Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review of White - "NEW BERN AND THE CIVIL WAR"

[New Bern and the Civil War by James Edward White III (Arcadia Publishing & The History Press, 2018). Softcover, maps, photographs, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index. Pages main/total:178/206. ISBN:978-1-62585-992-1. $21.99]

Though weighted toward the Union perspective, the literature associated with the 1862 Burnside Expedition that seized much of the North Carolina coastline is largely satisfying and still growing. A notable exception to this is the scholarship related to Civil War New Bern. Richard Sauers's treatment of the March 14, 1862 Battle of New Bern in 1996's "A Succession of Honorable Victories" remains by far the best examination of the topic; however, the several subsequent Confederate efforts to retake that important port city have been poorly addressed by comparison. Attempting to pick up this slack is James Edward White's New Bern and the Civil War. While White dutifully outlines in brief the 1861 capture of the Hatteras forts and the 1862 New Bern battle, his primary focus is on the three failed (perhaps better described as aborted) Confederate attacks on New Bern that occurred during 1863 and 1864.

On a brief background note, the city of New Bern, which is the county seat of Craven County and was colonial North Carolina's capital at one point, has gone through many different spellings during its history. In Civil War era documents the most common spelling is New Berne with an 'e', and the author uses both versions interchangeably in the book.

White's text does a fine job of impressing upon the reader the imposing defensive geography surrounding New Bern, which sits at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. Indeed, the military topography would lead some to call New Bern "the best fortified town in America," and the integrated defenses would serve the Union garrison well during the war's second half. Federal engineers constructed an extensive network of trench lines, blockhouses, and enclosed forts around the outskirts of New Bern itself. All approaches to the city on both banks of the Neuse and Trent rivers were well covered. Providing visual reinforcement to the author's written descriptions of these defenses are contemporary engineer drawings of the forts as well as archival sketches of several blockhouses, the post watchtower, and other features. With additional support from U.S. Navy gunboats, the combination of natural and man-made defenses at New Bern would prove to be a considerable psychological barrier to assault. As the book demonstrates, the imposing Union works repeatedly overawed Confederate commanders and subordinates at key moments of decision during the 1863-64 attacks.

The first Confederate attempt to reclaim New Bern (the Second Battle of New Bern) took place during the spring of 1863, when a reduced Union presence on the coast prompted Confederate authorities to send a pair of columns toward the city under generals James Pettigrew and Beverly Robertson. The plan was for Pettigrew to attack Fort Anderson (which was situated on the north bank of the Neuse opposite New Bern) while at the same time Robertson would assail the earthworks guarding the direct land approach to the city. During March 13-15, both wings pressed forward. Pettigrew and the reserve artillery detachment promptly surrounded Fort Anderson, and Robertson got tangled up west of New Bern with stubborn Federals defending a section of the Trent Road cut by forest, gullies, and swampland. Both generals declined to press their attacks in the face of determined enemy resistance on land and river, and they withdrew.

The Third Battle of New Bern was fought on February 1-2, 1864. Under the uninspiring overall direction of General George Pickett, the Confederate plan of attack involved four different approaches—three converging infantry columns under Robert Hoke, James Dearing, and Seth Barton and waterborne assault teams led by famed naval officer John Taylor Wood. According to the plan, General Hoke's force would attack New Bern directly, Dearing would overrun Fort Anderson, and Barton would assault the Union defenses along the right bank of the Trent River just south of New Bern. Meanwhile, Wood's marines would row downriver in small boats and use surprise to board and capture the Union gunboats. Nothing went as planned. As it turned out, Hoke defeated an enemy screening force at the Battle of Batchelder's Creek, but both Dearing and Barton declined to attack the Union works fronting them. On the Neuse, Wood was able to capture the USS Underwriter, but the commandeered vessel promptly grounded and had to be destroyed. The elaborately arranged attack was another failure, and the Confederate soldiers and marines withdrew. On a side note, a pair of standalone chapters recount the diversionary February 2, 1864 Confederate attack on Newport Barracks and the same month's infamous hangings at Kinston of a number of captured Union soldiers who were Confederate deserters.

The Fourth Battle of New Bern was fought during a dark period of the war for the Confederates but a bright spot for southern fortunes in eastern North Carolina. A chapter briefly outlines General Hoke's successful combined army-navy assault on Plymouth during April 1864, and another recounts the Union abandonment and destruction of Washington. The final Confederate attempt to recapture New Bern involved another ambitious multi-pronged attack, this time with high hopes for naval support from a pair of ironclads. The CSS Neuse was still unfinished, but the CSS Albemarle dutifully set out for New Bern from recently captured Plymouth. Damaged in transit by Union gunboats, the ironclad would not make it to its destination. It would not matter in the end; however, as Hoke, who believed he was only days away from capturing the city, was recalled to Virginia.

Addressing all of these operations in a single 200-page volume precludes a micro-level military examination of events, but White's well-constructed accounts should be detailed enough to satisfy most readers. Well supported by numerous high-quality maps and the volume's generous illustration, White's text ably integrates terrain description and appreciation with solid operational and tactical narrative. Though space limitations in an already tightly packed study probably precluded it, a chapter describing civilian life inside the city and the impact of the large contraband camp established nearby would have made a desirable addition. Curiously, the bibliography lists a rather large collection of unpublished documents, diaries, and letters but only a scattering of these manuscript sources can be found in the chapter notes, which indicates a greater reliance on the O.R. and other published materials of all kinds.

On the analytical front, White is particularly critical of Pettigrew's cautious decision to not assail Fort Anderson during the March 1863 operation, even though the general's determination that he could not hold the fort against the U.S. Navy even if he took it (therefore making the losses incurred wasteful) seems sagacious enough in this reviewer's mind. On the other hand, Pettigrew appears not to have known at the time that Robertson was stymied west of New Bern, and one can argue that pressing the attack was an essential part of the plan. Even so, most Confederate attempts to capture fortified Union river enclaves during the war proved demonstrably ill-advised. Generally speaking, the Confederates lacked the resources and expertise to launch and sustain joint operations, and most Union river post defenses were consciously designed to face landward with a view toward rendering any captured place too hot to hold in the face of massive U.S. naval counterattack. Plymouth was a clear exception to the general rule (it helps to have ironclad support!), with bad to disastrous results similar to those experienced at Helena, Milliken's Bend, and Fort Butler being far more common. The justified later war hesitancy to assault well prepared and defended earthworks should be taken into consideration as well. The author also seems to be highly impressed by Confederate planning during the various operations even though the Civil War record of offensives that relied on the close coordination of a multitude of widely-separated columns is generally not a good one. White is almost certainly correct that a lack of mission enthusiasm on the part of the top field commander, in particular Pickett's uninspired direction of the third battle, probably doomed most of the operations (and undoubtedly contributed to the timidity displayed by some of the key subordinates).

James White's well-composed descriptive accounts of the several attempts by Confederate forces to retake the strategically important port city of New Bern comprise a very welcome and largely satisfying attempt to fill in long-standing gaps in the North Carolina military history of the mid to late Civil War period. Recommended.


  1. Sounds like a good book. I would like to offer a couple of clarifications, based upon your review. First, when captured, the USS Underwriter had no steam in her boiler and therefore could not be moved immediately. Not wishing to be pummeled by Union artillery, the Confederates decided to scuttle the ship. She was not grounded.

    Second, contrary to many accounts, the CSS Neuse was completed. She weighed anchor to go downriver to New Bern in April 1864, but ran aground not far from her dock.

    These are minor clarifications, but important ones, I think. Good review!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Andrew. When I get a chance I'll have to see what sources he used for those sections.


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