The Battle of New Bern
Today, marks the sesquicentennial of the oft-ignored Battle of New Bern, NC—sometimes spelled New Berne or Newbern. Part of Burnside’s expedition, the skirmish saw 11,000 Union forces defeat 4,500 ill-equipped Confederate troops, resulting in a three-year occupation of the city and the Federals’ gaining control of the North Carolina coast. The Union army took advantage of New Bern’s central location—it sits at the intersection of the Neuse and Trent Rivers and is only a few dozen miles inland from the Carolina coast—to make it a regional operating base, especially for the forthcoming Fort Macon expedition. In addition, thousands of contraband flocked to the area, making New Bern a key area for recruiting U.S. Colored Troops.
Prior to March 14, 1862, General Ambrose E. Burnside sent scouts to investigate the layout and defenses of New Bern, providing him with key intelligence to ensure a Union victory. As such, Burnside deployed the troops of his Coast Division along with 14 Navy gunboats from Roanoke Island on the morning of March 12th. One of the Federal vessels stayed behind to guard the mouth of Pamlico River, while the rest of the Union expedition travelled down the Neuse River to anchor at the mouth of Slocum’s Creek. Brigadier General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, who was defending the city, became aware of the Union’s arrival and ordered Colonel James Sinclair’s 35th North Carolina Infantry to defend the landing at Otter Creek, Colonel Zebulon Vance's 26th North Carolina to defend the Croatan work, and other units to guard the river upstream. Meanwhile, Branch ordered the reserves to assemble at the railroad’s intersection with Beaufort Road.
On the morning of March 13th, the Union troops began to disembark under the protection of naval gunfire. Burnside spent most of the day getting his troops and equipment, including eight howitzers, ashore. Dense fog prevented him from disembarking additional armaments and heavy rains severely slowed the movements of his troops. Meanwhile, Federal gunboats shelled the city, focusing on potential Confederate hiding places.
The real battle began on March 14th amidst a dense fog. Burnside ordered his troops to advance on the Rebel works at the brickyard. The Confederate line easily broke, and Branch was unable to plug the gap in time. The Union troops flanked the Southerners from both sides, forcing the Confederates to retreat. The fleeing North Carolinians escaped across the Trent River Bridge before burning it down, marooning some of their countrymen who were then captured. The Rebels retreated all the way to Kinston—about 30 miles away—before they were able to collect themselves. Notably, one of the soldiers of the 51st New York received a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.
Barrett, John G. The Civil War in North Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Browning, Robert M. Jr. From Cape Charles to Cape Fear: the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1993.
Coddington, Ronald S. “A Boy Sergeant Fights at New Bern,” New York Times’ "Disunion" Blog. Accessed March 6, 2012. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/a-boy-sergeant-fights-at-new-bern/.
“Remembering the Battle of New Bern on Its 150th Anniversary.” The History Channel web site. Accessed March 6, 2012. http://www.history.com/news/2012/03/08/remembering-the-battle-of-new-bern-on-its-150th-anniversary/.