In the Shadow of Death

The new year of 1864 found both Eastern North Carolina regiments distributed in various towns and districts. In his January report, General Benjamin F. Butler, who had replaced Foster as commander of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina, showed a detachment of the Second North Carolina attached to the One Hundred and Thirty-second New York under Colonel Peter J. Claasen stationed in the fortifications of New Bern. Another detachment, commanded by Lieutenant Isaiah Conley, was in the sub-district of Albemarle. The remainder of the Second was at Beaufort under Captain Charles H. Foster. 1

The detachment from the Second North Carolina serving in the earthworks at New Bern proved to be Company F. New Bern was protected by fortifications stretching across from the Neuse to the Trent. 2 Colonel Claasen commanded that portion of the line at Batchelder's Creek between the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad and the Neuse River. Very early on the morning of February 1, Claasen's pickets were driven in by a Confederate force. The Union soldiers destroyed the bridge to prevent their crossing. The Confederates did not attempt any further advance until a fog-shrouded daybreak when two regiments crossed the creek on some trees thrown across it. The attacking party was stopped and the Federals had little trouble keeping them out of the entrenchments.

At 5:30, the time of the attack, Claasen sent General I. N. Palmer the first of ten dispatches which he wrote in the next four and one-half hours. In his first message Claasen merely reported that he was under attack and asked for artillery to match that of the enemy. Forty-five minutes later he sent another note saying he was confident he could drive them back. At 7:05 he believed them about to retreat and planned to pursue when they did so. An hour later they had not retreated, and Claasen was becoming slightly discouraged. He thanked Palmer for his aid, probably the artillery requested, and added that if he were not victorious he would retreat in good order. At 8:25 Claasen saw the light, or rather he saw the multitudes of George E. Pickett and Robert F. Hoke. 3 The two brigades had merely kept him occupied while the bridge was repaired for the rest of the army to cross. 4 For twenty minutes after his horrible discovery, Claasen held his ground, then warned Palmer to prepare for an attack on New Bern as he was in retreat. 5 In this exercise he got no help from Hoke and Pickett. After a hard fight he reached New Bern but not with his entire command.

Back in the entrenchments Claasen had placed a small force on his extreme right at a place called Beech Grove. Posted there was Lieutenant Samuel Leith of the One Hundred and Thirty-second New York with fourteen men from his own regiment and the fifty-seven members of Company F, Second North Carolina. During the battle Claasen sent two couriers to tell Leith to fall back along the Washington road if the enemy crossed the creek. On the road he would meet some infantry and artillery, whereupon he was to use his own Judgment, only being sure to get back to New Bern with his men. Both couriers were killed and Claasen's orders were taken from the body of one of them. Unknown to Claasen, the artillery and infantry which he mentioned joined Leith at Beech Grove. A Captain Bailey of the Ninety- ninth New York superseded the lieutenant in command, and it was he who surrendered the entire force when the rebels found them all alone at Beech Grove. 6

The action at Batchelader's Creek was part of a three-pronged land attack in cooperation with a naval expedition. 7 The Confederates were not so fortunate in other parts as they were in attacking Claasen. Their thirteen thousand-man 8 force withdrew from around the town on February 3. 9 Pickett returned to the Army of Northern Virginia, while Hoke remained with the army in Eastern North Carolina. 10

Most of the men captured at Batchelader's Creek were soon en route to Confederate prisons, but twenty-two from Company F escaped detention for a harsher fate. When the Confederates learned that they were deserters from the rebel army, they took their former comrades in arms no farther than Kinston. A court martial was held, 11 but in 1866 when the United States Government conducted an investigation of the incident, no records of the trial could be found. 12 The Fayetteville Observer's February 8 issue stated that two members of Company F had already been executed and others were being tried.

Apparently General Peck did not know of the court martial then sitting at Fayetteville when on February 13, he addressed a letter to Pickett, who was then back in Petersburg. In it he enclosed the names of the fifty-three men from Company F and asked that the same treatment be accorded them as was given to other prisoners of war. 13 In answer Pickett sent the following taunting reply: the list of 53 which you have so kindly furnished me will enable me to bring to Justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts. I herewith return to you the names of those who have been tried and convicted by court martial for desertion from the Confederate service and taken with arms in hand, 'duly enlisted in the 2nd N. C. Infantry, U. S. Army.' They have been duly executed according to law and the custom of war. 14

Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors, many of these men pleading in extenuation that they have been forced into the ranks of the Federal Government. Extending to you my thanks for your opportune list, I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant. 15

While Pickett was thanking Peck for his cooperation, General Butler at Fort Monroe was showing his concern for the North Carolinians. He instructed Peck to send a message to Pickett disclaiming any belief that the men from the Second would be harmed but, just in case, Peck was to tell Pickett that Butler was holding eight officers as hostages in the event that retribution was visited upon Company F. 16

On February 20, Peck communicated Butler's words to Pickett. He had not yet received Pickett's message of the seventeenth telling of the executions of the twenty-two, but he had come into possession of a copy of the February 8 Fayetteville Observer which he had sent to Butler and which had been the instance of his instructions.

Pickett's answer to Union threats of man for man execution, was that for each Confederate so treated he would hang ten United States soldiers. 17 Fortunately for the prison population the Federals did not hang any prisoners in retaliation. Peck's final communication to Pickett was one of resignation and high moral indignation at what had taken place. He told Pickett that such behavior was the "best evidence of the weak and crumbling condition of the Confederacy. The friends of the Union everywhere truly interpret those signs of madness and recklessness, and are now making one grand rally for the utter overthrow and final extinction of all treason." 18

The hard luck Of the Second North Carolina was not over after Pickett's retreat from New Bern. It is likely that the departure of this Confederate general of questionable talents contributed to their misfortune. Robert F. Hoke was only a twenty-seven year old Brigadier General 19 but, judging from performance, he was a better soldier than Pickett. Left to do the job Pickett had not been able to do, Hoke turned his over ten thousand men on little Plymouth, where Brigadier General W. H. Weasels commanded about 2,834 Union troops. 20 Situated on the south bank of the Roanoke, Plymouth was ringed by strong entrenchments, while four gunboats under Lieutenant Commander Flusser patrolled the river. 21 After enlisting the help of the barely completed ram Albermarle, Hoke began his attack on Plymouth on April 17.

Companies B and E of the Second North Carolina commanded by Captains Thomas I. Johnson and Calvin Hoggard were in the entrenchments at Plymouth. Step by step Hoke captured redoubts, forts, and batteries while Weasels' men surrendered or retired into entrenchments not yet taken. On the morning of the nineteenth the Albermarle sank or drove off all of the Union vessels, and Plymouth was surrounded. In the naval action North Carolina Unionists lost an old friend. Lieutenant-commander Flusser died on the deck of the 4Miami, killed by a rebounding shell which he himself fired. 22

With the rebels all around them, morale sagged in the two North Carolina companies. That night many slipped away in the darkness by way of canoes, to be picked up in safety by the Union boats in Albermarle Sound. The four officers and 162 men who remained being made prisoners on the following day when Weasels surrendered to Hoke. 23 Along with the other prisoners they were marched toward Tarboro, the prisoners were halted and the ranks searched for deserters from the Confederate army. Some were singled out and separated from their fellows. 24 Others avoided detection by taking false names and claiming to belong to one of the Northern regiments also represented in the dejected group. 25 Those taken away did not return, and their comrades supposed then to have been shot. 26 After this stop the march continued to Tarboro, where the prisoners boarded a train for dreaded Andersonville. 27

After Batchelader's Creek and Plymouth, the Second North Carolina was sadly depleted. Only Companies A and C remained intact, and their morale was understandably low. In February these survivors were stationed at Beaufort under command of Captain Charles H. Foster. At that time another Confederate force advanced on Beaufort in conjunction with Pickett's attack on New Bern. Colonel James Jourdan of the One Hundred Fifty-eighth New York commanded there. He was forced to retreat, first to Carolina City, where he dug entrenchments only to be compelled to retreat once more, this time to Morehead, where more trenches were dug. At that point Pickett called off the attack and Jourdan's troubles were over. In his report Colonel Jourdan acknowledged his gratitude to Foster and his men for "the valuable services they rendered in completing the defenses of Morehead and the cheerful execution of all duties assigned to them." 28

By April 22, the men of the Second North Carolina were no longer cheerful. Death in the form of a hangman's noose cast its shadow over them. Colonel Edward H. Ripley was the commander at Morehead. The Colonel's April 22 communication with General Peck indicates that he understood their fear and sympathized with them. "I cannot place the least dependence on them or the defense of Beaufort or any other place," he wrote. "They are utterly demoralized and will not fight. Indeed, they are already looking to the swamps for the protection they have so far failed of getting from our government." In the event that Morehead was attacked he thought the North Carolinians would be of no use. Under the circumstances he thought it would be best to send them to Fort Macon, where they would be "out of harm's way." Ripley indicated that he would send them to the Fort the next day "whatever the final disposition made of them." 29

The ranks of the First Regiment were not untouched by the events of the past few months. At Washington Colonel McChesney watched as demoralization struck the hitherto staunch and faithful Company L. McChesney's confidence in them was so undermined that he feared they might desert to the Confederacy. General I. N. Palmer thought their fears "silly and shameful" but General Palmer, if captured, did not face the possibility of a traitor's death at the end of a rope. Palmer had "but little confidence in these North Carolina troops when they are menaced by a very superior force. They recollect the fate of those recently hanged at Kinston, and the wives, sisters, and children of those victims haunt us daily." 30

The families of the North Carolinians, always a chore, were now proving to be a burden. Before the battle of Plymouth their wives and children had to be evacuated to Roanoke Island by the transport Massasoit. 31 With Hoke now advancing toward Washington, Palmer had the added responsibility of caring for the families of some of his soldiers in the midst of preparations for a battle. 32

Realizing that he could not hold Washington, Palmer decided to give the town to Hoke without a fight. In doing so he sought to hold his civilian problem to a minimum. On April 26, he ordered the commander at Washington, Brigadier General Edward Harland, to send Company L out first, with their families and any one else who sought refuge behind his lines. At the same time Harland was instructed to keep his objective to himself, not letting the Washingtonians know they were being abandoned. Two days later Palmer reported to Fort Monroe that Company L had arrived in New Bern bringing with them "some 300 women and children." He also took this opportunity to further air his views about the Carolina regiments saying they were "a great drag upon us at a time as this." He temporarily quartered the women and children in the hospitals at Beaufort and Morehead City. 33

By the thirtieth of April, all of the Union troops were removed from Washington, and Hoke moved into a burned and pillaged town. After the evacuation became known, stealing began on a small scale. By the twenty-eighth pillaging was general, and on the last day of the Federal occupation, a fire was started by a person or persons unknown. It quickly spread through the streets leaving the town in ruins. On May 30, an army board of investigation, meeting at New Bern, condemned each and every unit of the Federal army which had been stationed at Washington. Company L was included by name in this group but should not have been. The "instances of theft" which began on the afternoon of the twenty-seventh occurred simultaneously with the embarkation of the cavalry company for New Bern. 34 Any participation by Company L would have been minor as the cavalrymen were gone when the general destruction began.

The Clouds Lift

After taking Washington, Hoke prepared for an offensive against New Bern, and for Union forces in Eastern North Carolina, the days ahead looked dark. The officers were still worried about the morale Of the North Carolinians, and on May 2, Butler suggested that Palmer send the remainder of the Second North Carolina to Norfolk and safety. 35 This proved to be unnecessary, for Palmer received unexpected and indirect aid from the Army of the Potomac. While Hoke was taking Plymouth and Washington, General Grant was fighting Robert E. Lee from the Wilderness to Cold Harbor. While the Northern army was losing almost twice as many men as the Southern, Lee was losing a far greater percentage of his force. 36 On May 4, President Davis issued an order for the return of Hoke's army to Virginia. 37 On the night of October 27, the Albermarle was destroyed at Plymouth, 38 and the Union forces returned to the territory they had so lately left. It was the last time during the war that the Federal presence in Eastern North Carolina was threatened. By May 10, Palmer felt that the pressure, for the moment, was over. He decided to send most of the First North Carolina to Colonel James Jourdan in the sub-district of Beaufort where the Second had been for sometime and where the latter regiment's strength was again five companies. 39

Two companies of the First North Carolina were at Hatteras. The eight on the mainland were comprised of about six hundred men at this time, all of whom were drilled as artillerists. They were to be placed at Fort Macon and in Morehead City under the command of Colonel James M. McChesney. McChesney was to see their families safely settled, at which time Palmer believed the North Carolinians would "be as staunch as any men we have." If, however, their actions did not satisfy Jourdan as to their usefulness, Palmer would send them to Norfolk. 40 Evidently Jourdan was satisfied, for this disposition of the North Carolina troops stayed more or less the same for the remainder of 1864.

Company L, with a number of Northern troops, got away on a small excursion through Pollocksville, Young's Cross-Roads, and Jacksonville in the latter part of June. 41 Otherwise, it was a time of relative quiet, which was, no doubt, good for jangled nerves.

** Go to Part VI **


1 OR, I, 33, p. 484, 485.

2 Barrett, Civil War in North Carolina, p. 202.

3 OR, I, 33, pp. 93-96.

4 Ibid., p. 68.

5 Ibid., pp. 93-96.

6 Ibid., p. 68.

7 Ibid., p. 63.

8 Barrett, Civil War, p. 203.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid ., p . 207.

11 Ibid., p. 213.

12 OR, II, 6, PP 993-994.

13 OR, II, 8, p. 903.

14 David Jones, J. L. Haskett, John L. Stanley, Iewis Bryan, Mitchell Busick, William Irving, Amos Armyette, John J. Beck, Willtam Jones, Iewis Freeman, William Haddick, Jesse Summerlin, Andrew J. Britteau, Calvin Hoffman, Stephen Jones, Josepth Biock, Lewis Taylor, Charles Cuthrell, William H. Daughtry, John Freeman, Elijah Xellum, William J. Hill.

15 OR, I, 33, p. 867-868.

16 Ibid., p. 863.

17 Ibid., p. 569.

18 Ibid., pp. 367, 368.

19 Ibid., pp 869, 870.

20 Barnett, Civil War in North Carolina, p. 220.

21 OR, I, 33, p. 301.

22 Fayetteville Observer, May 9, 1864.

23 OR, I, 33, pp. 226-301.

24 Robert H. Kellogg, Life and Death in Rebel Prisons: Giving a Complete History of the the Inhuman and Barbarous Treatment of our Brave Soldiers by Rebel Authorities, Inflicting Terrible Suffering and Frightful Mortality, Principally at Andersonville, Georgia, and Florence, South Carolina, Describing Plans of Escape, Arrival of Prisoners, with Numerous and Various Incidents and Accidents of Prison life; (Hartford: L. Slebbins Co., 1865), p. 40.

25 Ibid., p. 243.

26 Ibid., p. 40.

27 OR, I, 33, p. 300.

28 Ibid., pp. 78-80.

29 Ibid., pp. 768-749.

30 Ibid., p. 960.

31 Kellogg, Rebel Prisons, p. 27.

32 OR, I, 33, p. 960.

33 Ibid., p. 1010.

34 Ibid., pp. 311, 312.

35 OR, I, 51, pt. 2, p. 1289.

36 Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Compact History of the Civil War (New York: Hawthrone Books, Inc., 1960), p. 304.

37 Barrett, Civil War, p. 225.

38 Ibid., p. 229.

39 OR, I, 40, p. 218.

40 OR, I, 36, pt. 2, pp. 621, 627.

41 OR, I, 40, p. 218.

Copyright 1998

Return to Regimental Histories Page

Return to NCUV Home Page