Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The New Bern Expedition and the Kinston Hangings: February 1864

As we approach the anniversary of the New Bern Expedition and the Kinston Hangings (both covered in detail in The Fight For the Old North State (Univ. Press of Kansas, 2019), I wanted to post a little background on those little-known events.


The Fight For the Old North State 

On February 1, 1864, Confederate forces led by George Pickett attacked the Union base at New Bern. The plan originated with Robert E Lee, who proposed the operation to Jefferson Davis in early January.  Lee believed success would alleviate the supply crisis plaguing the Army of Northern Virginia and quell an emerging peace movement in North Carolina. As N.C. Supreme Court Justice Walter A. Montgomery later explained: "A great majority of the people . . . thought that the time had arrived when the question of peace with the United States government should be considered. It was thought that the contest was hopeless after the surrender of Vicksburg and the defeat . . . at Gettysburg, and that the further effusion of blood and destruction of property should cease." Understanding these concerns, Lee proposed operations in North Carolina hoping to open up the rich agricultural region for Confederate subsistence officers and to boost Confederate morale in the state.

New Bern, N.C.

Over several days, Pickett's forces sought to find a way to take the Federal base. The offensive generated pockets of fighting at Bachelor Creek, Newport Barracks, and Brice's Creek. During the expedition, Confederate forces nearly captured and boarded a train headed into the New Bern defenses and managed to seize a Union gunboat, the Underwriter, only to be forced to abandon the prize almost immediately. Ultimately, the Union forces at New Bern under Innis Palmer managed to fend off the rebels and maintain Union control over eastern North Carolina.

George Pickett

On the retreat from New Bern, Pickett's forces determined that several dozen Union prisoners captured during the expedition had previously served in Confederate units within the state. A court-martial quickly reviewed the cases and passed judgment. Some of the prisoners escaped the ordeal with their lives. One was transferred to civil authorities; another, described as mentally and physically impaired, received a year of hard labor; and three more were branded with a four-inch "D" (for deserter), shackled with a ball and chain, and confined to hard labor for the rest of the war. But most of the accused were not so lucky. The first men identified in the dragnet were hung almost immediately after Pickett’s return to the Confederate base at Kinston. The condemned struck one witness as illiterate, hardened men who expressed little concern for their own plight and “marched to the gallows with apparent indifference.” Several more executions followed, carried out on gallows constructed of "rude" material in a field behind the Kinston jail and all witnessed by troops in Pickett's command. 

The hangings triggered swift and widespread condemnation in the Northern press and produced protests from Union officers. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Henry Foster, commander of the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteers (NCUV,) labeled the hangings an "inexcusable massacre." John Peck, in charge of Federal troops in North Carolina, protested and provided a list of his men captured a New Bern. A truculent Pickett taunted Peck, pointing out that the list "so kindly furnished . . . will enable me to bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just desserts."

The executions would follow Pickett after the war as the U.S. government conducted several inquiries into the circumstances behind the incident. Eventually, Pickett avoided prosecution in the wake of Andrew Johnson's general amnesty announced on Christmas Day in 1868. The larger impacts of the hangings in eastern North Carolina are remain murky even today. The executions appear to have dissuaded many local men from joining the Federal ranks, an important goal for Confederate military leaders. However, the Confederates also aimed to quell the growing unhappiness among North Carolinians, particularly those who were threatening to pull the state out of the Confederacy. Ultimately, Pickett’s decision to execute the deserters may not have advanced this political goal. Indeed, some North Carolina soldiers and citizens doubted the guilt of the condemned men, and even among those who found them culpable, there was a feeling that the punishment did not fit the crime. For those in North Carolina wavering between support of the Confederate war effort and withdrawal from the war on honorable terms, Pickett’s actions may not have had the impact Confederate officials desired.

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Saturday, October 10, 2020

Grant's Bravery at Burgess Mill: October 27, 1864

As the Second Corps pushed toward the South Side Railroad during the October 27, 1864 offensive at Petersburg, Ulysses S. Grant rode forward with a single aide to examine the conditions at Burgess Mill on Hatcher's Run. Here is the description of the incident from Richmond Must Fall: The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, October 1864 (Kent State University Press, 2013)
U.S. Grant (LOC)
Concerned that a strong Confederate force would threaten any advance on the White Oak Road toward the South Side Railroad, Grant desired more than secondhand reports and sought to examine the ground at Burgess Mill personally.  He requested the company of his aide-de-camp, Orville E. Babcock, and directed  the rest of the party to stay behind. The two galloped on the Plank Road, past Egan, and to within several yards of the bridge at Hatcher’s Run, exposed to sharpshooter and artillery fire from the opposite bank. Severed telegraph wires littered the road in a tangled mass. Grant’s horse, distressed by the shells and balls zipping through the air, became ensnared, and strained to pull away, only  tightening the coil. With their commander in a tight spot, Union officers to the rear watched with increasing anxiety. 
Burgess Mill Battlefield, Oct. 27, 1864
from Richmond Must Fall

But Babcock coolly dismounted and untangled the horse, while Grant sat calmly in the saddle admonishing his aide to  avoid hurting the animal’s leg. The two pushed even closer to the bridge, where  Grant noted the dense brush on the banks, the trees slashed by the rebels, and the dams blocking the run. He then turned “slowly back as unperturbed as a man could be.” When he reached his fretful staff, he responded to their protests with a smile, saying, “Well, I suppose I ought not to have gone down there.” Thomas Livermore, the Hancock aide who ran the gauntlet earlier, noted that Grant had “exposed his own life . . . to find out with his own eyes whether our men were being killed to no purpose.”

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Emerging Civil War Book Award: The Fight For The Old North State

Emerging Civil War has chosen The Fight for the Old North State: The Civil War in North Carolina, January–May 1864 (University Press of Kansas, 2019) as the recipient of this year’s Emerging Civil War Book Award.

From ECW Book Review Editor Ryan Quint: “[Newsome's] book on fighting in North Carolina was not only one of the best campaign studies I read last year, but have read ever.”

Thanks so much to Emerging Civil War and kudos to my friends at University Press of Kansas for their great work in putting this project together!

Monday, August 3, 2020

New in Paperback: The Fight For The Old North State

Happy to learn that The Fight For The Old North State is now out in paperback. Many thanks to the University Press of Kansas for getting the soft cover version out so quickly. 

The New Bern Expedition and the Kinston Hangings: February 1864

As we approach the anniversary of the New Bern Expedition and the Kinston Hangings (both covered in detail in   The Fight For the Old North ...