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Chapter 13:

  • North Carolina events, 1863-64
  • -- Federal Treatment of the eastern part of the State -- military operations in the State -- Ransom Recovers Suffolk -- victory of Hoke and Cooke at Plymouth -- gallant fighting of the Albemarle -- spring campaign, 1864, in Virginia.

There were no large military operations in North Carolina contemporaneous with the Bristoe and Mine Run campaigns. Frequent expeditions were sent out from New Bern by the Federals. These were frequently fired upon by the militia, but, as the local troops were not regularly organized, the expeditions generally came and went without much molestation. Whitford's battalion was often active and useful in deterring such raids. On December 30th, near Greenville, there was a brisk skirmish between Colonel McChesney, commanding a Federal cavalry and artillery force, and Major Moore, with some companies of the Third North Carolina cavalry.

The close of 1863 was gloomy enough in eastern North Carolina. Moore thus describes it: ‘The condition of eastern North Carolina grew hourly more deplorable. Frequent incursions of the enemy resulted in the destruction of property of all kinds. Especially were horses and mules objects of plunder. Pianos and other costly furniture were seized and sent North, while whole regiments of ‘bummers’ wantonly defaced and ruined the fairest homesteads in eager search for hidden treasures. The “Buffaloes,” in gangs of a dozen men, infested the swamps and made night hideous with their horrid visitations. They and their colored coadjutors, by all manner [219] of inducements, enticed from the farms such of the negro men as were fitted for military duty..... To the infinite and undying credit of the colored race, though the woods swarmed with negro men sent back on detailed duty for the purpose of enlisting their comrades in the Federal army, there were less acts of violence toward the helpless old men, women and children than could have been possibly expected under the circumstances.’

In an effort to alleviate this state of affairs, a force of some magnitude was sent to North Carolina at the opening of 1864. Gen. George E. Pickett, with a division of troops, was sent to the State to co-operate with the forces already there. The dispersion or capture of the Federal garrison at New Bern seems to have been Pickett's objective. General Pickett had in his command Corse's Virginia brigade; Gen. M. W. Ransom's brigade, composed of these North Carolina regiments: Twenty-fourth, Colonel Clarke; Twenty-fifth, Colonel Rutledge; Thirty-fifth, Colonel Jones; Forty-ninth, Colonel McAfee, and Fifty-sixth, Colonel Faison; Clingman's North Carolina brigade—the Eighth, Colonel Shaw; Thirty-first, Colonel Jordan; Fifty-first, Colonel McKethan, and Sixty-first, Colonel Radcliffe; Hoke's Carolina brigade—Sixth, Colonel Webb; Twenty-first, Colonel Rankin; Forty-third, Lieutenant-Colonel Lewis; Fifty-fourth, Colonel Murchison; Fifty-seventh, Colonel Godwin, and Twenty-first Georgia. In addition, he had four unbrigaded regiments, including the Sixty-seventh North Carolina, Colonel Whitford, and five regiments of cavalry, including the Third North Carolina, Colonel Baker, and the Sixth, Colonel Folk. The artillery under Pickett's orders consisted of the Tenth North Carolina regiment, Colonel Pool's command, Starr's light artillery battalion, Robertson's heavy battery, all of North Carolina, and several batteries from other States. The field returns for February give his total effective strength as 13,308.1 [220]

In addition, General Whiting at Wilmington had 6,690 men. Whiting's infantry was largely made up of General Martin's brigade—the Seventeenth North Carolina, Colonel Martin; Forty-second North Carolina, Colonel Brown; Fiftieth North Carolina, Colonel Wortham; Sixty-sixth, Colonel Moore. He had 2,326 heavy artillerymen, 374 light artillerymen, and about 500 cavalrymen. The total force then stationed in the State was 19,998.

Acting under General Lee's orders, General Pickett, on the 20th of January, set three columns in motion from Kinston to attack New Bern. General Barton with his own brigade, Kemper's brigade, part of Ransom's brigade, twelve pieces of artillery, and twelve companies of cavalry, was directed to cress the Trent and take the works of New Bern in reverse, and to prevent reinforcements reaching the town. Colonel Dearing was sent with a cavalry force to attack Fort Anderson, Barrington's ferry. General Pickett, with Hoke's brigade, three regiments of Corse's brigade, the Eighth and Fifty-first regiments of Clingman's brigade, and ten pieces of artillery, advanced on New Bern by the Dover road.

General Pickett, in his official report, states his plan of operations as follows: ‘Barton with his cavalry was to have cut the railroad and cross Brice's creek, taking the forts on the banks of the Neuse, and pass across the railroad bridge; effectually, should he only succeed in the first, cutting off reinforcements. Dearing, by taking Fort Anderson, would have a direct fire on the town and an enfilading fire on the works in front of it. Commander Wood, having secured the gunboats, would co-operate, and I, with the party under my command, create a diversion, draw off the enemy, and if the chance offered, go in the town.’

Following out this plan, General Hoke, after a brisk skirmish on Monday, February 1st, drove in the enemy's outpost at Batchelder's creek. The brigade of Hoke, three regiments of Corse, and two of Clingman, crossed [221] the creek and advanced toward the town. The batteries from the Federal works opened upon them, but no assault was ordered. General Pickett reports: ‘There was unfortunately no co-operation, the other parties having failed to attack, and I found we were making the fight single-handed.’ General Barton reported that he could not cross Brice's creek to carry out his part of the plan. General Pickett waited one day for him and then retired his forces, and the expedition from which North Carolinians had hoped much, came to an unsuccessful close. In the engagement at Batchelder's creek, Col. H. M. Shaw, of the Eighth North Carolina regiment, was killed. General Clingman said of him that he was ‘equally remarkable for his attention to all the duties of his position, and his courage on the field.’ The Confederate loss here was about 45 killed and wounded.

Col. J. Taylor Wood, who was assigned the duty of attacking the gunboats, was more successful. Colonel Wood had six picked crews of fifteen men each from ships about Wilmington, Richmond and Charleston. They dropped down the river from Kinston in the darkness, and with rifles and cutlasses assaulted and boarded the gunboat Underwriter, lying just under the guns of the forts.. The men under Wood were exposed to a hot fire on approaching the boat, and, after boarding, they became at once engaged in a desperate hand-to-hand cutlass and pistol fight with the Underwriter's crew. Wood finally captured the vessel, but had to burn it. Few more daring deeds than this were done during the war.

On the 28th of January, Gen. J. G. Martin, commanding the Forty-second regiment, Col. J. E. Brown; the Seventeenth regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Lamb; a cavalry force under Colonel Jackson and Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffords, four pieces of the Ellis battery of Moore's battalion (accompanied by the major), and Paris' battery, set out from Wilmington to attack the garrison at Newport barracks, near Shepherdsville. That post was defended [222] by the Ninth Vermont regiment, a Massachusetts heavy battery, and two companies of cavalry.

On the 2d of February, General Martin made the attack successfully and captured the barracks, several guns, 70 or 80 prisoners, and many stores. This whole affair was well managed and well fought. Martin lost 7 men killed and 14 wounded.

Gen. M. W. Ransom, on the 9th of March, at the head of his brigade and a cavalry force, drove the Federals from Suffolk, capturing a piece of artillery and quartermaster stores of much value. Judge Roulhac says in his Regimental History: ‘This was a most exciting little affair, in which our troops met negro soldiers for the first time. Quick work was made of their line of battle, and their retreat was soon converted into a runaway.... The firing of our artillery was excellent, every shot taking effect upon the fleeing ebony horsemen. At a swift run by sections, Branch's artillery kept shot and shell in their midst as long as the fleeing cavalry could be reached.’

The next important event in North Carolina was Gen. R. F. Hoke's capture of the town of Plymouth. This town had been very strongly fortified, especially on the land side. Forts Williams, Gray, Amory, Battery Worth and other defenses made an attack quite a formidable matter. It was held by Gen. H. W. Wessells, commanding a garrison of 2,834 men. General Hoke, who had been selected to lead this important expedition because the President knew ‘his energy and activity,’ designed attacking Plymouth, and wished naval assistance. He rode up the river to inquire of Commander Cooke, who was building an ironclad at Edward's ferry on the Roanoke, when he could get the co-operation of the boat. At the first interview, Cooke said that it would be impossible for him to have the boat ready by the time suggested by General Hoke. But when General Hoke explained that he wanted to attack Plymouth, and that it was necessary [223] to have the co-operation of his boat, the brave Cooke's fighting spirit rose, and he promised to take his boat to Plymouth, finished or unfinished, and General Hoke left him with that assurance. On the day set by General Hoke, Commander Cooke, true to his promise, started down the river, finishing his work and drilling his men in gun practice as he went. Maffitt says:

At early dawn on the 18th, steam was up; ten portable forges, with numerous sledge hammers, were placed on board, and thus equipped the never-failing Cooke started. Naval history affords no such remarkable evidence of patriotic zeal and individual perseverance. Reminiscences of Confederate Navy.

This tribute to Cooke is a just one. No boat could have been built under more difficulties than was the Albemarle, as Cooke named his new venture, and its construction shows the difficulties under which the Confederates waged a long war. It was designed by Gilbert Elliott. The prow, which was used as a ram, was of oak sheathed with iron; its back was turtle-shaped and protected by 2-inch iron. Cooke had ransacked the whole country for iron, until, says Maffitt, he was known as the ‘Ironmonger captain.’ ‘The entire construction,’ continues Maffitt, ‘was one of shreds and patches; the engine was adapted from incongruous material, ingeniously dovetailed and put together with a determined will that mastered doubt, but not without some natural anxiety as to derangements that might occur from so heterogeneous a combination. The Albemarle was built in an open cornfield, of unseasoned timber. A simple blacksmith shop aided the mechanical part of her construction.’

Notwithstanding the difficulties of her construction, the vessel was, when finished, a formidable fighting machine. In the early hours of the 19th of April, she dropped down the river and passed the fort at Warren's neck, under a furious fire. The protection from the shield was so complete that the shot from the guns at Warren sounded to [224] those on board, says Elliott, ‘no louder than pebbles against a barrel.’ In the rear of Fort Williams, the Albemarle saw two Federal gunboats lashed together. These were the Southfield and the Miami, under the brilliant C. W. Flusser. Immediately the Albemarle dashed nine feet of her prow into the Southfield, delivering at the same time a broadside into the Miami, killing and wounding many of her crew. Flusser was killed, and in ten minutes the Southfield was at the bottom of the river, the prow of the ram still clinging to her, and exciting for a few moments serious apprehensions for the safety of the Albemarle. The vessel soon worked herself free and followed the other retreating gunboats.

Maffitt thinks that this ‘brilliant naval success insured the triumph of General Hoke,’ for it gave him, on the water side, a vulnerable point of attack. General Hoke had invested the town with his own brigade, the brigade of Ransom, and one of Pickett's under Terry. When Cooke returned, his ship opened fire with its two guns upon Fort Williams, the citadel of Plymouth. General Hoke moved General Ransom's brigade around to attack from the river side. Ransom's men gallantly stormed the works, meeting not only the usual artillery and infantry fire, but encountering hand-grenades thrown from the works. On all sides the Confederate forces closed in, and, after a struggle in which both sides fought as only seasoned soldiers are apt to fight, the town with its garrison of nearly 3,000 men and 25 pieces of artillery was surrendered. The Confederate Congress passed a vote of thanks to General Hoke and Commander James W. Cooke and the officers and men under their command, ‘for the brilliant victory over the enemy at Plymouth.’ This gallant deed awakened great enthusiasm in the State, for it was now hoped that North Carolina might be cleared of invaders.

A few days later, the ram Albemarle, accompanied by the little transport Cotton Plant, and the captured gunboat [225] Bombshell, came down the river and met the vessels searching for her. These were the ‘double-enders’ Mattabesett, Sassacus, Wyalusing, Miami, and the smaller ships Whitehead, Ceres, Commodore Hull and Seymour. The Miami was armed with a torpedo and watched carefully for an opportunity to explode it. These steamers circled around the Albemarle, firing, and then circling until again opposite the ram, and ready for a second broadside. This plan of battle was carried into effect, but the heavy shot rattled off from the sloping decks of the Albemarle without doing much injury. ‘This terrific grand waltz’ continued for some time; the ram taking the fire with stoical indifference. The little Bombshell was speedily forced to drop out of the fight. Then the Sassacus backed away and ran into the Albemarle at a reported speed of ten knots. The ram was materially jarred, but sent a shot through and through the Sassacus, and soon another shot filled the Sassacus with steam and drove her from the fight. The Wyalusing signaled that she was sinking, and shortly afterward the command ‘cease firing’ was signaled. The 100 pound Parrotts and the 9-inch Dahlgrens had produced little appreciable effect on the Albemarle, and she had fairly discomfited her antagonists.

The fall of Plymouth led to the Federal evacuation of Washington, N. C., on the 28th of April. On the evacuation, the town was burned by the Federal troops. General Palmer, in an order condemning the atrocities committed by his troops, used these words:

It is well known that the army vandals did not even respect the charitable institutions, but bursting open the doors of the Masonic and Odd Fellows' lodge, pillaged them both and hawked about the streets the regalia and jewels. And this, too, by United States troops! It is well known that both public and private stores were entered and plundered, and that devastation and destruction ruled the hour. Rebellion Record, XXXIII, p. 310.


General Hoke next moved against New Bern, and Roman says:

General Hoke had already taken the outworks at New Bern and demanded its surrender; when in obedience to instructions from Richmond, General Beauregard sent him a special messenger (Lieutenant Chisolm, A. D. C.) with orders to repair forthwith to Petersburg, no matter how far his operations might have advanced against New Bern.... No time was lost in carrying out the order. Roman's Life of Beauregard, II, p. 199, Note.

The effect that may be produced by the daring battle of a small force was most clearly shown by the attack of 306 North Carolina horsemen upon Kilpatrick's cavalry at Atlee's station near Richmond. On the 28th of February, General Kilpatrick was ordered by the Federal government to take 3,000 cavalrymen and six pieces of artillery and make a dash upon Richmond, then but slightly guarded. He was to be accompanied by Col. Ulric Dahlgren, and the avowed object of the movement was to liberate the Federal prisoners at Belle island, and do such other damage as time and means would allow.

General Kilpatrick, acting upon his orders, moved so rapidly and unexpectedly that on the 1st of March he reached the immediate neighborhood of Richmond without his movement being disclosed. By a feigned attack at Ashland, Kilpatrick succeeded in throwing the Confederates off his track, and captured the pickets and a small force in the rifle-pits on the Brook pike. Then, ascertaining that the Confederates were reinforcing in his front, Kilpatrick felt that an attack would end ‘in a bloody failure.’ So he withdrew his command, destroyed the bridges on the Virginia Central road, and went into camp near Mechanicsville. However, from scouts and spies, Kilpatrick learned that night that the entire available Confederate force had been concentrated in front of Brook pike, where he had attacked, and that no force of Confederates was on the road from his camp to Richmond. [227] He says: ‘It was now 10 p. m. I at once determined to make another attempt to enter the city.’ His men were ordered to set out. Just, however, as they started, General Kilpatrick was informed by Colonel Sawyer, commanding his Second brigade, that his pickets had been driven in on the road from Hanover Court House. Kilpatrick's report continues: ‘A few moments later he (Sawyer) sent me word that the enemy was advancing in force and rapidly driving in his people. I sent orders for him to throw out a strong line of skirmishers, and if possible charge the enemy and drive him back, as I intended to make this last effort to release our prisoners. Heavy musketry and carbine firing could now be heard, and a moment later the enemy opened with a battery. I was forced to recall my troops to resist this attack, which now became serious. The enemy charged and drove back the Seventh Michigan, and considerable confusion ensued. The night was intensely dark, cold and stormy. . . . Not knowing the strength of the enemy, I abandoned all further ideas of releasing our prisoners.’

The force that brought about this commotion on that dark, sleety night, and made Kilpatrick give up his last chance of accomplishing his mission, was composed of a small band of North Carolina cavalry. General Hampton learned from citizens that a cavalry force was heading for the Central railroad, and he reports: ‘As soon as I could learn what direction the enemy had taken, I sent all the mounted men from the North Carolina cavalry (Colonel Cheek), and 53 from the Second (Major Andrews), with Hart's battery to Mount Carmel church.’ The next morning General Hampton joined the command and moved down to strike the enemy. At Atlee's station, about midnight, General Hampton sent Colonel Cheek to see what force the enemy had. Colonel Cheek took 200 of his regiment and 30 of the Second. He found Sawyer's brigade lying down, many of them asleep. Bringing a section of artillery, he endeavored to get the [228] pieces in position, but one mired so that it was useless. Then dismounting 150 men under Captain Blair, Colonel Cheek directed them to close in, and, at the sound of the gun, to fire, shout and advance. The colonel waited with a squadron to charge on the stampede. At the flash of the signal gun, Blair's men rushed forward, firing and shouting, and in the confusion that followed, Cheek charged with his mounted men. The result was that the brigade was badly broken and driven on the main body. General Hampton reports: ‘Kilpatrick immediately moved his division off at a gallop, leaving one of his wagons with horses hitched to it and one caisson full of ammunition.’ This bold deed, as seen, probably saved the liberation of the prisoners at Belle island. [229]

1 Rebellion Records, XXXIII, p. 1201.

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