March 7, 1865 (Tuesday)
“On Tuesday, the 7th, the command was in motion,” wrote General Jacob Cox in his memoirs. His division had broken off from James Schofield’s command following the capture of Wilmington. Taking transports and landing near New Berne, they marched inland along the railroad running northwest to Raleigh, via Kinston and Smithville.
“The country here was wooded,” he continued, “and was traversed by an old road, called the British road, running parallel to the creek from half a mile to a mile from it.”
Cox’s own division was joined at New Berne by two others, giving him command of all three. Innis Palmer’s division had the lead, and elements of it had skirmished with the enemy the day previous. From deserters, it was learned that the Rebels before them were under Robert Hoke, whose division had been sent from Virginia to Wilmington. After the fall, they had retreated to this point.
Additionally, Hoke was shortly to be reinforced by various other troops. Though unknown to Cox at the time, these would be under the command of D.H. Hill, and would also consist of what was left of the Army of Tennessee, now being shuttled great distances by rail.
On the morning of this date, Cox issued orders to his two lead divisions, Palmer’s and another commanded by Samuel Carter. His orders, he described as follows (and you might want to take a look at the map to keep track of things):
“I ordered, on the morning of the 7th, a farther advance. Palmer was ordered to send Claassen’s brigade forward to the Dover road crossing of Southwest Creek, one mile and a half in front of Wise’s Forks, and to send his other two brigades up the railroad to the same stream; to put one of them in position upon the best ground he could find to command that crossing, and this being done to send the other to hold in like manner the crossing at the Neuse road.
“Carter’s division was ordered to support Palmer. The cavalry on the left was ordered to reconnoiter the road known as the British road and, if possible, to gain possession of the crossings of Southwest Creek at the upper Trent road, two miles to the left of the Dover road crossing, and at the Wilmington road, two miles and a half still farther to the left. Ruger’s division was ordered from Core Creek to Gum Swamp, and reached the latter place about noon.”
The Southwest Creek crossings were, as Cox put it in a letter to Schofield, “the last point the enemy can make a stand” outside of Kinston itself, three miles distant.
As they marched, Palmer’s division, well to the front, came under artillery fire coming from across Southwest River at the Dover Road and Railroad crossings. It was before the British road where he halted and threw out pickets. With two brigades, he straddled the railroad and advanced.
Cox himself was far from the lead. Schofield was on his way, and he decided to hang back so as to meet with him. The next day, he thought, he would join Palmer. In the meantime, he ordered Palmer to advance his entire division to Wise’s Forks, a crossroad where various roads, including the rails, intersected. East of these crossroads, was Dover Swamp, through which his command had been tramping.
With the exception of the enemy artillery fire, things went more or less as planned. Rather than merely supporting Palmer, Carter’s division was ordered forward until both full divisions were able to form a line and advance nearly to the Southwest River. There, to nobody’s surprise, they found the three nearby crossings destroyed by the Rebels.
The cavalry, being sent far to the left, had better luck, securing the Upper Trent Road crossing by driving off a small Confederate picket. After holding the crossing, they explored still farther left and found that the Wilmington Road crossing was also unguarded. The crossing to the right of the infantry, along Neuse River Road, was also found in an abandoned state.
By evening the Confederate artillery fell silent and Cox’s men hugged the river. “I then ordered the whole line of the creek carefully reconnoitered and if possible a bridge for footmen made at some narrow point by felling trees across it,” reported Cox. “The cavalry was ordered to observe carefully the Wilmington road on the left and to picket the crossings of the creek, giving prompt notice of any movement toward that flank. All the troops were ordered to be on the alert, though the command was not expected to take the aggressive until the railroad should be farther advanced or supplies received by the river, since it had been found impossible to feed the troops regularly where they were.”
In continuing his letter to Schofield, Cox explained that his line “will practically invest the bridge-head at Kinston by occupying the line of Southwest Creek, my right being within reaching distance of the [Neuse] River.”
With that, and with the hope that it was only Hoke’s Rebels before them, the men slept on their arms if at all and awaited the dawn.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p975; Part 2, p723, 725; Military Reminiscences by Jacob Dolson Cox. [↩]