Our recent trip to New Bern, NC, unfortunately coincided with the landfall of Tropical Storm Ana on the Carolina coast. Although some of our outdoor recreation plans had to be cancelled, the area's long history, as well as its wealth of historical sites, provided ample opportunities for exploration and discovery.
The southernmost Outer Banks include the "Crystal Coast" communities of Beaufort, Morehead City, Oriental, and Emerald Isle. New Bern, NC, located at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers is located some 35 miles up the Neuse from the Atlantic coast. New Bern is NC's second oldest city, founded by German and Swiss immigrants in 1710 and named for the capital of their Swiss homeland. It served as the North Carolina colonial capital, and after the Revolutionary War, it became NC's first state capital.
The view coming into New Bern -- situated at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers, there are bridges galore.
The Battle of New Bern was part of Union Brig. Gen. Ambrose Burnside's North Carolina Expedition, an ambitious plan to capture or destroy fortifications guarding important ports and rivers used by Confederate blockade runners to supply the Confederacy's Army of Virginia. The Neuse River and the rail lines in and around New Bern were important Confederate supply routes. Ambrose commanded a combined land and naval force comprising 11,000 troops. On March 11, 1862, three Union brigades composed of regiments from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania boarded gunboats and sailed up the Neuse to engage the Confederate defenses and capture the town of New Bern. The Confederate defenses were composed primarily of the North Carolina 26th Regiment, along with various companies from the NC 7th, 27th, 33rd, 35th, and 37th. New Bern would be the first engagement of the war for the NC 26th.
The battle took place several miles south of New Bern. The battlefield, a picturesque, 27-acre hardwood woodland, is now owned and preserved by the New Bern Historical Society. On the day we visited, we had the battlefield park to ourselves. The walking paths constructed by the historical society include bridges over wetlands and stairs up and down hilly areas, as well as numbered markers that correspond to points on the map available at the park's shelter. Many of the redans dug and constructed by the Confederate troops awaiting the Union force are still clearly visible. There were showers from TS Ana the day we were there, but the woods are thick enough that umbrellas and rain gear weren't necessary because of the thick forest canopy.
The New Bern Historical Society has made it easy to explore the battlefield.
Aware of the Union force's approach, the NC 26th, under the command of Col. Zebulon Branch, constructed a series of earthworks and redans on a ridge overlooking Bullen's Branch, a wide stream that flows through the battlefield.
Some of the redans constructed by the NC 26th above Bullen's branch
The Confederates also dammed the stream, creating a 4-ft-deep swampy area through which the Union troops would have to advance. Three days of TS Ana's rains lent an air of historical accuracy to the wetland below the ridge on the day we were there.
The wetlands of rain-swollen Bullen's Branch
Only two companies of the NC 26th were armed with rifles; the rest shouldered smoothbore muskets. The Union forces carried Enfield rifles, which had a longer range than the Confederate arms. The first shots were fired at 7:30 AM on March 14, 1862. Throughout much of the morning, the Confederates' high-ground defenses held strong, repeatedly repelling the Union advance. But the Union troops' superior numbers allowed Union commanders to split the force and flank the Confederates -- and the marsh -- on both the left and the right. Shortly before noon, the Confederates were taking fire from the center and both flanks. Realizing that his troops were about to be caught in a deadly crossfire, Branch ordered the Confederates to retreat. Two retreating companies from the NC 33rd and one from the NC 26th emerged from the woods only to be confronted by a Union artillery battery and two regiments of Union ground troops that had taken a position behind the Confederates who had formed the left end of the defense line. The Union commander ordered them to surrender, and realizing the odds, they complied. The majority of the remainder of the Confederate troops were able to elude the Union troops. The NC 26th, which had been primarily at the center of the Confederate line, was the last unit to leave the battlefield, and after regrouping made their way to Kinston, NC, some 35 miles away, burning every bridge behind them in retreat. The next day, Union troops entered and captured New Bern, which would remain occupied by the Union throughout the war.
In all, Confederate casualties numbered 64 dead, 101 wounded, and 413 captured or missing. The NC 26th sustained 91 casualties: 12 killed, 9 wounded, 2 wounded and captured, and 68 captured. The Union losses numbered 90 killed, 380 wounded, and one captured.
A Model 1841 six-pound smoothbore field cannon, the model used by the Confederates at New Bern
The NC 26th would serve throughout the rest of the Civil War. On July 1, 1863, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, of the 800 men in the 26th, 588 were killed, wounded, or listed missing. Two days later, the 26th would be part of Pickett's Charge on Cemetary Hill. An additional 120 men were lost, including all 91 members of Company F. The NC 26th holds the dubious distinction of losing more men from any unit -- North or South -- in any battle of the entire war. Those soldiers of the 26th who survived Gettysburg would later see action at the battles of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and the Siege of Vicksburg.
The serenity of the battlefield park belies the fierce fighting of 153 years ago...
...as does the fairy wand that grows among the ferns.
Next: Part 2 -- The Battle of Fort Macon