Ambrose Burnside’s second objective in his expeditionary campaign against the Confederates on the North Carolina coast was the city of Newbern. Newbern was located on the Neuse River about 35 miles above the interior entrance to Pamlico Sound and access by rail to the interior rail network that fed the Army of Northern Virginia from the deeper parts of the southern states. A Confederate stronghold and logistical base, the city provided an opportunity to cut the rebel supply line and provide a linkage by rail to Burnside’s third objective, Fort Macon.
As they had done earlier in the days before Burnside’s assault on Roanoke Island, Confederate officials were lackadaisical in their defensive preparations at Newbern. While it had been over a month since the fall of Roanoke Island, the government in Richmond did very little in the way of providing additional manpower or supplies to the forces defending the approaches to Newbern. Although a “political general,” Confederate commander Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch recognized the deficiencies of the Newbern defenses and began lobbying Richmond soon after assuming command in January 1862. His calls for reinforcements and materiel fell on deaf ears in the Confederate capital.
Confederate Brigadier General Lawrence Branch lead the resistance to Burnside’s Expedition[i]
On March 13, 1862, Burnside’s fleet of ships had made their way up the Neuse River to the mouth of Slocum’s Creek only 16 miles below the Trent River which formed the border of the city of Newbern. The strip of land between Slocum’s Creek and the Trent River was fortified by General Branch and the Confederates with earthworks, trenches and obstacles to form successive defensive positions. However, Branch did not have an adequate number of troops and artillery pieces with ammunition to properly man these positions. The small Confederate Navy along this part of the North Carolina coast was rendered totally ineffective by the Union Navy following the Battle of Roanoke Island so no naval gunfire support was available to Branch.
As the ships of Burnside’s fleet arrived at the mouth of Slocum’s Creek on March 13th, Oliver Case the 8th Connecticut soldiers loaded onto smaller, shallow draft boats to make their way toward the landing site. The 8th Connecticut under the command of Colonel Edward Harland remained assigned to the brigade of Brigadier General John Grubb Parke. Parke’s Third Brigade consisted of the 11th Connecticut, 4th and 5th Rhode Island as well as the 8th Connecticut. It was a tedious operation to ferry the troops onto the beaches and organize them for movement but it was soon completed.
The Troops of Burnside’s Expedition come ashore at the mouth of Slocum’s Creek[ii]
Oliver described the landing site as “a small cove” where troops were pushed forward by their commanders “and immediately commenced marching up the river.” Slocum’s Creek probably seemed more like a river to Oliver and many of the boys from Connecticut as the 8th marched along the creek’s edge on what Oliver called “the beach” for about two miles before turning to head inland. Not long after heading away from the water, the regiment came upon a welcome sight that was just too good to resist for some of the troops.
In a short time we came up to an encampment of cavalry which had been evacuated but a short time. Some of the boys fell out and helped themselves to chickens, ham, biscuits etc.[iii]
Good things cannot last and so it was for the feasting troopers who were soon given the order to move out. In a scene that would be a preview of Burnside’s infamous “mud march” in Virginia almost one year later, the troops struggled against terrible conditions. Oliver described it this way:
We travelled till after sundown over the muddiest road (if road it could be called) that I ever saw.[iv]
The Confederate commander closest to the landing, Colonel R. P. Campbell, in command of the Confederate right wing, had interpreted the supporting gunfire from the Union ships as an indicator that another landing of Union troops would follow the first and orders his troops to pull back to the defense line near Fort Thompson. When the Union regiments reach the entrenchments on the 13th, they find them abandoned.
Oliver observed the abandoned enemy camps and fortifications realizing that the soldiers of Parke’s Brigade may have dodged the bullet for this day.
About the middle of the afternoon we came to the first battery, which had just been evacuated and the barracks set on fire, which were still burning as we passed. We found out afterward that if we had been a day later the rebels would have had their forces there and mounted and it would have taken the lives of many men to have dislodged them for it is a very strong point. The fortification is a mile long, with a large ditch in front protected in the rear by breast works of huge trees felled top of one another. It would have been almost impossible to have flanked them and they would undoubtedly have had to be charged upon to have dislodged them.[v]
The expedition continued to march until nightfall when they halted and prepared for follow on operations at daylight the next morning. General Parke reported that “roads generally were in bad order, and the men marched in many localities through water and mud. In addition, heavy showers fell at intervals during the day and night, and although the men had their overcoats and blankets the bivouac was extremely trying.”[vi]
After struggling against the terrible road conditions, the troops were allowed to make camp for the night to include building fires using the available pitch pine wood which burned even in the wet conditions. That night, wrote Oliver, the rain “commenced in good earnest” creating miserable conditions for the soldiers who found that “after 12 o’clock very little sleeping was done by the soldiers in this division.” Oliver and his comrades knew that tomorrow would bring battle.
[ii] From Harper’s Weekly, April 5, 1862
[iii] Case Letters, 1861-1862. (16 March 1862)
[vi] OR, Parke, March 22, 1862.