained the Southfield and Miami together to block the Albemarle from getting past them.

Naval assault at Plymouth | Image Credit:

Under heavy fire, the Albemarle plowed through the Southfield and “tore a hole clear through to the boiler.” As the Southfield sank, Flusser personally fired a gun point-blank into the Albemarle, but the shot ricocheted off her iron plating and killed Flusser. His successor ordered the chains between the two ships cut. A young surgeon’s assistant aboard the Miami later wrote, “We fired about 30 shells at the ram but they had no effect on her,” while the Albemarle’s fire tore into the wooden vessel. The assistant continued:

“As fast as the men were wounded, they were passed down to us and we laid them one at a time on the table… and extracted the balls and pieces of shell from them… Dr. Mann and I looked like butchers… our shirt sleeves rolled up and we covered with blood… The blood was over the soles of my boots… When Captain Flusser fell, the men seemed to lose all heart, and we ran away from the ram into the sound.”

The other Federal vessels at Plymouth followed the Miami downriver, out of the Albemarle’s way. The Confederate ironclad spent the rest of the day bombarding Fort Gray and the other Federal works, softening them up for Hoke’s planned all-out assault. The Federals now had no gunboat support, and the Confederates controlled the Roanoke all around Plymouth.



Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 94-95;; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2405-15, 2444-54; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 420-21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 486-87; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 365; 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), p. 183-84; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 78-79

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:

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.”



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:

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:

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.



Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-94;; 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:

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:

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.



Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91;; 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:

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.



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:

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,