Overview of the
Battle of New Bern
March 14, 1862
On March 11, 1862, Union General Ambrose Burnside departed Roanoke
Island, NC, with an estimated 12,000 troops, many battle hardened from earlier combat, and
met 13 heavily armed gunboats at Hatteras commanded by Commodore Stephen C. Rowan of the
Union Navy. On March 12, the fleet anchored up the Neuse River off of the mouth of
Slocum's Creek. The morning of March 13 opened with the thunder, fire and roar of scores
of heavy cannon bombarding the shores of North Carolina. Three full brigades of Union
infantry, commanded by Generals John G. Foster, Jesse L. Reno, and John G.
Parkedeployed to shore with a battery of six boat howitzers and two rifled Wizard
cannon and began the march towards New Bern.
Awaiting the Union force was Confederate General Lawrence O'Bryan
Branch, a politician with virtually no military expertise and an estimated 4,500 untrained
and ill-equipped Confederate troops. The majority of the Confederates had not yet been
issued military uniforms and most were armed with second class muskets, antiquated
flintlocks, and assorted sporting rifles and shotguns. The Union troops were armed for the
most part with the "modern" Springfield rifled muskets and the English Enfield
rifles, both of which utilized the deadly "minie" ball bullet. Amidst the roar
of naval cannon bombarding the shore and woods in the direction of the Confederate line,
blowing the tops of trees apart and showering the troops below with fiery fragments of
iron and wood, the early hours of March 14, 1862, proved to be a fatal test of combat for
the Rebel forces.
Outgunned by a force almost three times their size and
under-equipped, the Confederates fought for almost 4 hours before being forced to retreat
from the field. By the early afternoon, as the smoke gradually diminished across the
swampy pine terrain, the once colonial capital of North Carolina was occupied by an
invader that stayed for the duration of the War. Branch lost 68 killed, 116 wounded, and
400 captured or missing compared to Burnside's 90 killed, 385 wounded, and a single man
captured. Branch lost scores of desperately needed cannon and virtually all of the camp
equipment and ammunition stores at New Bern. He also lost a valuable port and rail head
which ultimately became the Headquarters of the District of North Carolina, which proved
to be a pain in the side of the Confederacy throughout the War.
The only high point from the Southern perspective about the New Bern
battle was the valor exhibited by its future wartime governor, Zebulon Vance of the 26th
North Carolina Infantry. Isolated from the main Confederate force with only a handful of
troops from the 33rd North Carolina, Vance and the 26th held off an incredibly superior
force, thus preventing inevitable damage to the city and population of New Bern by
delaying Federal forces from their target. New Bern fell and the city, whose population
was a bit over 5,000 individuals in the 1860 census, was occupied. By December 1862, a
Federal army of well over 20,000 troopsmore than the sum total of Confederate forces
in the entire state of North Carolinanow inhabited the town once called "The
Athens of the South".
by Will Gorges for "Newsletter of New Bern Historical Society"
hiddencoast.com wishes to thank the New Bern Historical Society and
Will Gorges for providing us with articles on the history of our area.