“The battle began at 0730 on March 14th, and raged for nearly six hours.”
The Battle of New Bern (also known as the Battle of New Berne) was fought on 14 March 1862, near the city of New Bern, North Carolina, as part of the Burnside Expedition of the American Civil War. The US Army’s Coast Division, led by Brigadier General Ambrose Burnside and accompanied by armed vessels from the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, were opposed by an undermanned and badly trained Confederate force of North Carolina soldiers and militia led by Brigadier General Lawrence O’B. Branch. Although the defenders fought behind breastworks that had been set up before the battle, their line had a weak spot in its center that was exploited by the attacking Federal soldiers. When the center of the line was penetrated, many of the militia broke, forcing a general retreat of the entire Confederate force. General Branch was unable to regain control of his troops until they had retreated to Kinston, more than 30 miles (about 50 km) away. New Bern came under Federal control, and remained so for the rest of the war.
Hatteras Island, on the outer shore of North Carolina, fell to Union forces in August, 1861. Roanoke Island, just to the north, was captured on February 8, 1862. Elizabeth City on the mainland followed days later. With the freedom to navigate unmolested through Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s command looked for other strategic targets of opportunity. The city of New Bern was a significant target, as the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad that connected the coast with the interior passed through there. On March 11, 1862, Burnside’s force embarked from Roanoke Island to rendezvous with Union gunboats at Hatteras Inlet for a joint expedition against New Bern. On March 13th, the fleet sailed up the Neuse River and disembarked infantry south of the Confederate defenses, about 4,000 men behind breastworks at Fort Thompson. The defenders, a mix of North Carolina infantry, cavalry and artillery, were commanded by Brig. Gen. Lawrence Branch. On March 14th, the brigades of Brig. Gens. John G. Foster, Jesse Reno, and John G. Parke attacked along the railroad and after four [sic] hours of fighting, drove the Confederates out of their fortifications. The Federals captured several nearby gun positions and occupied a base that they would hold to the end of the war, in spite of several Confederate attempts to recapture it.
On March 13th 1862, 11,000 Union troops led by General Ambrose Burnside, along with 13 heavily-armed gunboats led by Commodore Stephen Rowan, landed at Slocum’s Creek, now part of the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. Their objective was [the] capture of the town of New Bern because of its strategic position and the fact that the Atlantic and North Carolina railroad was also located here. Union strategists hoped to use New Bern as a stepping off point to cutting off the main Confederate north-south railroad supply line at Goldsboro.
Awaiting the Union forces were about 4,500 inexperienced and ill-equipped Confederate troops commanded by General Laurence [sic] O’Bryan Branch, a politician with virtually no military experience. Branch positioned his infantry regiments, one cavalry regiment, local militia and three gun batteries to defend a line extending from Fort Thompson on the Neuse River and running approximately one mile west to the Weatherby Road at the eastern edge of Brice’s Creek. Extending Branch’s right wing to the railroad tracks was the 26th North Carolina Regiment commanded by Colonel Zebulon Vance, later governor of North Carolina.
Despite support from Commodore Rowan’s gunboats, this attack stalled. However, a regiment of General Parke’s brigade flanked the position of a militia battalion in the vicinity of Wood’s brickyard adjoining the railroad. Parke’s infantry drove these poorly armed, fresh militiamen from their position leaving the right flank of the 35th North Carolina Regiment exposed. The Confederate line was broken between the 26th and the 35th regiments, and the Union forces pushed through forcing the retreat of the Confederate troops.
The Battle of New Bern was the baptism of fire for the 26th North Carolina. Later, in July 1863, the 26th lost 588 of 800 men at the Battle of Gettysburg, sustaining the largest numerical losses of any unit, North or South, during the entire course of the war.
Estimated casualties for the battle: 1080 total. The fierce battle in the swamps and along the railroad five miles south of New Bern, proved to be a major victory for the Union and led to the ensuing occupation of New Bern for the remainder of the Civil War. Although Union forces never seized and held the rail line at Goldsboro, their presence in New Bern required the Confederacy to divert troops to the railroad’s defense that might have been used in the critical battles in Virginia. For General Ambrose Burnside, the New Bern victory was a factor in his subsequently being given command of the Army of the Potomac and leadership in the Union disaster at Fredericksburg.
One-hundred and fifty-seven years ago, today… ~Vic