Thirty-three years ago the Confederate government conceived the idea of capturing New Berne, N. C.
, the movement being proposed by General George E. Pickett
, who was at that time in command of the Department of North Carolina.
As to why the movement was entertained, and what was to be gained, many opinions have been expressed by soldiers who were on the outside, rather than the inside, of councils held by their superior officers.
It was known that the government was preparing to build boats on the Neuse river
; in fact, one was under way. The movement was finally made, the forces engaged on the south of the Neuse river
, consisting of Generals Hoke
's and Clingman
's North Carolina brigades and a portion of Corse
's brigade, with the 38th battalion of artillery, consisting of the Richmond Fayette artillery, Caskie
's battery, Stribling
's battery and Latham
's battery; General Dearing
, with his cavalry and three regiments of infantry, was to threaten the north of the Neuse
, while Benton
's and Terry
's Virginia brigades and Matt. Ransom
's North Carolina brigade, with some cavalry and artillery, were to move on the Trent
At the time of issuing of orders for the above movement, the
Fayette Artillery, of Richmond
, was in winter-quarters at Petersburg
The men had erected good quarters, and were greatly enjoying the rest so much needed by them.
In fact, they were so nicely fixed that they entertained strong hopes it would be a long time ere they should have to take another long march, or participate in some bloody struggle.
It was near the close of December, 1863, when this company was ordered into line, and orders were given to prepare rations for a march of several days.
Here the hopes entertained by the men, as expressed in the preceding paragraph, were dashed to the ground, and all kind of conjectures were expressed as to what this movement meant—where were they to go; what was to be undertaken; what was to be gained, and lastly, but not the least, would all hands come back again?
The members of the company needed rest; they desired a relaxation from the long marches and severe struggles so recently undergone; but orders issued during war are inexorable; so to the work the men went.
Camp-fires were kindled, and rations, composed of the best of the land that could be furnished by the powers that then existed, were prepared and packed away in haversacks In a few hours all was in readiness for the march.
The drivers here received orders to harness and hitch horses to the guns, the ammunition in the gun-chests and caissons was examined as to condition, etc., and a report made to the commanding officer
, Lieutenant William I. Clopton
As soon as this report was received, the drivers were ordered to mount, and to the command, ‘Forward, march!’
the battery moved off, the men still wondering, where!
The battery had not been on the road but a very few hours before it was discovered that the company had crossed the line and were in North Carolina
The march was continued on to Goldsboro
, when the cars were taken to the town of Kinston
, on the Neuse river
On reaching Kinston
we encamped for several days, in order to give the men and horses rest.
On the 1st of January, 1864, the weather being as warm as an August day, the company was again ordered on the march.
The sand in the road just below Kinston
was several inches deep, and the pulling of the guns and heavy caissons was exceedingly hard.
After we had proceeded about ten or twelve miles the horses, covered with a lather of foam and the men considerably fatigued, on account of the heat and the tramp through the heavy sand, a countermarch was ordered.
Back to Kinston
we went, where we encamped until February.
During this encampment the men learned through some source on what point this portion of the army was expected to move.
It was whispered through the camp that the march was to be on to New Berne, and it was further said that the land forces were to be supported, or assisted, in the attack on the town by men in long boats on the Neuse river
, under command of Colonel R. Taylor Wood
These boats, it was stated, were to be equipped with all necessary appliances and the men were to be armed with cutlasses, etc., for boarding vessels, and on arriving in sight of the town, and if gunboats should be seen in the river, the men were to lay to their oars and secrete themselves as best they could under the over-hanging boughs of the trees on the banks of the stream, when they were to remain until nightfall, when a concerted move on the part of the crews of the several boats was to be made on the Federal
gunboats and the latter taken, if possible, by boarding; or, finding that this would be an impossibility, they were to make the attempt to blow them up if they could do so. A boat was captured by this expedition, but not without severe resistance.
The month of February at last arrived, camp was broken, and the forward march again resumed.
As the battery, with the infantry and other artillery took the road toward the little seaport town of the Old North State, the boats above spoken of, with their crews, the latter being in high spirits and proposing to give a good account of themselves, moved off quietly down stream.
None of the men of the land forces knew anything of the road upon which they were traveling.
They did not know what was in front of them or how many of the enemy they might encounter before they reached the goal the government at Richmond
seemed to be so desirous of possessing.
The forces had traveled three days and had not obtained sight of a single man decked out in blue.
On the night of the third day there was a halt, orders were quietly issued that there were to be no camp-fires, and all talking must be done in a very low tone.
The guns stood in line in the middle of the road with the horses still hitched to them, and the men lay on the ground to get, if possible, a few minutes' rest; for they fully realized that they were in the enemy's country, and knew not what was in store for them on the next day, or how severe a struggle they might have to go through.
The morning broke with a thick fog or mist hanging low, and the
men could not see a great distance ahead of them.
A forward movement was ordered, the men again being reminded to be as quiet as was possible.
Probably not more than half a mile had been traversed before another halt was ordered, the command given to unlimber the guns, and for the third time was the company reminded to be very quiet in executing orders.
After the guns had been unlimbered, to the surprise of the cannoneers and the non-commissioned officers, the command was given to move the guns forward by hand.
All orders were executed to the letter, but in carrying out the last command (to move the guns by hand) the distance proved very short, for the men found themselves on the crest of an incline which led down to a small stream of water, which was afterwards learned to be Bachelor's creek.
After the guns had been planted, orders were given to prepare for action; the guns were loaded and their fire directed on a block-house or fort on the opposite side of the creek, the outlines of which could barely be distinguished, owing to the fog or mist.
The firing was very rapid, solid shot and canister being used, which made it very hot for the Federal
soldiers who held the fort.
Finding that the enemy still held on in spite of the heavy fire, and would neither vacate nor surrender, a movement was made by the Fayette artillery which had never been attempted before during the war, nor was it done by this company afterward, or by any other, so far as has been ever known.
A charge was made on this block-house or fort by the artillerists, they moving the guns down the incline and across the creek by hand, stopping occasionally to fire a shot at the fort and loading as they advanced.
As the company crossed the creek and secured a position within about seventy-five feet of the fort, and before they could fire a shot, a section of artillery was driven out and started rapidly down the road toward New Berne.
The horses of the Fayette Artillery were brought up, hitched to the guns as quickly as possible, and the battery started in pursuit of the enemy, which was kept up for six miles ahead of the infantry.
During this pursuit neither party fired a shot.
The horses of the Fayette Artillery having to be brought from the hill where the battery first went into position, and the guns having to be limbered up, this and the good condition of the enemy's horses gave the Federals
great advantage over the Confederates
The flying section reached the junction of the railroad and country road running to the town several minutes ahead of the pursuers,
went into position, fired upon us, limbered up, and fairly flew to New Berne, the Fayette Artillery not having a chance to reply to their shot.
In running and chasing between the block fort and the railroad Sergeant-Major Robert I. Fleming
, of the Fayette
Battery, succeeded in capturing Colonel Fellows
and his adjutant and orderly.
On the right of the county road and several hundred feet from the railroad the trees had been cut down, leaving stumps about knee high.
In this place, with hardly room to move a gun, the commanding officer
of the artillery ordered the guns into battery, it having been learned through some source that a train was approaching loaded with troops destined for the town to reinforce the garrison.
A few minutes after the guns had been placed in position the Confederate infantry came up, and, moving to the right and to the left, formed a line of battle near the railroad.
The infantry had not been in battle array more than half an hour when the noise from the approaching train was heard.
All hands were on the qui vive
. The artillerists quickly came to their post to the guns, and patiently waited the turn of events.
The train soon came into sight, and, as it got in range of the guns firing was opened upon it, but, being protected by an embankment, no damage, so far as could be seen, was done to the cars, nor were any of the soldiers killed or wounded.
As the train thundered by, going at a rapid rate of speed, the infantry on board opened fire on the Southerners, and although the bullets flew thick and fast, not an artillerist or horse received a wound.
Just at this point it may not be out of place to say that, had the officer in command (as he was requested to do) permitted one or two of the guns to have taken up position in the road, where a fair sweep could have been had at the moving train, it is believed by survivors of that engagement that the train would never have reached New Berne, but would have been brought to a standstill, and the train, with its load of infantry, particularly the latter, brought back as prisoners.
The section of artillery from the block-fort and the train having got safely into the town, the next move of the Confederates
was to make a forward movement on that place.
The guns were limbered up and the infantry brought into column, and the forward movement begun.
The column moved down the county road, crossed the railroad, marched up a slight incline, reaching a level plateau.
left of the road was seen a small house, from which floated the yellow flag, a symbol of small-pox.
It is needless to say a wide berth was given this place by a quick movement to the right.
Just before reaching the top of the incline a member of the Fayette artillery fell in with ‘a ward of the nation,’ and wishing to learn something, if possible, as to the status of things at or around the town, plied him with a few questions.
‘Good morning, old man!’
‘Good morning, boss!’
‘Do you live in these parts?’
‘Ever been to New Berne?’
‘Yes, sir. Boss, you'ns going to that town?’
‘Don't know; may try it. Why do you want to know?’
With a smile, he replied: ‘You'ns can't get there.’
‘Is it heavily fortified?’
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
Being asked to describe it, from his description the questioner much preferred turning his face toward old Virginia
, and his back upon the town, than to be one of the number in making the attempt to capture it.
This description was as follows: ‘That around the town was a ditch fifteen feet deep, and as many, if not more, wide; that on the approach of an enemy, this could be quickly filled with water.
The breastworks, which were of the most improved kind, and running up on a line with the inside of the ditch, were mounted with heavy pieces of ordnance.
Not being supplied with necessary appliances for crossing such a ditch, or scaling such a wall of sand, it was well known that, even though the breastworks might be reached, and the soldiery get into the ditch, there was not a scintilla of hope for their escape.
Therefore, was it wonderful that the men, on learning such a state of affairs, much preferred turning back than advancing?’
It was not known whether the old darkey told the truth or not; but, however that may be, before the Confederates
could get in full view of the town, a puff of smoke was seen to rise, and ere the sound of the gun reached the ears of the soldiers a heavy shot whizzed over their heads, the same seeming to warn the boys in gray not to approach any nearer.
And they didn't either.
There was a sudden halt, and not many minutes elapsed when the command to countermarch was given, the Southern
soldiers retraced their steps, recrossed the railroad, and
went into camp among the stumps which they had left but a short while ago. Remarkable as it may seem, yet nevertheless it is true, that while they remained in that section they were not molested or harassed by the enemy.
As night approached there was a heavy guard mounted around the camp, and the men, feeling perfectly secure, wrapped themselves in their blankets, stretched themselves out on old Mother Earth, and soon fell asleep and enjoyed that which was so much needed to the body, a night of refreshing slumber.
The camp was aroused early the next morning, and the men being greatly refreshed from the labor and fatigue of the day before, started in to prepare their breakfast from such stores as were provided by the commissary department.
During the morning the general commanding had learned from some source that at a block-house at the junction of the Washing
and New Berne roads, a place called Beech Grove
, there was a section of artillery, and the Confederates
being between them and New Berne, there was no chance for them to get to that town.
Here an opportunity presented itself to get something as a trophy, beyond the capture of Colonel Fellows
, his Adjutant, and his orderly, for the trip to that section.
And it will be noted further on, that it was something beyond the ordinary, the extraordinary, that took place, and which was not down on the programme.
The general commanding was determined to have that section of the artillery, and to that end orders were hastily given to the Fayette Artillery, Stribling
's Battery, and the 30th Virginia regiment of infantry, to prepare to march.
In a short time all was in readiness, and the commands moved.
The march was in a different direction, and on a different road from that which they had moved in on the day before.
Having covered but a short distance from the camp, the infantry was directed to take the woods on the right and left of the road, while the artillery was compelled to traverse that thoroughfare.
After marching several miles, the artillery reached an open country on the right, which proved to be a very large farm.
There was a large farm house, and to reach this they had to march down a wide lawn.
Before the turn into this lawn was made, ahead of them was seen a fort; soldiers were observed walking about in it, and, as the Fayette Artillery turned to the right, driving down the lawn just mentioned, with their broadside to the fort, men were seen to rush to the guns in the fort, and it was then realized that an enemy was in sight.
As the Fayette Artillery drove through the lawn, not a
shot was fired from the fort, and we continued on, finally reaching the field, and obtaining a strategic position.
Before a gun could be fired, however, a man was seen to emerge from the fort, bearing aloft a flag of truce.
and Sergeant-Major Fleming
went out to meet the bearer of the flag, quickly followed by several non-commissioned officers and privates.
On our men's reaching the fort, the officer in command made a formal surrender.
The main stipulation (verbal, and being agreed to verbally) was that the officers should retain their side-arms.
In a conversation with one of the Federal
artillerists he was asked:
‘Why did you not fire on that artillery company as it drove through the lawn?’
“We were preparing to fire,” he answered; ‘but really did not know what to do.’
“Why was that?”
he was asked.
‘Well, we thought it might be men coming to relieve us.’
But don't you think they took a peculiar route to reach the fort?
he was asked.
‘True; but we did not realize that fact until it was too late.’
“But did you not note the red caps worn by the men?”
was the rejoinder.
(Some of the Fayette Company
wore red caps.)
To which he replied: ‘Yes; we noticed the red caps, but some of our men had got to wear them, and other caps, as well.’
After the articles of surrender had been agreed to, Lieutenant Clopton
commanded members of his company who were present to mount the horses and drive the captured guns to camp, and there were no members of that company prouder than these.
The guns— 3 inch steel rifles—a few days afterward were presented to the company by General George E. Pickett
, and they were held on to until after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee
, at Appomattox
, when they were spiked and cut down just across the river at Lynchburg
, on the Staunton
Not long after the fort surrendered, about half a dozen of the infantry performed a daring and hazardous feat, which probably was not excelled during the war. They were out in the woods and ran out to a company of the boys in blue.
It was no time to show the white feather, and our boys became as brave and fearless as Caesars.
One of them ordered the company to ground arms and surrender, at the same time giving orders to some one unseen, to tell Captain
——to order up Company A at once.
The blue-coats quickly grounded their arms, and surrendered to these six men. The orderly sergeant also gave up his book, and on examining it, it was found out that some of these men were deserters from the Confederate army, the roll-book showing the name of the company and regiment to which they belonged, the date of their desertion, and of their enlistment in the Federal
Now the Confederates
had pillaged the block fort and secured blue coats and tall hats worn by the Federals
, and they had the appearace of being Yankees, for there was no difference in the uniform they had on and that worn by their prisoners.
They were tramping down the road toward the camp, while General Corse
and staff were riding toward the fort.
The two parties soon came into full view of each other, and the General
remarked: ‘We are in for it now.’
He believed that he had ridden right into the hands of the enemy, and there was nothing to do but surrender.
The Confederate guard seemed to note the disturbed condition of the General
, for they assured him they were friends.
“Who are you?”
‘We are Southerners, General, with prisoners.’
“What are you doing with that blue uniform on?”
“We captured it at the fort,” they answered.
“Get to the camp,” said the General
, ‘and as soon as you reach there take it off.’
The General and staff turned and went back with the guard and their prisoners, which reassured the Confederates
, for they trembled lest the prisoners should suddenly turn on them, wrest their guns from their hands, make the guards prisoners, and then make their way to New Berne through the woods.
The next day found the infantry and artillery on their return march, arriving safely at Kinston
, where a stop was made for some time, as a serious business demanded the attention of the general officer
, General Pickett
having assumed command.
A week or two after the army's arrival at Kinston
, a court-martial was convened to try the deserters, and the verdict was they should be hung.
The jail was near the Neuse river
, and back of it lay a flat country.
On this plateau was erected a large scaffold of rude material, and around it was built a platform with triggers, with ropes attached.
The fatal day arrived, the military was marched to the
scaffold, and men detailed to pull the ropes and thus spring the triggers.
Twenty-five men were placed on the platform at one time, the noose adjusted around their necks, their heads covered with corn sacks in lieu of the black caps, which could not be obtained, the command given, the ropes were pulled, the triggers sprung, and twenty-five men launched into eternity.
This was followed later by five other executions, and then two, the latter being brothers, of the same build and stature, about six feet tall and well-built.
They were baptized in the Neuse river
, taken to the jail to change their clothing, and from thence to the scaffold, where they paid the penalty of cruel war's demand.
After all this was over, back to old Virginia
was the command, and the arrival was made in time.