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The second success during General Ambrose Burnside’s expedition to the North Carolina coast at the start of 1862 (American Civil War). After capturing Roanoke Island on 7-8 February, Burnside turned his attention to the port of New Berne, on south bank of the Neuse River. The port was defended by a series of fortified lines, stretching inland from the river. The defence was commanded by General L. O’Brien Branch. At his disposal were seven infantry regiments, one cavalry regiment, some local militia and three gun batteries, all from North Carolina. Against him General Burnside could field thirteen infantry regiments and eight guns.
The Federal force landed at Slocum’s Creek, sixteen miles from New Berne, on 13 March. From there they marched towards New Berne, coming into contact with the Confederate line that evening. Branch had to defend a line nearly two miles long. The stronger portion of that line stretched for a mile from Fort Thompson on the Neuse River, to the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad, and was defended by four of his infantry regiments. Beyond the line of the railroad a line of rifle pits and detached intrenchments stretched for another mile along the line of a creek. This part of the line was defended by two infantry regiments and the militia.
Burnside split his force into three. General Foster was to attack the Confederate left, near the river. General Reno moved to the west of the railroad, coming up against the Confederate right. General Parke was held in the centre as a reserve.
The attack was launched early on 14 March. The Confederate left held their position against Foster’s attacks, but on the right the militia proved to be the weak point in the Confederate position. Part of the militia force fled at the first gunfire from Union snipers, the rest only remained until Reno’s men arrived in strength. Branch sent in his only reserves, but they were unable to restore the situation.
Another breakthrough was achieved in the centre of the line. Two of Parke’s regiments managed to break into the Confederate entrenchments by attacking along the line of the railroad. The first Confederate regiment to the left of the railroad, the 35th North Carolina, fled the field, exposing Branch’s entire line. At this point Branch realised the battle was lost, and ordered a general retreat. Total Confederate losses were reported at 578 (64 dead, 101 wounded and 413 captured or missing, half of whom Branch reported as having simply gone home). Federal losses were lower, at 471, although they suffered many more wounded (90 dead, 380 wounded and 1 missing), reflecting the greater dangers run by the attacker.
Branch managed to get most of the rest of his force through New Berne and to relative safety, destroying bridges as he went. Burnside was slowed down a little by this, but still managed to capture New Berne that day. The port remained in Union hands for the rest of the war.
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