January 20, 1864 (Wednesday)
It had taken weeks for General Lee to reply to President Davis about New Bern. It wasn’t that they were out of touch with each other, or even that it wasn’t high on their priorities. Quite the contrary. According to Lee, he was waiting “until the time arrived for the execution of the attempt on New Berne.” There wasn’t really more to it than that. Davis had wanted Lee to head the expedition to recapture the North Carolina town, explaining that if Lee refused, the President himself would head the troops.
Completely bypassing this ridiculous notion, Lee explained that he would go, “but I consider my presence here always necessary, especially now, when there is such a struggle to keep the army fed and clothed.” That was one of the reasons, in fact, that Lee thought the recapture of New Bern to be of necessity. The place was apparently a Federal storehouse with all a starving army might need to perhaps make it through the winter.
Lee’s original plan involved the use of a few boats being constructed by the Confederate Navy. On the 4th, Davis reported that they would not be completed in time. “With their aid I think success would be certain,” Lee asserted, telling Davis that they needed to be ready as soon as humanly possible.
Lee had selected General George Pickett to lead the expedition. This made some amount of sense, since during the past autumn, Pickett was given the Department of North Carolina, and made his headquarters in Petersburg. His troops, which were made up of almost none of his former division, were spread thin throughout southern Virginia and North Carolina. There, he had busied himself by trying to stop the continuous raids by Yankee soldiers under Benjamin Butler. This was a fruitless and mostly thankless task.
To General Pickett, Lee described the plan in detail. Giving him permission to use his four brigades, Lee promised him another, that commanded by General Robert Hoke, hoping that it would be enough. The commanding general left little to Pickett’s own machinations, though he did give him final say over whether it was or was not practicable.
Pickett was to have one brigade move down the Trent River to attack the Federal outposts and take possession of the railroad leading from the Atlantic to New Bern. This would effectively cut off any Union reinforcements. Meanwhile, another brigade would move between the Trent and Neuse Rivers and overrun the ford before the town. If there were enough troops left over, Lee suggested that another party might move down the Neuse to hit New Bern from that direction. All were to capture any forts along the way.
But before any of this happened, Lee wanted the Navy, commanded by Col. John Taylor Wood, to surprise and capture the Union gun boats in the Neuse River. This would, explained Lee, “drive the enemy from their guns.”
And if co-ordinating a three-prong attack from the northwest, southwest, and northeast of the city (with a bit of Naval flavor before it) wasn’t difficult enough, Lee also wanted General W.H.C Whiting, who was in command at Wilmington, North Carolina, to launch a simultaneous attack on Morehead City, the next-closest Union garrison, located thirty-five miles southeast, along the Atlantic coast.
“Everything will depend upon the secrecy, expedition, and boldness of your movements,” wrote Lee to Pickett. He suggested cutting telegraph lines with the cavalry, and then described which brigades to send where and when. “If successful,” he continued, “everything in New Berne should be sent back to a place of security.” Yet, his hopes were high, and did not want Pickett to rest on his laurels following whatever victory might come. Lee wanted “the enemy driven from Washington, Plymouth, &c., and much subsistence for the army obtained.”
General Lee often had a very hands-off approach to guiding his subordinates. This was not so with Pickett. After detailing which specific brigade should move when and where, he told him not to interrupt the flow of rail traffic, and reminded him not to trust the telegraph to keep things secret. “If you have to use the telegraph,” nursed Lee, “merely say, ‘The day is’ – name the day of the month; he [General Whiting] will comprehend. Commit nothing to the telegraph that may disclose your purpose.”
Just in case Lee wasn’t specific enough, in a letter to General Hoke, whom Lee was sending to Picket, he wanted him to go to North Carolina, deliver the orders to Pickett “and explain to him fully the plan of operations.” He repeated this twice in the same short, one-paragraph letter.
Hoke was also sworn to secrecy as to the intentions of his travels. While he was taking his brigade south, he was also to recruit while he was there, working with the enrollment officers “to get conscripts and recruits.” Lee wanted him to tell anyone who might ask that he was there to arrest deserters.
Before long, Pickett would be fully in the know and four brigades of troops, upwards of 13,000 men, would be ready to strike the unsuspecting Union garrison at New Bern.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p1101-1105; General George E. Pickett in Life & Legend by Lesley J. Gordon; Pickett, Leader of the Charge by Edward G. Longacre; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. [↩]