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For Joseph B. Morgan, owner of a prosperous farm at Indian Ridge, in coastal Currituck County, the war brings the strange and unpredictable ordeal of occupation. Strange because the occupying

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For Joseph B. Morgan, owner of a prosperous farm at Indian Ridge, in coastal Currituck County, the war brings the strange and unpredictable ordeal of occupation. Strange because the occupying

Occupation of the East

For Joseph B. Morgan, owner of a prosperous farm at Indian Ridge, in coastal Currituck County, the war brings the strange and unpredictable ordeal of occupation.

Strange because the occupying army represents the same government under which he has lived his whole life — the United States. But North Carolina has seceded, and Morgan is a wholehearted Confederate now. So the familiar blue troops — wearing the same uniform as those who manned coastal forts before the war — take on the aspect of a horde of foreigners.

Unpredictable because the rules are rarely clear, the requirements always shifting, the behavior of the blue soldiers at times orderly, at other times capricious and wantonly destructive. They can be cordial and respectful or threatening and thieving.

On the coast, invasion comes early and fast. In August 1861, an expedition led by Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler captures Hatteras Island and holds it for the duration.

By February 1862, under Gen. Ambrose Burnside, the Federals have taken Roanoke Island. In March they advance on Beaufort at night, and the citizens awaken to the sight of Union patrols.

A fierce battle at New Bern costs more than a thousand casualties and leaves the Federals in control of that crucial strongpoint, now the capital of Union North Carolina.

Washington falls, and the Federals lay siege to Fort Macon, which is surrendered the following month. Carolina City, Havelock Station, and Morehead City all come under occupation. Meanwhile, expeditions probe west toward the critical Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, Kinston, Plymouth, and Elizabeth City. Dozens of skirmishes take place along crucial crossing points of creeks. Gunboats duel on the shallow rivers.

By summer of 1862, Union forces control the coast from the Virginia border to the White Oak River. Beaufort becomes a coaling station for the blockading fleet.

Like most in the Confederate South, before the war, Joseph Morgan’s interactions with the federal government in Washington, D.C., have been limited to sending letters via the Post Office Department and voting in elections. It neither taxed him nor policed his activities. Now the federal government is an armed presence, restricting travel, controlling commerce, and dictating every facet of daily life.

Image courtesy of The North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill. photograph by Ellen Leroy

Violence disrupts eastern N.C.

At the outbreak of war, one of Morgan’s sons, Patrick, is far away in the Shenandoah Valley, attending Virginia Military Institute, once a prestigious training ground for U.S. Army officers. Now most of its living alumni are serving in the army of the rebellion.

Morgan keeps up a regular correspondence with his son. In January 1863, he writes, “Your Uncle James has again been driven from his home by the shelling of his premises, and together with his family is now residing with us.”

In the same letter, he describes the unsettled state of the countryside: “The enemy occasionally makes raids upon us & plunder & destroy our property. A few weeks ago they came over to Indian Town & burned all the buildings on Dr. Marchant’s place, opposite where he used to live, together with the academy, & plundered several citizens, taking horses, carts, negroes, salt & c.”

Disease is ever-present, respecting no military lines, carried by the hordes of soldiers and sailors passing through crowded encampments: “The Diphtheria has been very prevalent this winter … All of us have had sore throats and your Ma has been doctoring for diphtheria.” His wife suffers one debilitating illness after another.

Able-bodied white men caught in the zone of occupation enjoy only bad choices. They can take a loyalty oath and bide their time, making the best of it; they can steal across the lines and join or be conscripted into the Confederate Army; or they can collect a bounty by enlisting in the Union volunteer regiments.

Meanwhile, thousands of slaves free themselves or are liberated by Union troops. Some live off the country. Others congregate inside the Union lines. When the U.S. War Department authorizes the raising of U.S. Colored Troops, many enlist.

The war on the coast is one of guerrilla actions against both regular U.S. Army troops and volunteer units raised from local men, derisively called “buffaloes.” Many buffaloes behave more like gangs of bushwhackers and thugs than disciplined troops. They plunder at will, settling old scores and terrorizing local farmers like Morgan.

The situation remains fluid. Men are arrested for treasonous activities. Some are hanged. Others are later freed without explanation. Pickets are ambushed in the dark. Spies cross the lines carrying precious information about troop movements. Punitive patrols target local rebels, steal or slaughter their livestock, and even burn their homes.

With too few troops to mount a major offensive, the U.S. Army of occupation fortifies its lines and settles for a series of ineffectual raids. At first, the Confederate commander in the East, Gen. Robert E. Lee, won’t spare troops from the Virginia front to retake the Coastal Plain. Then, in early 1863, forces under Gen. D.H. Hill attack New Bern and Washington, both unsuccessfully.

In February 1864, Maj. Gen. George Pickett leads 13,000 troops in an attempt to capture New Bern, but incompetence and poor communication turn the expedition into a fiasco. Gen. Robert Hoke recaptures Plymouth and Washington in April 1864 — but can hold them only until the autumn, when once again they fall to Union forces.

North Carolina is now two states: the mountains and the Piedmont, controlled by the Secessionist state government, and a large swath of the Coastal Plain, under control of the U.S. Army and, as of May 19, 1862, an appointed military governor: Edward Stanly.

A follow-up to Stanly’s appointment letter from Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton reads in part, “It is obvious to you that the great purpose of your appointment is to re-establish the authority of the federal government in the State of North Carolina.”

Governor of the East

Stanly is a New Bern native, a lawyer and former congressman, tall and lanky with a long, kindly face. He faces an impossible mandate. He must govern a war zone with shifting boundaries and multiple commanders jockeying for prominence.

He is a man of upright character and good intentions but is blind to the need to abolish slavery. Among other futile tasks, he attempts to keep slaves from being set free from their local masters. He is no abolitionist.

He opposes the education of freed slaves, honoring a state law that is at odds with a principal aim of the war. He persuades “a gentleman of good Samaritan inclinations” in New Bern to close his school for educating Negro children on the grounds that, once they are returned to their masters at the end of hostilities, “those negroes who have been taught to read and write would be suspected and not benefited by it.”

He clearly envisions a postwar state in which slavery is restored.

Stanly’s task is complicated in May 1863 by an order issued by Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, the new presiding military authority in eastern North Carolina, to establish the Freedman’s Colony on Roanoke Island. The task falls to the Rev. Horace James, an Army chaplain of the 25th Massachusetts, appointed “Superintendent of all the Blacks” in the Department of North Carolina. He diligently collects funds and implements to undertake the daunting project.

Within 18 months, he has laid out a grid of streets and established 591 families on one-acre plots of uncultivated land with modest wood homes. The plan is for the colony to be self-sufficient, but so many of the able-bodied men have been recruited into the U.S. Army that most of the remaining 3,000 people are women and children, who must be fed and clothed.

The settlement will come to a heartbreaking end. In 1865, the U.S. Government will order that the land be surrendered to any original owner who can prove title.

Meanwhile, Stanly is appalled by the plundering of roving squads of buffaloes, as well as bands of free blacks. He complains, “Had the war in North Carolina been conducted by soldiers who were christians and gentlemen, the state would long ago have rebelled against rebellion. But instead of that, what has been done? Thousands and thousands of dollars worth of property were conveyed North.”

For the people of Winton, a small town on the Chowan River, Union occupation brings much worse. In February 1862, an expedition of six gunboats carrying 1,000 troops under Cmdr. S.C. Rowan sets out to burn two railroad bridges above the town. But the flotilla is driven back by the heavy fire of Confederate artillery and muskets. Returning downriver, the expedition sends a landing party ashore at Winton under command of Col. Rush C. Hawkins of the 9th New York. The town is deserted, and the troops meet no resistance, but Hawkins orders it burned anyway.

As his order is carried out, the troops go on a looting spree. A volunteer of the 4th Rhode Island recounts, “… the boys found plenty of everything and soon came flocking back to the boats loaded down with household goods, books, articles of food, and anything they found that suited their fancy.”

Even U.S. soldiers stationed in New Bern remark on the devastation of the countryside. A Yankee in the 10th Connecticut observes, “This whole country for purposes of maintenance for man or beast, for the next twelve months is a desert as hopeless as Sahara itself. If this war continues another twelve months this country will be little else than a ‘howling wilderness’ and the ‘abomination of desolation’ will be written on every ‘gait post.’ ”

After scarcely a year in office, Governor Stanly resigns on January 15, 1863, explaining his reasons in a letter to a friend: “My chief hope & aim in coming here was to protect loyal men, and to encourage the people to return to their allegiance to the Union. I have protected loyal citizens in numerous instances you know, and have induced many to take the oath of allegiance & to keep away from all connexion with Secessionists.

“I have told our people that the Government would restore property to loyal men & would secure all their constitutional rights. How can I say so, after the Proclamation of the First of January?”

He refers, of course, to the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the states in rebellion.

No one is appointed to succeed him as governor. From now on, the zone of occupation is under the control of generals.

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Image courtesy of The North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library at Chapel Hill. photograph by Ellen Leroy

War of attrition

Every time things calm down, some new act of violence against the occupying army — which includes not only regiments from New York, Rhode Island, and other Northern states, but also North Carolina troops recruited from local counties — causes a backlash.

In September 1863, Morgan reports to his son, “We have just heard that the guerillas had attacked the enemy in Pasquotank killing Tim Cox & probably some others. We hear that the Capt. Commanding in E. City has ordered all the people white & black to report to him, & it is said he intends to compel them to take up arms. The whole country is in a perfect ferment. The people are growing desperate & the inhuman conduct of our enemies seems to be driving every man capable of bearing arms into the bushes or into the army. How long such a state of things is to exist the Lord only can determine.”

For many inhabitants, the last straw is the raising of U.S. Colored Troops from locally freed slaves. Brig. Gen. Edward Augustus Wild arrives at the head of the 55th Massachusetts Colored Volunteers, and with the help of a local black leader, Abraham Galloway, recruits the 1st North Carolina Colored Volunteers.

In January 1864, Morgan writes his cadet son, “It has been a long time since we have had a letter from you. I wrote you a short time since giving a short statement of our troubles & the devastations & excitement produced by a Brigade of negro troops under Gen. Wild passing through our country. But it is utterly impossible for me to give you anything like a correct idea of the state of things in our midst.”

He recounts how he has been appointed to a committee that will meet with the U.S. commander at Old Point Comfort, Virginia, “for the purpose of ascertaining what was required of the peaceful inhabitants to secure their property from destruction & their dwellings from the flames.”

The three-day journey brings them face-to-face with the commander of the Department of North Carolina, Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler — a dumpy, bald-headed, sour-faced state senator from Massachusetts whose political savvy has propelled him to high command. He voted for Jefferson Davis to be the Democratic candidate for president in 1860. His iron-handed tenure as military governor of New Orleans has earned him the moniker among Confederates as “the Beast.”

But on this occasion, he is gracious.

“He received us very respectfully and treated us courteously, and after hearing our statement conversed with us some half an hour or more very pleasantly. He said nothing was required of us only to remain peaceful and use our influence to put down guerillaing & blockade running; that being accomplished we should not be further molested by his troops … ”

Morgan and his cadre return home still wary of the buffaloes and unable to learn reliable information about the progress of the war. Most of the “news” turns out to be unfounded rumor, and most of the reliable news is bad. “Everything is excitement & suspense & God only knows how we are to get along. All is gloom and doubt around us, but God governs in the affairs of men & will bring all things right in the end.”

Thinking his son is safely ensconced at the academy, Joseph Morgan writes him again in May with family news and rumors. But unbeknownst to him, on the night of May 10, 1864, the cadets are roused by drums; dress in their gray trousers, tunics, and kepis; and form up in columns.

Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge — who ran unsuccessfully against Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election — has summoned them to reinforce his outnumbered Confederate force opposing Gen. Franz Sigel’s 6,500 troops marching from Winchester, Virginia, to New Market, Virginia. Sigel’s mission is to drive the rebels from the Shenandoah Valley — the breadbasket of the Confederacy.

The youngest VMI cadet is 15 years old. Most are between ages 17 and 21. They trudge along the rugged Staunton road as far as Midway, 18 miles north of Lexington, and camp for the night in the rain. The next day, they continue on to Staunton through torrential rain, slogging through mud and water-filled ruts. On the following day, they reach Harrisonburg. On May 14, they advance to within seven miles of New Market.

After midnight on Sunday, May 15, Patrick Morgan and the other cadets are again roused to march into battle. They advance through intermittent thunderstorms to New Market by sunrise. All told, the cadets have marched almost 80 miles along mountain roads through mud and drenching rain. Some 10 hours after having been awakened, the cadet corps, 257 strong, forms into the line of battle in four companies.

Hard-pressed by the enemy, but wracked by doubt to the last, Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge orders, “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.”

They enter the battle at the moment of crisis and hold a crucial position in the line under withering fire from shells, grapeshot, and musketfire — then charge the enemy and help capture two guns. Ten cadets are killed and 57 more are wounded — a staggering casualty rate of more than one in four in their first engagement.

Behind them they leave a sight that will come to symbolize the glorious and futile sacrifice of brave boys to the Cause: a field of lost shoes, sucked off their feet by the glutinous mud in the trampled wheat field.

His line broken, General Sigel retreats.

By the time word of his son’s fate reaches Joseph Morgan back in Indian Ridge, the battle is long over. This time, at least, the news is good: Cadet Patrick Morgan has survived the killing field.

But at home, the occupation goes on.

This story was published on Apr 30, 2014

Philip Gerard

Philip Gerard was a historian, professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and the author of 14 books, including Cape Fear Rising. He was also a longtime contributor to Our State, and was the author of the Civil War series and the Decades series. In 2019, he received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest civilian honor.