March 8, 1865 (Wednesday)
“The night of the 7th passed quietly,” recalled Union General Samuel Carter, commanding a division under Jacob Cox. His men were on the left, anchoring themselves along the Dover Road with Southwest River to their front, and British Road to their backs. On their right was Innis Palmer’s division, holding the railroad leading across the river to Kinston. Somewhere beyond were the Rebels.
Just how many wasn’t known. General Robert Hoke’s division was certain, but there were rumors of more. Through the night, Col. Charles Upham, who helmed one of Carter’s brigades, had advanced his pickets and skirmishers to the water itself, establishing them behind fine rifle-pits with only a smattering of Confederate artillery to greet them.
Come dawn, Carter rode forward to inspect Upham’s line. When he arrived, he was greeted with a message from the cavalry on the left upon Trent road, “advising me,” as he recalled, “that negroes reported some 2,000 rebels had passed down the Trent road early that morning.” Carter immediately wrote to General Cox, who was several miles behind the lines.
Cox was skeptical. “The movement on the left can scarcely be more than a reconnaissance,” he replied. Cox instructed Carter to direct the cavalry to “meet it,” and also to send a regiment of infantry just in case. “These reconnoitering parties must go out boldly and learn definitely what they can.” Then Cox, along with his superior, James Schofield, made for the front, hoping to inspect General Palmer’s position on the right.
But before this missive could reach Palmer, a cavalry officer overtook him and “reported his pickets were being driven in at the bridge.” Palmer quickly dispatched an infantry regiment to Trent road and the cavalry.
“About noon,” reported Col. Upham, “while brisk skirmishing was going on at the creek, the enemy made a sudden attack from the east side of British road, and rapidly extending their right while advancing, in a few minutes had possession of the cross-roads. At the first volley I sent Lieutenant Rand to direct the Fifteenth Connecticut Volunteers to change front and order the section of artillery to report to me at the British road. The section came up just before the enemy gained possession of the cross-roads, but passed on the run under a very hot musketry fire, and I have not seen the officer in command of it since. Simultaneously, the enemy crossed the creek on our right, and driving the pickets nearly surrounded the entire brigade.”
In the confusion, Upham had been able to dispatch a runner to Carter, “and reported that their brigade had been attacked, and nearly the whole of it killed, wounded, or captured, and one gun, Battery I, Third New York Light Artillery, lost.” Carter rode quick to the scene, but when he arrived, the tide had turned and would soon turn again.
“I came in sight of the abandoned gun,” wrote Carter, “which had been retaken by the detachment from the Seventeenth Massachusetts Infantry, but before they could cut the traces off the dead horses, by which it was encumbered, they were attacked in such heavy force that they were forced back in the direction of Wise’s Forks.”
The infantry fell back, but did not break, throwing out a strong line of skirmishers, which advanced. They fanned out, groping right to connect with General Palmer’s division.
Cox arrived at Palmer’s side, and found the entire division under arms and ready for battle. When Upham’s brigade disintegrated, Palmer sent a regiment to his left. Additionally, a full brigade, which had been in reserve, was called up and marched down the Dover road and Carter’s position. This brigade, under Col. Peter Claassen, marched quickly, but was met by the enemy “moving in force down the Dover road.”
Claassen sent scouts toward the right “it being evident that it was the purpose of the enemy to get in our rear, and to prevent this a retreat in good order was made toward the British road, which had been previously choses by all the other forces as the line of defense. My brigade was only partially established on this line when the enemy appeared opposite and attack with artillery and infantry, but was repulsed after a brisk fight, during which my battery, which rejoined us here, lost three horses killed. […] Earth-works were thrown up and a line of skirmishers advanced in conjunction with the brigade on my left.”
By evening, the Rebels held a diagonal line across both the Dover and British roads on the Union left and had repaired the bridges across the river in their rear. The next day, Cox would strengthen his position, and though there were rumors of Confederate reinforcements and even of a possible attack, nothing would come of it until the day following.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p976, 982, 990, 994, 997; Part 2, p734; Military Remembrances by Jacob Cox. [↩]