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Battle of New Berne, NC

Confederate Commander

Brig. Gen. Lawrence O'B. Branch

Forces Engaged: 4,500

Killed: 64

Wounded: 101

Captured or Missing: 613

Total: 778

Confederate Officers

Col. Zebulon B. Vance


Confederate Order of Battle


Confederate Official Records

March 14, 1862

Craven County, North Carolina

Union Victory

Burnside's North Carolina Expedition (January - July 1862)

Forces Engaged:

Killed: 88

Wounded: 352

Captured or Missing: 0

Total: 440

          In October 1861, Brig. Gen. Burnside discussed with Gen. McClellan the idea of a Coastal Division. After McClellan approved Burnside’s plan, he started putting his fleet and army together. He first struck at Roanoke Island with New Berne soon to follow. The justification for taking New Berne was it had become the second most important city on the North Carolina coast.

          In November 1861, as Burnside was preparing his Coastal Division, Brig. Gen. Branch assumed command at New Berne. He found the fortifications had been located and built. However, these were mainly geared for an attack from the Neuse River. An attack by land forces left the fortifications weak. To strengthen these fortifications, Branch sent out hand bills around the state requesting men and implements to help fortify the positions. In response, one slave and a small party of free Negroes showed up. They did not have any implements to help in the construction.

          The first line of the Confederate defense was the Croatan Works, which stretched from the river to the swamp. It was located ten miles south of New Berne at the mouth of Otter Creek. The breastwork was about three-quarters of a mile long when it reached an impassable swamp. It was well constructed and Branch felt 2,000 men and two field batteries could hold the breastwork. From Otter Creek to Fort Thompson was a distance of six miles. The fleet could land north of the Croatan Works and attack his lines from the rear. With only 4,000 men, Branch felt he could not place troops at Croatan Works.

          The next line of defense was Fort Thompson breastworks which ran from the fort to the railroad. The state engineers who built Fort Thompson had no military experience and erroneously placed ten guns bearing on the river, while only three were bearing on a land approaches. Not a single gun was directed to protect the railroad. Branch wanted to expand the breastworks to the swamp. This is where his men were working when the Union fleet was spotted.

          The river defenses consisted of a series of pilings driven securely into the river bed and cutoff below the water line. Another row of iron-capped and pointed pilings were located upriver. These pilings were secured at 45 degrees angles downstream. Upstream a little farther was a row of torpedoes, containing 200 pounds of powder. A second barrier was located about a mile upstream and abreast of Fort Thompson. This barrier consisted of a line of sunken vessels, closely massed along with a chevaux-de-frise. (A Medieval defensive obstacle consisting of a portable frame with many long iron or wooden spikes.) This left a very narrow passage under the fort’s battery.

          On March 12th, the enemy fleet was seen. As night fell, it was reported there were twelve vessels anchored off Otter’s Creek with 45 more downstream. Orders were dispatched later that night to prepare their positions for the upcoming battle.

          Troops started landing at 7:00pm. Some troops were anxious for battle and not wanting to wait for the transports, jumped over the sides and waded in. The troops marched twelve miles and by 8:00pm were a mile and a half from the Confederate lines. However, due to the poor road conditions, the boat’s howitzers did not arrive until 3:00am the next morning.

          Fort Thompson’s breastwork became Branch’s only reliance for stopping the Union troops advance. Branch posted his regiments with the 37th Regiment stationed between Fort Thompson and the Beaufort County Road. The 7th Regiment was stationed between the Beaufort County Road and the railroad. The 37th Regiment and the militia were also located there. The 20th Regiment was stationed to the right of the railroad.

          The first action took place between the river and railroad. When Lt. Col. Barbour requested reinforcements, Branch sent work back it was a ruse to pull troops away from the Confederate center. Colonel Vance’s line and the Militia were the next point of attack. Branch sent Capt. Rodman and his company to the line to utilize the 24-pounder battery. When they arrived, the guns had not been assembled and Rodman’s company was placed on the line with the infantry.

          The Militia gave up their position when facing the greater force of the enemy. Branch’s staff tried to rally the retreating Militia, but were unable. Col. Sinclair’s troops soon followed. In retreating, the Confederate forces burned the railroad bridge and destroyed the county road bridge, slowing down Burnside’s pursuit.

          As the Naval vessels approached the town of New Berne, they commanded the town with her guns. However, as the Confederate forces were leaving New Berne, they set parts of the town on fire. Citizens who had not fled the town were induced to help fight the fires. With this action, there was very little damage to New Berne.

          In the Civil War in Coastal North Carolina, John Carbone writes “North Carolinians and the War Department in Richmond were alarmed and outraged at the fall of New Bern. The state’s inhabitants were frightened at having “Yankees” so close to their home and livelihoods.”

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