Battle of New Bern, NC, a Stunning Union Victory

March 14, 1862 (Friday)

A long month had passed since Union General Ambrose Burnside and his Coast Division had taken Roanoke Island and wiped out the small Confederate “Mosquito Fleet” at Elizabeth City.

The town of New Bern was situated thirty-five miles up the Neuse River and was the most important town in the area. Burnside resolved to take it. The Rebels were commanded by General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, a lawyer and politician with scant military experience garnered during the Seminole Wars.

Branch had around 4,000 men to defend the fairly elaborate earthworks, including Fort Thompson, six miles below the town. He had spent weeks trying to improve them so they could be held with his tiny force, but due to lack of slave labor, not much was improved by this date.

A few days earlier, Union General Burnside made ready his 11,000 men, as the Federal fleet, now under Commander S.C. Rowan, transported them up the Neuse towards New Bern. On the 13th (the day previous to this one), the gunboats of the Union fleet began their bombardment of the area where they would land the troops. That area, however, had been abandoned by the Rebels, so landing turned out to be no problem at all.

After the Union troops trudged several miles to where they believed the Confederates to be situated, they found the old fortifications vacant. General Branch and his Rebels had moved to the Fort Thompson defenses, closer to the city. All that day, they slogged closer and closer to the true Rebel works, through torrential downpours, mud and swamps. By nightfall, they had reached the Confederate line and planned an attack for the morning of this date.

As the foggy dawn slid over the Neuse River, Branch’s Confederates had established a line, anchoring their left to Fort Thompson on the Neuse, and their right on a fortified road coming in from the west. Their line was bisected by a railroad line and the main road to New Bern, which was also used by the Federals to move into position.

Similar to the defense of Roanoke Island, the Rebels built their entrenchments so that the enemy had to traverse a swamp before attacking.

General Burnside divided his division into three columns, commanded by Generals Reno, Foster and Parke. Foster was to attack the Rebel left and Fort Thompson, Reno got the right and Parke was clean up. But before Reno’s men could position themselves, Foster attacked. The guns from Fort Thompson, however, played hell with his plans. Beaten back by the heavy artillery fire, Foster’s men remained content to pour tremendous volley after volley into the Confederate works.

On the Union left, General Reno’s column was storming up the railroad when he discovered a break in the Rebel lines. All that was there was the right flank of the Confederate left, which he could easily crumble. This crumbling was made all the easier as the enemy before him were untrained militiamen who ran like devils when the firing started. This exposed another Rebel regiment, which also begged off. As Reno’s men began to infiltrate the enemy position, guns from the Confederate right were at their backs.

The hole in the Rebel line was big, but for the time being, Reno could do nothing to take advantage of it. In the confusion on the Union front, General Branch threw in reinforcements to plug the gap.

The fire from the Rebels was so constant and heavy, Reno had to act quickly or face the destruction of his column. A Massachusetts regiment quickly charged one of the Confederate batteries, swarming over it and capturing the guns. They, however, were just as quickly beaten back by a North Carolina regiment. The Rebel line was holding with each side constantly firing at the other.

During the several minutes the Massachusetts regiment occupied the Rebel works, they could see the thinness of the center of the enemy line. When this was reported to General Parke, commanding the third Union column, he ordered a charge into it. On the Union right, General Foster also called for a charge.

The entire Rebel left, from Fort Thompson to the railroad, collapsed. The Rebel right was woefully ignorant of the happenings on the left and stayed to fight a bit longer. It was too late for some of them, as nearly 200 were captured before they could retreat.

General Branch’s small force escaped into New Bern, where Rowan’s Union gunboats welcomed them home. The Union infantry pursuit was halted when the retreating Rebels blew up a bridge behind them. Seeing that New Bern couldn’t be held, the Rebels set it ablaze without orders from General Branch to do so. The withdraw was scattered and disorderly, but eventually they would reform, almost a week later, in Kinston, thirty-five miles west.1

The Rebels suffered horribly during the Battle of New Bern, sustaining 64 killed, 101 wounded and 413 missing or taken prisoner. Burnside’s Coastal Division seemed worse with 90 killed, 390 wounded and but one missing or captured, but with 11,000 men at his disposal, Burnside could withstand heavier losses.2

The next day, Burnside would occupy New Bern and turn his eyes again towards the Atlantic and Confederate Fort Macon, near Cape Lookout.


McClellan and a Newly-Organized Army of the Potomac Begin to Prepare for the Peninsula

General George McClellan’s new plan to establish the Army of the Potomac at Fortress Monroe was a risky one, that could leave Washington virtually undefended. McClellan had proposed it first to his senior officers and then to the War Department. Secretary Edwin Stanton cautiously agreed, telling McClellan that “all the forces and means of the Government will be at your disposal.”3

McClellan spent the previous day, as well as this day, making plans to withdraw the Army of the Potomac from the former Rebel defenses at Manassas and Centreville. With a force under General Sumner at Manassas Junction and cavalry under General Stoneman reconnoitering the Rebel retreat route towards the Rappahannock River, McClellan began to pull his Army of the Potomac back to Washington.4

In accordance to President Lincoln’s orders, McClellan had to divide the Army of the Potomac into corps. The organization would be (roughly) four regiments to a brigade, three or four brigades to a division and two, three or four divisions to a corps. The Army of the Potomac would now have five corps, under Generals McDowell, Sumner, Heintzelman, Keyes and Banks, respectively.5

This new organization, with the corps commanders hand-picked by Lincoln himself, would potentially discourage McClellan from micromanaging the army.6

  1. The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p247 (Confederate casualties); p211 (Union revised casualties). []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p750. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p755. []
  6. In the must-read book Army of the Potomac; McClellan’s First Campaign by Russel H. Beatie, the chapter 13, “A New Organization for New Battles” is a fascinating look into the early corps organization of the AoP. It is surprisingly not a dry read and I heartily suggest reading it, as well as Beatie’s two other books on the AoP. Hopefully his fourth volume is soon released. []
Creative Commons License
Battle of New Bern, NC, a Stunning Union Victory by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International


View all posts by

3 thoughts on “Battle of New Bern, NC, a Stunning Union Victory

  1. Eric, What is the source of the illustration showing troops landing below New Bern on the day before the battle ? Peter Meyer

    1. Hi Peter! From what I can see it was from Charles Carleton Coffin’s Drum-Beat of the Nation (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1915).

  2. Thank you for this information, I know where the “Watauga Minute Men” flag is,from this battle, in a private collection and up for sale. It makes it so much more interesting.

Comments are closed.