The invading force of five brigades moves by train into eastern North Carolina from the north in the last days of a bitter cold January 1864: 13,000 infantry and cavalry
The invading force of five brigades moves by train into eastern North Carolina from the north in the last days of a bitter cold January 1864: 13,000 infantry and cavalry troopers, fortified by artillery batteries and including a special detachment of 100 marines for an amphibious assault. They are mostly Virginians, but include the 43rd North Carolina Regiment.
This is a strange and paradoxical moment in the war: a Confederate Army invading one of the states of the Confederacy to fight citizens of that state. In the conflict to come, North Carolinians fight on both sides.
The expedition takes the field under the nominal command of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, a Virginian of the planter class. But the real commander is Robert F. Hoke, a handsome, brash North Carolinian. At age 27, Hoke is the youngest major general in the Confederate Army. Hoke is the hero of Cold Harbor, the man whose stubborn troops stopped Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s bold advance, rumored to be Gen. Robert E. Lee’s handpicked successor, should Lee ever succumb to illness or wounds.
Although Lee issues the order, Hoke is the author of the complicated plan of campaign. The Army stages at Kinston, a river town, then proceeds 32 miles to New Bern in three columns, each with designated objectives:
General Pickett and General Hoke’s main body is to follow the corridor between the Trent and Neuse rivers, knock out the star fort, and descend on the town in a surprise attack.
Gen. Seth M. Barton’s column, the most formidable in numbers and guns, will capture the vital railroad and cut the telegraph lines to prevent the regiments at Morehead City from reinforcing the garrison. Barton’s force will then capture the Neuse River bridge, attack across it, and take the Union position from the rear.
Col. James Deering’s column will carry Fort Anderson, the anchor of the whole Union defense.
The night before the attack, a fleet of small boats will carry the marines down the Neuse River close to the moored Union gunboats, so they can be scuttled.
General Hoke has another objective: to capture North Carolina troops serving in the Union Army — many of them rumored to be Confederate deserters.
Desertion is the scourge of the Confederate Army, and North Carolina troops are notorious for absenting themselves at will from their units. Many simply respond to the pleas of the families they left behind, wives who cannot get the crops in, aged parents caught between Unionist neighbors and marauding outliers. Some return to their units, but many do not. The rugged western mountains provide one refuge. The Eastern Seaboard, since 1862 occupied by Union troops, provides another: Hatteras, Roanoke Island, New Bern.
Hoke has convinced Lee that New Bern is ripe for the taking. He even has a spy roaming the city dressed as a Union officer to scout the garrison and report on how and where the troops are deployed. Lee advises President Jefferson Davis, “I can now spare troops for the purpose which will not be the case as spring approaches. … A large amount of provisions and other supplies are said to be at New Bern, which are much wanted for this army.”
The Confederate force arrives in Kinston, still scarred by a battle the previous year, when a force of Federals under Gen. John D. Foster overran it. They routed the defenders and looted the town, setting fire to buildings, leaving behind charred souvenirs of their visit and bitter memories among the inhabitants. Then, as quickly as they came, they withdrew downriver to New Bern.
Kinston has a raucous, boomtown feel, thriving with war trade — factories that manufacture shoes, uniforms, and hardtack — but lawless and mobbed by strangers, speculators, refugees, and all the opportunists of war. An enterprising community of prostitutes inhabits Sugar Hill. Whiskey is freely available at all hours. Now the troops overwhelm the town. Like many towns in the state, Kinston is divided by the war, and for many residents, the occupation by Confederates is no more bearable than the brief, violent stay by the Yankees.
But Hoke’s plan, while bold, is doomed from the start.
Union forces shattered Pickett’s division at Gettysburg the preceding July — half his command was killed, wounded, or captured. Seven of his veteran colonels are now dead. Pickett, himself recently married to his third wife, is reluctant to take the field from his comfortable headquarters in Petersburg, Virginia. Winter campaigning is the hardest duty, and many troops in General Lee’s army suspect that Pickett will never be the same after the bloody debacle at Cemetery Ridge. Haunted by monumental failure, he has become both timid at command and bitter, even cruel, toward his enemies.
Pickett is something of a self-made dandy and makes sport of the fact that he graduated dead last in his class at West Point. He’s proven his bravery on the field. But he does not have a keen mind for strategy or tactics. He relies on subordinates like Hoke to provide him with detailed plans and “sometimes stay with him to make sure he did not go astray,” one staff officer says.
This overly complicated plan unravels on a stage three years in the making and carries Lee’s admonition: “Everything will depend upon the secrecy, expedition, and boldness of your movements. … Commit nothing to the telegraph that may disclose your purpose. You must deceive the enemy as to your purpose and conceal it from the citizens.”
Among the troops waiting to receive the attack is the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteer Regiment — one of four “loyal” North Carolina regiments and one of 85 Union regiments recruited from the Confederate states. Eastern North Carolina is ripe territory for the recruiters.
The poor farmers and fishermen along this apron of low country by the sea never really support the rebellion. Many of them harbor bitter resentment against the slave-owning class who started the war and then made themselves exempt from conscription.
These poor men find themselves caught between the Confederate conscription agents who march them away from their farms and families to become cannon fodder on the deadly battlefields in Virginia, and the occupying Union troops who promise amnesty, protection, and food. Faced with this decision, many of the men cross into the blue lines and claim an enlistment bounty of $300, a fortune to a poor farmer. The recruiters promise them that they will be stationed in their home territory on safe garrison duty. The Confederates call them “buffaloes” — not a compliment. They are lackluster in their performance, considered unreliable in their loyalty.
Maj. Gen. John Peck, Union commander of the District of North Carolina, complains, “Mere boys, children, some of them weak, puny, scrofulous, have been enlisted, passed by the surgeon, and mustered in by the mustering officer. And again, old men, eaten by disease or utterly incapacitated by old age and general infirmity, have been enlisted, fed, and accepted into the service as able-bodied soldiers.”
The New York Times weighs in with its own commentary on the motives of the North Carolina enlistees: “But it is so more from natural necessity than anything intelligent and voluntary. This is found among the poor whites. A few days since, we saw at the Provost-Marshal’s office, thirty-five of this class, mostly deserters from the rebel army, all having taken the oath, and desirous of going to New-York. … Perhaps six hundred of this class have taken the oath since the 1st of January, and daily squads of them come in for that purpose. … They are not bound to the Confederacy by the pride of opinion, and interest and culture. They have no pet institution to sacrifice, in which they can take any intelligent interest.”
Thus the ranks of the 2nd North Carolina Volunteers swell with local men, sick of the war, most of them simply trying to survive it in a safe place where they enjoy regular meals. They are not really soldiers in anybody’s army. They exhibit no more zeal for glory than the mules that pull their commissary wagons.
The open question is whether they are any more loyal to Washington than to Richmond, but in Lincoln’s strategy, none of these drawbacks makes any difference: To him, once in the Union Army, the men leave the ranks of the enemy’s army as completely as if they have been captured or killed. The paymaster’s bargain is far easier on both the conscience and the army than the transaction in blood.
Some of the new recruits are deserters from Home Guard or Railroad Guard units. Some are already conscripted for service in line regiments but sneak off into the woods before being formally sworn in. This nicety will matter later: Home Guard and Railroad Guard are state organizations not subject to the military law of the Confederacy, and as far as the state of North Carolina is concerned, desertion is not a crime. If a man has not been duly sworn in to the ranks of a Confederate regiment, then he, too, is exempt from the rules of war that apply to soldiers who take the oath.
On January 30, Pickett’s command marches on New Bern, advancing slowly through deep sand and swamp. The march quickly deteriorates into an ordeal. A grass fire ignited by a careless match threatens to blow up the artillery powder and sends the gunners scurrying to rescue their caissons. The cannons bog down in the deep sand and must be manhandled forward. The relentless northeast wind sears the men with damp, biting cold.
The battle opens at midnight. The flotilla of small boats arrives in New Bern to find only a single enemy gunboat to scuttle: the 325-ton side-wheeler USS Underwriter. The marines board it and set it ablaze, with no effect on the outcome of the expedition. Barton’s cavalry, scouting ahead to secure the railroad and cut telegraph lines, runs into stiff resistance and retreats. The various forts and batteries prove too formidable to take by storm. The intelligence is all wrong. Seven hours of fierce fighting drives Hoke’s column to within a mile of New Bern, where it is stopped in its tracks at sunrise.
The column led by General Barton does not attack at all. Awed by the strength of the defenses, he refuses to give the order to advance. Pickett is furious.
The New York Times reports on February 11, through a correspondent on the scene, “The enemy proposed to themselves the recapture of Newbern. They probably expected to surprise us, get possession of the gunboats, carry the fortifications by storm, and then feed on the ‘fat of the land.’ In all this they have been nicely checkmated. … Thanks to a kind Providence, they accomplished but little, and retreated in haste.”
But one “masked” battery at Beech Grove on Batchelder’s Creek is cut off in the dense woods and vulnerable to attack, a blockhouse fort mounting just two artillery pieces. It stands eight miles from the main garrison at New Bern. A small force, including the 97 men of Company F, 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers defends it. Hidden in the dark, foggy woods, the battery was invisible to the advancing Confederates, but now it is found out. Two couriers slip out to report the battery surrounded, but both are shot dead.
With a far superior force of Confederates poised to attack, the locally recruited volunteers at Beech Grove face a moment of truth.
An officer of their own regiment writes in the Times about what happens next: “When it became evident that the position could not be held against the overwhelming force of rebels, which was rapidly approaching, the men of this company, having the certainty of an ignominious death before them if they should be captured, proposed to the officer in command to pilot the force at the outpost in safety to Newbern, by paths through the woods known only to themselves. But unfortunately, they were temporarily in charge of officers not belonging to their own regiment, who were either ignorant of the blood-thirsty character of the enemy, or too timid to fight to the death, if flight were deemed impracticable. Had these men been commanded by officers of their own regiment, they all would have escaped, or, as preferable to their inevitable doom if taken prisoners, would have found a more honorable death on the field. As it was, they were sternly forbidden to leave the ranks, and, without a shot being fired, or the stipulation secured that they should be treated as prisoners of war, they were surrendered.”
Capt. John G. Smith of the 8th Georgia writes, “We flushed them like a covey of birds.”
The prisoners include Joseph L. Haskett, 26, a farmer from Carteret County; and David Jones, 21, of Craven County — both deserters from Company B, 10th Regiment, North Carolina Artillery, which assists in their capture. Their former sergeant Blunt King recognizes them.
Some of the defenders defy orders and slip away into the woods. But 53 men of Company F, 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteer Regiment, find themselves at the mercy of General Pickett, a troubled, unstable commander who led the largest independent command of his career to another grand failure, a man who notoriously lacks the one quality that might spare their lives: mercy.
The author is grateful to Jan Barwick, Director of Special Programs and events for the Chamber of Commerce of Kinston; and Jane Phillips, President of the Historical Preservation Group of Kinston, for help in locating sites in Kinston; to Dr. Chris Fonvielle, UNC Wilmington Department of History; and to the following documentary sources:
Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was just published by Hub City Press.
To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit https://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series