150 years ago today two little known events took place on Civil War battlefields in the Eastern and Western theatres of the conflict. And while few remember this day on the Civil War calendar, it was a pivotal one. On March 14, 1862 the South lost two key places on their map that they’d never regain: on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina — and on the western shore of the Mississippi River.
Some have called March 14, 1862 “The Day Ambrose Burnside Drove Old Dixie Down” – and with apologies to Robbie Robertson and The Band – there’s some truth to that, because 150 years ago, General Burnside fought and won The Battle of New Bern (AKA The Battle of New Berne).
Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside’s 12,000 Union troops, many of them battle-tested veterans, were backed by 13 gunboats commanded by Commodore Stephen C. Rowan of the Union Navy. This powerful, combined Union Army-Navy operation confronted a relatively untrained and ill-equipped Confederate force of 4,500 North Carolina soldiers and militia led by Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, a political general who represented North Carolina in the U.S. Congress before the war. (Branch was ultimately killed just six months after New Bern at the Battle of Antietam.)
Naval cannon bombarded the Confederate line in the early hours of March 14th. Outgunned and outmanned, the Confederates fought behind their breastworks for almost 4 hours until the attacking Federal troops penetrated a weak spot in the center of the Rebel line — causing the green, unsteady militiamen to waver and break, leading the whole Confederate force to retreat.
General Branch could not stop the rout and New Bern came under Federal control for the duration of the war.
The Union army had gained a strategic toehold on the North Carolina coast. The Confederacy gave up a valuable port and railroad terminal it could not afford to lose.
The highlight of New Berne for the South was the courage and leadership displayed by North Carolina’s future wartime governor, Zebulon Vance of the 26th North Carolina Infantry.
Vance and his handful of defenders held off a vastly superior Union force, preventing damage to New Bern and it’s populace by delaying the Federal onslaught. But New Bern fell, and by December 1862 a Federal army of well over 20,000 troops were stationed in the town once known as “The Athens of the South”.
It’s ironic to note that while Brig. Gen. Branch was getting killed in September 1862 — six months after New Bern – that same month Zebulon Vance won the North Carolina gubernatorial election.
Meanwhile that same day, on the Missouri shore of The Mississippi River, the guns had fallen silent after The Battle of New Madrid.
Before the Battle of New Madrid, that small Missouri town was best known as the epicenter of a series of epic earthquakes that shook the entire Midwest 50 years earlier, between December 16, 1811 and February 7, 1812. The last major temblor in the series was a magnitude 7.7 quake that destroyed New Madrid and changed the course of the Mississippi River.
The unheralded Battle of New Madrid would help to change the course of the war.
In February of 1862, the unknown upstart General U.S. Grant began to break the South’s grip on the Mississippi River by his bold captures of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, forcing the renowned Confederate commander in the west, General Albert Sidney Johnston, to fall back to a new defensive line blocking the Mississippi at New Madrid and Island No. 10. Grant was not the only Union general on the move in the area at the time.
General John Pope had orders to capture New Madrid and Island No. 10. Pope’s army numbered 18,547 “present for duty” when he began his siege of New Madrid on March 3, 1862. Nine days later, Pope reported that he was facing 9,000 Confederate defenders at New Madrid — the same day his siege guns arrived. The next day, on the morning of March 13, Pope opened his gunboat, mortar and cannon bombardment — beginning an artillery exchange that lasted most of the day.
Meanwhile, Pope’s infantrymen made use of their shovels, slowly advancing their trenches ever closer to the Confederate defensive lines. Realizing that defeat was imminent, the Confederates evacuated New Madrid and made their escape to the opposite bank of the Mississippi.
The following morning, on March 14th, Pope’s troops formed ranks, prepared for a final, bloody assault on the enemy line – when Rebel pickets appeared with a flag of truce. General Pope had captured a key Confederate position on the Mississippi River with remarkably few losses. In the Battle of New Madrid, Pope’s army lost just 8 dead, 21 wounded and 3 missing. But while this was the beginning of the end of the Confederate army in the west, much, much more blood would be shed before the South, like the defenders of New Madrid, bowed to the inevitable.
The Battles of New Bern and New Madrid: 150 years ago today in The American Civil War.