February 2, 1864 (Tuesday)
It had all been some time in the making. General Robert E. Lee, in dire need of supplies, had called for an expedition to New Bern, North Carolina, where there were storehouses of Federal goods. George Pickett had been placed in command of the department encompassing Petersburg, Virginia and much of North Carolina and was called upon to raise a force to wrest the city from the Union hands that had held it since early 1862.
On January 20th, Lee had sent to Pickett minutely detailed instructions specifically explaining what he wanted to have accomplished and how. Ten days later, Pickett had culled together a force of 13,000 men and fourteen ships. The plan, as devised by Lee, was complex, requiring three prongs of land troops to work in concert with the navy.
By the 1st of February, Pickett’s forces were on the march with the Yankees being none the wiser. The weather was far from perfect, but still, they made good time and he was confident that he might be able to pull this off. From the Northwest, Pickett rode with one of the columns, while, from the southwest, another, under Seth Barton, swiftly threw back enemy outposts. Meanwhile, the Navy steamed down the Neuse River, taking their Federal counterparts completely by surprise, and even managing to capture one.
For this attack to work perfectly, all four prongs had to hit at once. Late on the 1st, Pickett halted within a mile of the Federal garrison, ready to launch his attack. He sent to find work with how Seth Barton was fairing to the south, but no word came. It wasn’t until the next morning (this date) that he understood.
General Seth Barton commanded nearly three full brigades and had been necessarily separated from Pickett’s main body for four days. On his march toward New Bern, he was to destroy the railroad and telegraph lines. But on the 31st, a swollen stream and broken bridge held up his advance. The next morning, rain-soaked roads slowed the progress.
All along the route, Confederate citizens relayed to Barton information that the Federal forts along the Trent River were “of the most formidable character, deemed by the enemy impregnable.” They suggested a slightly different approach. Through the 1st, Barton himself made a reconnaissance. According to the original plan, and based upon the recent word of spies and scouts, there were no Union strongholds south of the Trent. Yet, with his own eyes he could see them.
“I was therefore unprepared to encounter obstacles so serious,” wrote Barton in his report, “and was forced to the conviction that they were insurmountable by any means at my disposal. Had it even been practicable to carry the fortifications on the south side of Trent, the possession of them would have been useless for the accomplishment of our object.”
As soon as Barton arrived near the confluence of the Trent and Brice’s Creek, he spread out his forces and tried to find some way to cross or even hold their position. They lightly skirmished with the enemy, sometimes driving them back.
All the while, Pickett waited to hear Barton’s guns from the opposite side of Trent River. All through the 1st, there was no sign, and then on this date, they saw two trains coming from Morehead City along tracks that Barton’s men were to have destroyed. “We remained in front of New Berne all day Tuesday [February 2] waiting Barton’s move,” wrote General Robert Hoke, commanding one of Pickett’s brigades, “when, much to my disappointment, a dispatch was received from him [Barton] stating that it was impossible for him to cross the creek.”
By this time, the Federals were far from surprised and had called for reinforcements. Pickett was furious and ordered Barton to join him if he could not make any attack. Barton said that he would try, but didn’t think it was likely, that he would have to move much farther up the river to find a place to cross. “Thus,” related Pickett, “the earliest possible moment at which he could have joined me would have been the evening of the 3rd instant. I could not have attacked before the 4th instant.”
Pickett rightly blamed Barton, who had neglected orders to attack as well as orders to join Pickett. But he also placed a bit of blame on Lee. “Had I have had the whole force in hand,” wrote Pickett, “I have but little doubt that we could have gone in easily taking the place by surprise.” In other words, if Lee’s plan wouldn’t have required him to divide his infantry three times over, the objective would have been achieved.
Naturally, however, blame would fall upon Pickett. Lee, who had concocted the plan based upon suggestions from General Hoke, reasoned that Pickett should “have changed the mode of attack if circumstances prompted it.”
Following this debacle, Pickett’s forces would capture a Yankee outpost at Beach Grove. Their prisoners would number fifty-three who formerly belonged to the Confederate militia (though not the official army). Perhaps bitter over his failure to take New Bern, Pickett would soon make some very dark decisions.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 33, p93-94, 96, 97-99; Pickett, Leader of the Charge by Edward G. Longacre; General George E. Pickett in Life & Legend by Lesley J. Gordon; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. [↩]