Local History

The Battle of New Bern

The battle at New Bern was fought on the 14th of March 1862 between the Confederate troops under Brig. Gen Lawrence O. Branch and the Union forces of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside. In a campaign popular known as the “Burnside Expedition” Major General Ambrose had swept across the northeastern region of the North Carolina coast with a large powerful force of about 13,000 foot soldiers, supported by navy gunboats. Burnside had earlier led his army against Roanoke Island which was captured on the 8 of February. Few days later Elizabeth City on the mainland was also captured. Burnside and his troops now have unrestricted access to navigate through Pamlico Sounds and Albemarle and He now shifted his attention to New Bern on the mainland.

The city of New Bern was especially significant because it is an important coastal trade center; the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad that link up the coast with the interior passed through the city. Furthermore, New Bern is the second largest town in North Caroline. Burnside started his expedition on 12 March with the aim of capturing the city. Finally on the 13 of March 1862 Burnside arrive along the Neuse River just 15 miles south of New Bern accompanied by his 12000 army troops supported by 13 gunboats. Burnside’s troops marched up North to face about 4,000 Confederate troops commanded by General Lawrence O. Branch. The Confederate troops consisted of a mix of North Carolina infantry, artillery, and cavalry. Although New Bern was protected by extensive defenses, Gen. Major Branch did not have enough soldiers to staff them effectively. Branch concentrated his troops along the inner works just a couple of miles downriver from the city. On the morning of March 14, Burnside’s troop along with the brigades of John G. Parke, Brig. Gens John G. Foster and Jesse Reno attacked troops close to the railway. Within few hours of fighting, the Federals drove the Confederates out of their fortifications and occupied a base they would hold on to till the end of the war despite several attempts to recapture it. General Jesse Reno’s brigade targeted the weakest link in the line, where an inexperienced Rebel militia unit were positioned to hold off the Federals. The third brigade joined forces with Reno and the Confederate line weakened and eventually collapsed. The same day Union gunboats powered into the city. Branch intention was to rally his army to protect New Bern, but he couldn’t cope with the rapid pace of the naval vessels and he was forced to order a retreat inland to Kinston.

A total of 68 Confederate soldiers were 68 killed, while 116 were wounded, and another 425 was missing or captured or missing giving a total of 609. All the soldiers lost their camps, equipment and only two cannons were saved. Burnside lost a total of 90 soldiers, with another 385 wounded, and one missing or captured soldier for a total of 476. The Battle of New Bern produced a Confederate hero; Colonel Zebulon Vance. Col Vance freed his battalion by using boats to evade a bridge set on fire by his allies and he was voted governor some months later.

The Union occupied the city for the rest of the war and because of this, the Confederacy left a number of troops to defend the state against any unexpected advance of union troops inland. New Bern was eventually evacuated, and the Union forces took control of North Carolina’s second largest city closing another port through which the Confederates could smuggle supplies. The capture of New Bern made it the biggest Federal stronghold in eastern North Carolina and further cemented Burnside’s success along the Carolina coast.

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