The Common Fate of Two Soldiers

War brings the strangest of twists of fate. It also brings a common destiny between its participants even among two men from opposing sides of the conflict. At the battle of Newbern, so began this shared fate for Private Oliver Cromwell Case of the 8th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry Regiment and Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch who would command a brigade at the Battle of Antietam.

First, the fallout over losing the city of Newbern would bring the two men together for the second time on the field of battle.

Blame for a military defeat is always messy business in time of war. The Civil War was no different. The military and political leaders plus the general citizenry of both the Union and Confederacy wanted someone to accept blame and its ugly consequences for a defeat on the field of battle. This phenomenon gives historians to this day a rich trove of study and cause for extensive opining. Among the most famous of these incidences is the defeat of Lee’s army at Gettysburg for which James Longstreet would take a large share of the responsibility among the post-war Confederate writing.

The Battle of Newbern was no different albeit one of the least known in the blame game. The total defeat of Confederate forces defending Newbern was a severe loss for the leadership in Richmond and especially for the state of North Carolina. Only a few weeks before this battle, the Confederates troops defending Roanoke Island quickly gave way to the first of Ambrose Burnside’s amphibious assaults. Now, one of the gateway cities controlling the inland approaches to the transportation hubs of North Carolina had fallen with seemingly little resistance from the Confederate and state troops stationed in a series of fortifications below Newbern.

The immediate commander on the field was Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, a former United States Congressman from North Carolina. Branch had succeeded Brigadier General Daniel Harvey Hill as the commander for the district covering this part of the North Carolina coast but, much like Hill, had no success in convincing the Confederate government in Richmond of the importance of defending this area. While Branch continued to send requests for reinforcements, ammunition and other supplies, Burnside began his assault against the undermanned Confederate defenses. Branch had only 4,000 poorly trained and armed troops with no naval support while Burnside’s forces numbered over 10,000 with gunboat support from the Union Navy. The result of the battle should have been a foregone conclusion.

Branch_Lawrence_O_Bryan_LoC_26684u

A pre-war photograph of Lawrence O’Bryan Branch [1]

 

Branch’s immediate superior commander was Brigadier General Richard Caswell Gatlin, a West Point graduate and native of North Carolina, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina responsible for the overall coastal defense of the state. From his headquarters in Goldsboro, Gatlin also requested reinforcements for the coastal defenses to no avail. Born in 1809, the aging Gatlin was suffering from an illness at the time of the battle and was relieved of his command just five days later making it convenient for the Confederate government to pin their scapegoat. Gatlin’s report on the battle admitted the failure of leadership to stop Burnside and “maintain the ascendancy on Pamlico sound, and thus admitted Burnside’s fleet without a contest; we failed to put a proper force on Roanoke island, and thus lost the key to our interior coast, and we failed to furnish General Branch with a reasonable force, and thus lost the important town of New Bern. What I claim is that these failures do not by right rest with me.”

Richard Gatlin

Brigadier General Richard Caswell Gatlin took the fall for the Confederate defeat at Newbern instead of Lawrence Branch

 

The North Carolina press was not kind to either of the generals in command during the Battle of New Bern. One newspaper, in a backhanded jab at Gatlin, wrote, “Schooling never puts brains in a man’s head, nor can West Point make a General who was not born with it in him.”[2] While the paper claimed to believe Gatlin was competent for command, it also stated that “the government should investigate the matter, and if he be found incompetent or derelict, he should be removed.” [3]

On the subject of Branch’s leadership, the same newspaper was even more direct about his responsibility for the defeat at New Bern. Claiming to have originally opposed his appointment to the command position, the paper opined that they “knew he would try, and we had no doubt that he would do his very best to make a General; but we knew, at the same time, that it was not in him, as the disaster at Newbern plainly proves.” [4] The call was for Gatlin, Branch or any other individual or party responsible for the loss of New Bern to “be dealt with promptly and deservedly.” [5]

Gatlin was relieved of his command and formally resigned in September of 1862. Branch was moved north to join the division of A.P. Hill where he would successfully lead troops in the battles of Hanover Courthouse, Seven Days, Cedar Mountain, Second Manassas, Chantilly, and Harper’s Ferry. After pushing his soldiers through a 17-mile roadmarch from Harper’s Ferry directly onto the field in Sharpsburg, Branch helped save Robert E. Lee’s Army of North Virginia from defeat on the afternoon of September 17, 1862.

Branch’s Brigade pushed back forces from Ambrose Burnside’s IX Corps attacking toward Sharpsburg, most notably they poured a galling fire into the flank of the 8th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. Based on my research, there is a high probability that one of Branch’s regiments, the 7th or 37th North Carolina Infantry, fired the shot that struck and killed Oliver Case during their desperate stand near the Harper’s Ferry Road. In a twist of fate, Oliver Case had faced the troops of Lawrence O’Bryan Branch in his first and last combat action.

General Branch would also share another experience with Oliver Case that day. After the timely arrival of his brigade and repelling the attack of the Union IX Corps, Branch and the two other brigade commanders in A.P. Hill’s Division gathered with their division commander and General Lee just east of the Harper’s Ferry Road to confer on the next action of the Confederate forces. As the discussion ensued, an opportunistic Union soldier on a distant hill fired a single shot that hit General Branch in the face and slightly injured fellow brigade commander Maxcy Gregg. The shot was instantly mortal for Branch who fell into the arms of a staff officer.

McIntosh Battery (3)

In the fields beyond this gun, Oliver Case and Lawrence Branch met their shared fate

 

Within mere minutes and a few hundred yards of each other, Oliver Case and Lawrence Branch had sealed their shared fate by a deadly single shot.

 

NOTES:

1. Library of Congress collection.

2 through 5. Semi-Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina), March 22, 1862 from the Chronicling America: Historic Newspapers collection in the Library of Congress

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s