Battle of New Bern
On March 11, Brig. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s command embarked from Roanoke Island to rendezvous with Union gunboats at Hatteras Inlet for an expedition against New Bern. On March 13, the fleet sailed up the Neuse River and disembarked infantry on the river’s south bank to approach the New Bern defenses. The Confederate defense was commanded by Brig. Gen. Lawrence Branch. On March 14, John G. Foster’s, Jesse Reno’s, and John G. Parke’s brigades attacked along the railroad and after four hours of fighting drove the Confederates out of their fortifications. The Federals captured nine forts and 41 heavy guns and occupied a base which they would hold to the end of the war, in spite of several Confederate attempts to recover the town.
With a foothold established on the mainland Burnside turned his attention to the next target on the list; New Bern. The military importance of the city was defined by the railroads that ran through it or nearby. The Atlantic and North Carolina passed through it connecting the coast to the inland portions of the state. New Bern was also the first stepping stone towards Goldsborough. That city contained the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad that was vital to the resupply of Confederate troops in Virginia. The ultimate objective of the advance on New Bern was to sever these two lines.McClellan saw this effort as a natural extension of the sea going blockade. This "internal blockade" would contribute to the Union victory by gradually weakening the enemy forces.
Burnside's plan for taking New Berne began on 11 March. A fleet of transport vessels was loaded with his three brigades and steamed up the Neuse River on March 12th with 15 gunboats. About eighteen miles shy of the city the fleet anchored at the mouth of Slocum's Creek. The following morning at 0630 the boats "moved in towards the mouth of the creek" led by the gunboat Picket. After a prepatory shelling to clear the landing area of a small enemy force (35th North Carolina) the slow process of landing the men by shallow draft steamers and surf boats began. In twenty minutes three regiments had secured the beachhead and Quartermaster Biggs was busy landing the remaining troops by shuttling the available boats back and forth to the beach. While the force was growing Burnside sent his Topographical Engineer, Captain R. S. Williamson, and a party of four other officers to conduct a reconnassaince of the route and enemy defenses. His report indicated that the way was clear to the Otter Creek defenses which were discovered to be empty. The march forward began in a steady rain. To prevent any surprises the march was preceded by a rolling barrage from the gunboats. Signal rockets would occassionally mark the head of the column and the boats would shift their fire accordingly. The column met no opposition. The roads were quickly churned into a quagmire and a regiment (51st Pennsylvania) of soldiers had to be assigned to keep the eight artillery pieces moving. The going was so slow that it was 2000 before the Union column reached the first manned defenses. Without artillery and little daylight left Burnside opted to wait to begin the attack. The exhausted troops manhandling the guns finally arrived in camp at 0300.
The next morning Williamson set out again to find the Confederate forces. He discovered them in their works in what was called the Fort Thompson Line just outside the city and made a fairly accurate estimate of their strength (3000-4000). Using this information Burnside developed a plan of attack. BG Foster's 1st Brigade troops would march up the main road and strike the enemy in the front and left; BG Reno and his 2nd Brigade would move along the railroad in an effort to turn the enemy right; and BG Parke would relieve the 51st PA on the artillery detail with the 11th CT and follow Foster up the road as a reserve. On first contact Foster deployed two Massachusetts regiments on each side of the road leaving space for the artillery. Six guns were placed in the road and began answering the enemy fire. The battle for New Berne was on.
After a thick morning fog burned off the attack began and was met by "severe fire from their batteries." In BG Foster's section of the line the advance was almost immediately brought to a halt. The artillery and musketry coming from the enemy works was so thick that Colonel Thomas Stevenson, 24th MA, ordered his men "to lie down and open fire" in an effort tospare them some of the effects of the devestating fire. Colonel Edwin Bell found the volume of fire so thick that his 25th MA was "in danger of being badly cut up." To make matters worse for Bell and his men "a fire of shot and shell was opened on us from the rear." Foster was forced to move them out of danger and into support of the 27th MA on the other side of the road. The misdirected fire was thought to be coming from the gunboats and Burnside eventually asked them to shift their fire away from the area.Col Horace Lee, of the 27th, had problems as well. The stagnant nature of the fight was burning through his ammunition supply. He finally asked for and got relief by the 11th CT when his were reduced "to an average of 4 or 5 rounds." Foster's men could make no headway against the stubborn defense.
BG Reno's 2nd Brigade troops were encountering difficulties ordered to attack the enemy right his troops were hampered by wet ammunition and the discovery that the Confederate line extended much further than had been anticipated. Reno reported that because of the unexpected nature of the defense, "I found it necessary to attack them in the front." The extension of the line had been hastily constructed by Confederate commander, BG Lawrence Branch.In the rush to complete the works in the face of time and manpower shortages Branch incorporated a small streambed into the defense creating a bend near a brickyard that left this portion of his line more or less isolated. To compound the problems there it was also defended by the fewest troops. Looking for a way to break the stalemate Reno ordered the 21st MA to assault into the brickyard. LTC W. S. Clark led Companies A, B, C, and H into the yard and met "the most destructive crossfire". The Bay Staters were pinned down after heavy losses. Clark gathered his remaining men (200) and ordered a "charge bayonets" at the enemy battery and siezed two pieces. Such an impetuous attack by so few emboldened some of the retreating Confederates and a counter-attack was raised. Clark saw no hope of retaining his prizes and wisely ordered a retreat. His retreat brought him back to his original starting position where he found Colonel Rodman, of the 4th Rhode Island, waiting to relieve him. Burnside had shifted BG Parke and his 3rd Brigade into the area to spell the 2nd Brigade. In a brief discussion Clark convinced Rodman of the feasability of taking the enemy strongpoint with fresh troops.
Rodman accepted the challlenge and without getting authorization formed his men and ordered a charge. The renewed effort was too much for the defenders. The first to break were the raw militia, whose retreat opened the flanks of the units on each side. The Rhode Islanders siezed the opportunity and captured nine artillery pieces.George Allen of the 4th Rhode Island recalled the attack this way;
"It was a grand charge. Totally unsupported they had secured the key to the whole rebel line."
The way was opened for the follow on troops. The 8th and 11th CT and the 5th RI Bn swarmed into the gap and started rolling up the defense in both directions. With the enemy in their works and soon to be behind them the remainder of the Confederate line began to panic. The rout became contagious as unit after unit fled to the rear. The last defense before New Berne was gone.
The collapse of the defense ay Fort Thompson left only implanted piles and the threat of torpedoes to prevent the advance of the Union fleet to New Berne. The barriers consisted of "a series of piling driven securely into the bottom" and cut off just below the waterline, a second row of angled piling with pointed ends, and a row of torpedoes. The torpedoes, about thiry in number, consisted of kegs containing 200lbs of powder and connected "with metal fuses" to the angled pilings. Like any unobserved obstacle they were negotiated with relative ease and minimum damage. The Commodore Perry had one pointed pile broken off in her hull, the Commodore Barney was pierced with a six inch hole, and the Stars and Stripes was slightly damaged by a sharpened piling. Fortunately for the Federal boats and crews none of the torpedoes detonated.
The fleet moved up the Neuse unchallenged to the New Berne wharf. As they approached the city fires were spotted "where stores had been accumulated." Also burned was a two gun battery encased in cotton bales and a small steamer. A fire raft containing "barrels of pitch and bales of cotton" was released to the current of the Trent River and snagged on the railroad bridge. The span was engulfed in flames, completely destroying it. Coupled with the destruction of the draw portion of the road bridge the victorious Union forces were stranded on the south side of the river. The retreating Confederate troops, however, were discouraged from reorganizing in the town by a few rounds from the gunboats and continued north. BG Branch was unable to get them reassembled until they reached Kinston, about 30 miles away. A detail was landed to take possession of the city. The first order of business was to put out the fires. This was done by the remaining inhabitants who were "induced to aid in extinguishing the flames."At 1400 Commander Rowan dispatched "several of our vessels" to the southern bank of the Trent River to ferry General Foster's brigade across to the city. By 1600 the city was occupied. In a March 15th letter to Flag Officer Goldsborough, Rowan announced that;
"New Berne is ours and a splendid thing it is."
And so it was and would remain so for the remainder of the war. The small victory here would have have major consequences for events in Virginia. Believing that the foothold at New Berne placed the Navy Yard at Norfolk in between two major Union forces was a contributing factor to the Confederate officials decision to abandon the yard on May 10, 1862.
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