Report of Brigadier General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, C. S. Army.
HEADQUARTERS FIRST DIVISION,
In the Field, March 26, 1862
Maj. Gen. T. H. HOLMES,
Commanding Department of North Carolina
GENERAL: My report of the battle of the 14th below New
Berne has been withheld until I could get a report from Col. R. P. Campbell, who
commanded my right wing on that day. It is now submitted, with reports from the
commanders of all the regiments on the field.
A brief description of the artificial defenses of New Berne, together with the inclosed sketch, will enable you to comprehend the movements of the day, which were few and simple.
The defensive works were located and constructed before I assumed command. The troops under my command had performed a large amount of work, but it was mainly on the river defenses, which were not assailed by the enemy. They had been originally planned for a force much larger than any ever placed at my disposal, and I was for six weeks engaged in making the necessary changes to contract them, but the failure of all my efforts to obtain implements and tools with which the troops could carry on the work prevented me from making satisfactory progress. I had circulated handbills over the State, calling on the citizens generally to assist me, and received from two counties a small party of free negroes without implements. I then inserted in the newspaper an advertisement calling on the slave owners to hire their slaves, with implements, for a few days, and I got but a single negro.
During all this time I continued the troops at work, and when the enemy came into the river 500 per day were being detailed to construct breastworks, with less than half that number of worn and broken shovels and axes, without picks or grubbing-hoes. If the fate of New Berne shall prevent a similar supineness on the part of citizens, and especially slave owners, elsewhere, it will be fortunate for the country. Ten miles below New Berne, on the south side of the Neuse, is the mouth of Otter Creek. From this creek, 1 mile above its mouth, the Croatan breastwork runs across to an impracticable swamp about three-fourths of a mile. This is a well-planned and well-constructed work, which 2,000 men and two field batteries could hold against a very large force. But from the mouth of Otter Creek to Fort Thompson, the lowest of the river batteries, is a distance of 6 miles of river shore, on any part of which the enemy could land and take the Croatan work in reverse. It is obvious that the breastwork was useless if I had not sufficient force to hold it and at the same time guard 6 miles of river shore. I have at no time been able to place 4,000 men in the field at New Berne, and at the time of the battle had been seriously weakened by the re-enlistment furloughs.
Coming up the river from the Croatan work you reach the Fort Thompson breastwork. This had been constructed from Fort Thompson to the railroad, about 1 mile, before I assumed command. Finding that, from inadequate force, the Croatan work might be of no avail to me, I determined to extend the Fort Thompson work about one mile and a fourth and rest its right on a swamp. This is the work I was engaged on when the enemy appeared. In order to make the line as short as possible and to avail of a small branch by throwing it in front the line was thrown back about 150 yards on the railroad, and thence a series of small breastworks, conforming to the features of the ground, ran off in the direction of the swamp, making an obtuse angle with the older portion of the line on the other side of the railroad. To guard this gap I directed that the old brick-kiln on the railroad should be loop-holed, and the evening before the battle had ordered two 24-pounder guns to be brought from New Berne and placed in battery there. The enemy's skirmishers drove the laborers from the battery when an hour more would have enabled them to get the guns in position. Of course I lost all the benefit I expected from it. The line of small breastworks from the railroad to the swamp was partially finished for about half the distance.
Running parallel to the river and to each other, and crossing the line at right-angles are, first, after leaving the river, the old Beaufort road and then the railroad; still farther on and near the swamp the Weathersby Road. The railroad and the Beaufort road intersect about 2 miles behind the breastwork, the former crossing the river on a bridge 1,840 feet long at the town of New Berne and the latter at an indifferent private bridge about one mile and a half above New Berne. Both these bridges are accessible to gunboats, so that when we stood at the Fort Thompson breastwork, fronting the enemy, we had Neuse River on our left, Bryce Creek (an impassable stream) on our right, and the Neuse and Trent in our rear, the only possible mode of escape in case of defeat being across the two bridges I have described, 5 miles in our rear.
I hope this description, with the aid of the map inclosed, will put you in possession of our situation at the opening of the battle.
I omitted to state that the timber had been felled in front of the breastwork for about 350 yards, and the space was swept by ten field pieces, besides three navy 32-pounders, discharging grape and canister from the rear face of Fort Thompson.
It is useless to describe the river defenses, on which the largest amount of labor had been bestowed, as the enemy prudently refrained from attacking the batteries in front and the gunboats did not come within range of their guns until they had been silenced from the rear. I now proceed to detail the incidents of the battle.
On Wednesday, the 12th, at 4 p.m., the approach of the enemy's fleet was reported to me, and at dark I learned that twelve vessels had anchored below the mouth of Otter Creek and about forty-five were ascending the river in their rear.
Orders were issued to Colonel Sinclair, Thirty-fifth Regiment, to proceed immediately with his regiment to Fisher's Landing, which is just above the mouth of Otter Creek, and to resist any attempt of the enemy to land there. Colonel Avery, Thirty-third Regiment, and Lieutenant-Colonel Haywood, Seventh Regiment, constituting the reserve, were ordered to proceed across the river, so as to be in position at the intersection of the Beaufort road and the railroad at daybreak in the morning. Col. R. P. Campbell, commanding my right wing, was instructed to guard the river shore from the mouth of Otter Creek to Fort Thompson, while Col. G. C. Lee, who commanded my left wing, was to guard the remainder of the shore, support the river batteries, and re-enforce Colonel Campbell in case he should be hard pressed. Colonel Campbell was instructed to establish his headquarters at the intersection of the Beaufort road and the breastwork, and to collect his troops around him by daybreak. Both commanders were instructed that in case it should be necessary to fall back from the river shore to the breastwork, Colonel Campbell should hold that part to the right of the Beaufort road and Colonel Lee that part to the left of it.
These orders having been dispatched by 9 p.m., the night was spent by the troops in getting into position and other preparations for the contest.
Having given all the necessary directions to staff officers and all others before 3 o'clock Thursday morning, and seen all the men and material forwarded from the camp and depot in New Berne, I proceeded to Colonel Campbell's headquarters. On the road I met dispatches from Colonel Sinclair and Capt. P.G. Evans, commanding the pickets, informing me that the enemy were landing troops below the mouth of Otter Creek, and Colonel Vance was directed to send his regiment to Croatan breastwork to occupy it. Railroad trains were on the spot to carry down re-enforcements or to draw off Colonels Vance's and Sinclair's regiments and Brem's battery, as the case might require.
Intelligence was soon brought to me that the enemy's gunboats, having driven Colonel Sinclair's regiment from Fisher's Landing, were rapidly landing troops at that place, and that Colonel Campbell, seeing that the Croatan breastwork was turned, had ordered Vance, Sinclair, and Brem to fall back to the Fort Thompson breastwork.
My force was wholly inadequate to guard the 6 miles of river shore between the mouth of Otter Creek and Fort Thompson. The result was therefore not wholly unexpected but I had hoped that a line of rifle pits I had caused to be made for a mile along the bluffs at and on both sides of Fisher's Landing would have enabled me to hold the enemy in check and to inflict on him serious loss at the first moment of his placing his foot on our soil. I was therefore surprised when the position was yielded with a loss of only I killed and 2 wounded, all three of which casualties occurred in the retreat.
After the abandonment of Fisher's Landing to the enemy the prompt withdrawal of Vance and Brem could alone save them from being cut off, and the enemy thus came into possession of my strongest work without having received a single shot from us.
The Fort Thompson breastwork now became my sole reliance for resisting his advance, and throughout the remainder of the day and night of Thursday the most active efforts were made to strengthen that unfinished work. Both officers and men executed my orders with unflagging energy.
I was particularly indebted to Major Thompson and Captain Meade, of the Engineers, to whom I assigned the duty of disposing of the artillery in the most advantageous manner.
In the afternoon the gunboats shelled the breastworks heavily from a position they had taken out of reach of the guns of our batteries.
The composure with which all classes of my troops received this attack from an unseen foe strengthened the confidence I felt in their standing under fire.
No damage was inflicted on us by the shells, but the accuracy with which they were thrown over a thick, intervening woodland convinced me of the necessity of driving traitors and enemies in disguise from all towns and neighborhoods of which we desire to hold military possession.
During the day on Thursday the troops were posted behind the intrenchments; and it was painfully apparent that my force was not sufficient to man them even with a thin line for the finished portions of them. I was compelled to withdraw Lieutenant-Colonel Haywood of the Seventh Regiment from the reserve and place him on the line. The regiments were posted as follows, commencing on the left: Lieutenant-Colonel Barbour, Thirty-seventh Regiment, and Major Gilmer, Twenty-seventh Regiment, between Fort Thompson and the Beaufort County road. Lieutenant-Colonel Haywood, Seventh, Colonel Sinclair, Thirty-fifth, and Colonel Clark (Militia), between the Beaufort road and the railroad. Colonel Vance, Twenty-sixth Regiment, to the right of the railroad. A few unattached companies were placed between the regiments. My headquarters were about 200 yards in rear of the intrenchment at the railroad and the reserve was about 200 yards in my rear; the cavalry regiment about half a mile to the rear. In this order the troops slept on their arms.
At 11 o'clock Thursday night Colonel Lee brought me intelligence that signal rockets had just been seen on our extreme right, from which I inferred that the enemy, having found the Weathersby road, were in front of that portion of my line.
Orders were sent to Colonel Vance to extend his regiment so that its right might rest on the Weathersby road, and in an hour a section of Brem's battery was moving by a circuitous route to a position on that road.
On taking my position Friday morning the center appeared so weak that I dispatched my aide-de-camp to Colonel Campbell to say to him that it must be re-enforced if possible.
At about 7.30 o'clock Friday morning the fire opened along the line from the railroad to the river. I soon received a message from Colonel Lee that the enemy were attempting to turn our left. This proved to be a feint, as I replied to him that I thought it would.
The next incident of the battle was the appearance of the enemy's skirmishers in front of Vance, and consequently on the prolongation of the line held by the Militia. It was to drive the enemy from that position that I had directed the 24-pounder battery to be placed there, and supposing it was ready for service, I sent Captain Rodman, with his company, to man it, but they found the guns not mounted, and were ordered into position to act as infantry. The skirmishers of the enemy, finding themselves on the flank of the Militia, fired at them a few shots from their flank files, which caused a portion of them to flee in great disorder.
I instantly ordered Colonel Avery to send five companies to dislodge them. He sent them instantly., under Lieutenant-Colonel Hoke; but before Colonel Hoke had fully got into position, though he moved with the greatest promptness and celerity, I received a message from Colonel Clark, of the Militia, informing me that the enemy were in line of battle in great force on his right. I instantly ordered up the remaining five companies of Colonel Avery's regiment, and the whole ten opened a terrific fire from their Enfield rifles. The whole Militia, however, had now abandoned their positions, and the utmost exertions of myself and my staff could not rally them. Colonel Sinclair's regiment very quickly followed their example, retreating in the utmost disorder.
This laid open Haywood's right and a large portion of the breastwork was left vacant. I had not a man with whom to re-occupy it, and the enemy soon poured in a column along the railroad and through a portion of the cut-down ground in front, which marched up behind the breastwork to attack what remained of Campbell's command.
The brave Seventh met them with the bayonet and drove them headlong over the parapet, inflicting heavy loss upon them as they fled; but soon returning with heavy re-enforcements, not less than five or six regiments, the Seventh was obliged to yield, falling back slowly and in order. Seeing the enemy behind the breastwork, without a single man to place in the gap through which he was entering and finding the day lost, my next care was to secure the retreat. This was a critical operation, as the enemy, having pierced our center, had possession of the two shortest roads to the bridges, and besides could approach them at pleasure with their gunboats.
Having dispatched two couriers to Colonel Avery and two to Colonel Vance with orders for them to fall back to the bridges, I moved to the intersection of the Beaufort road and railroad to rally the troops and cover the retreat across the bridges. Here I found a train of cars with the Twenty eighth Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Lowe, who had arrived too late to reach the battle-field, and formed them to hold the enemy in check until all should pass. Colonel Lee was directed to proceed to New Berne and form all the men he could collect in the upper part of town. The Seventh Regiment, arriving in two different parties, was directed to proceed to the Trent Bridge and hold it, while I remained with Lieutenant-Colonel Lowe at the intersection to hold the enemy in, cheek and cover the retreat.
Remaining until there were no more stragglers in sight on either road, I directed Colonel Lowe to fall back to the Trent Bridge, which he did, the enemy showing themselves on the road as his rear guard moved off. Proceeding to the Trent Bridge, I placed Colonel Campbell in command of all the forces therewith instructions to hold the bridge as long as possible for the passage of Avery and Vance, and then to move up the Trent road or join me in town, as I might direct after reaching the town, leaving with him to conduct him that gallant gentleman and soldier Capt. Peter G. Evans, whom I had not allowed to leave my person for two days except to bear orders. The railroad bridge was in flames before I left the intersection.
Arriving in town, I found it in flames in many places and evacuated. Orders written in the street under the lurid glare of the flames were dispatched in every direction through the town to search for Colonel Lee. At Railroad street I learned that a gunboat had already landed at one of the lower wharves. Going up Railroad street to see whether Colonel Lee was at the Fair Grounds, I found, on reaching the depot, that the gunboats were already there and the enemy in the Fair Grounds. Colonel Lee, finding himself in no condition to make resistance, had properly drawn off and marched up the Kinston Read. Following on, and directing all the officers I could overtake to conduct their men to Tuscarora, the nearest railroad depot, I proceeded to that place, and, having made arrangements for the transportation of the troops to Kinston by railroad and seen most of them off, reached that place myself at 11 o'clock on Saturday.
My loss was 64 killed, 101 wounded, and 413 missing; about 200 are prisoners and the remainder at home. The inclosed tabular statement will show you on which regiments and companies the loss fell.
The horses of Latham's battery and those of four pieces of Brem's battery were killed, and we lost, in consequence, ten pieces of field artillery. There were other pieces at the breastwork, but they were condemned guns from Fort Macon belonging to no company.
The ammunition and ordnance stores at New Berne were saved, and the camp equipage and baggage of the regiments would have been saved but we had not the field transportation with which to haul it to the railroad.
In five days after the battle I had my brigade in camp in advance of Kinston ready for action and but little demoralized.
I had at an early day placed Cola. R. P. Campbell, Seventh Regiment, and C. C. Lee, Thirty-seventh Regiment, in command of the two wings of my brigade. All the troops, except the Thirty-third Regiment and the cavalry regiment, which were in reserve, fought under their immediate command. I could have taken no better security against any errors and oversights I might commit than I did in placing those two trained and experienced officers in immediate command of the troops.
I refer to their reports herewith and the reports of commanders of regiments for particulars as to the conduct of individuals under their command.
As the Thirty-third Regiment was under my own command it is proper for me to say that its conduct was all I could desire. It moved into action with as much promptness and steadiness as I ever saw in its ranks on dress parade and its fire was terrific. It was engaged within 100 yards of my position, and Colonel Avery, Lieutenant-Colonel Hoke, and Major Lewis did their duty fully against an overwhelming force. Its gallant colonel was captured at his post; two different couriers, whom I sent to him with orders to withdraw, having failed to reach him.
With the exceptions noted in a former part of the report all the regiments behaved well. The Seventh and Thirty-third are specially named, because on the former fell the brunt of the battle after its flank was exposed by the retreat of the militia and the Thirty-fifth, and the latter had no other commander except myself through whom its conduct could be made known to you. No troops could have behaved better than the Twenty-sixth, Twenty-seventh, and Thirty-seventh.
Latham's battery was new and was only partially equipped. The horses had not been attached to the guns a week before the battle. Its gallantry and devotion on that occasion show it to be worthy of a new outfit.
My regular staff, consisting of my aide-de-camp, Mr. W. E. Cannady, and assistant adjutant-general, Lieut. Col. W. G. Robinson, rendered me all the assistance I desired. My aide-de-camp in particular bore my orders through the hottest of the fire with unflinching courage and composure.
To Captain Meade, of the Engineers, and Lieutenant Burwell, C. S. Army, and Mr. Francis T. Hawks, who tendered their services for the occasion and were placed on my staff, I was greatly indebted, not only for services in bearing orders and rallying troops, but to the first in an especial manner for counsel and advice. They remained with me throughout the battle and subsequent retreat.
The panic alluded to in some of the reports occurred after the troops had left New Berne. It was in advance of me and I did not witness it, but the names of officers who contributed to it or participated in it will be reported to you if they can be discovered. It was soon counteracted by the steadiness of Colonel Lee and some other officers.
Yours, very respectfully,
L. O'B. BRANCH,
|7th North Carolina.||6||15||30||51|
|19th North Carolina.||none reported|
|26th North Carolina.||5||10||72||87|
|27th North Carolina.||4||8||42||54|
|28th North Carolina.||0||0||6||6|
|33d North Carolina.||32||28||144||204|
|35th North Carolina.||5||11||9||25|
|37th North Carolina.||1||3||8||12|
Text Source - The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
Image Source - The Library of Congress
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