January 2, 1864 (Saturday)
“The time is at hand,” wrote General Robert E. Lee to Jefferson Davis from his headquarters along the Rapidan River, “when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done. I can now spare troops for the purpose, which will not be the case as spring approaches.”
New Bern, North Carolina had fallen to the Federals nearly two years prior. Ambrose Burnside, leading his joint expedition to the Hatteras coastal area, captured a slew of Rebel forts and towns. Since then, the fighting had devolved into minor skirmishes and guerrilla affairs. In the spring of 1863, there was an attempt by D.H. Hill to retake some of the ground, but little came of such exercises. Lately, however, increasing Union raids had depleted the eastern counties of forage and slaves. Before all was there lost, Lee was determined to act.
“If I have been correctly informed,” he continued, “a brigade from this army, with Barton’s brigade (Pickett’s division), now near Kinston, will be sufficient, if the attack can be secretly and suddenly made.” General Seth Barton had served all over the country since joining the Confederate Army. For a time, he led an Arkansas regiment, and then was Stonewall Jackson’s chief engineer. He had also been under Kirby Smith in Tennessee, and Pemberton at Vicksburg, where he was captured. When he was exchanged, he took command of Louis Armistead’s old brigade in George Pickett’s Division.
Lee then turned to the practicalities and attack. Though it had been reinforced with entrenchments and redoubts, the Federal garrison, he believed, “has been so long unmolested, and experiences such a feeling of security, that it is represented as careless.” Further, Lee noted that the Navy gunboats in the area never had a full head a steam – their captains, too, had become careless.
The plan Lee outlined was reckless, but exciting: “A bold party could descend the Neuse in boats at night, capture the gun-boats, and drive the enemy by their aid from the works on that side of the river, while a force should attack them in front.”
All this was due to the “large amount of provisions and other supplies” that were said to be in the town. And Lee wanted them “for this army.” He cautioned that “a bold naval officer” would be needed. Also, experienced men and officers were essential. “Can they be had?”
Supplies and food were desperately needed for the Army of Northern Virginia. Closing his letter to the President, Lee outlined the essentials. “Many of the infantry are without shoes,” he wrote. “We are now issuing to the troops a fourth of a pound of salt meat, and have only three days’ supply at that rate. Two droves of cattle from the West that were reported to be for this army have, I am told, been directed to Richmond. I can learn of no supply of meat on the road to the army, and fear I shall be unable to obtain it in the field.”
Things were looking grim for the Confederate armies at the start of this new year. Lee hoped that General Pickett might be able to secure some supplies before the spring campaign season began anew.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p1061; The Civil War in North Carolina by John Barrett. [↩]