Today, March 14, 1862: Union Captures North Carolina’s Second Largest City

Meet Ambrose Everett Burnside, the namesake of sideburn fashion. Born to a store clerk in Liberty, Indiana in May 1824, Burnside managed to get an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point in 1843. He graduated 18th in his class and began his active military career in 1847. After serving in the Mexican-American War, Burnside resigned his commission in 1853 and pursued a civilian life. However, his business enterprise failed and Burnside opted to return to the military.

In April, 1862, the Civil War broke out between the Union and Confederacy. Burnside organized the 1st Rhode Island Infantry and marched them to Washington DC, offering to help protect the capital. His first action was at the First Battle of Manassas, where he commanded in infantry brigade to victory. His actions earned him the rank of Brigadier General of volunteers.

In September 1861, Burnside was tasked with leading the North Carolina Expeditionary Force consisting of three brigades. Burnside knew that the North Carolina coast was a stronghold for Confederate shipping and supplies, so he set out with his Expeditionary Force to attack and disrupt the Confederate ports along the North Carolina coast.

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On January 11, 1862, Burnside set off for Roanoke Island with 80 ships and 15,000 troops, under cover of a severe winter storm. On January 13, Burnside was forced by the bad weather to hold up in the Hatteras Inlet. Finally, on February 7, Burnside reached Roanoke Island and invaded it with 10,000 of his troops. At the onslaught of the Union attack, Confederate Colonel Henry Shaw withdrew his troops to the north end of the island. The next day, February 8, Shaw surrendered the key Confederate port and strategic post of Roanoke Island to Burnside.

Burnside, next set his sights on the port city of New Bern, North Carolina, about 100 miles southwest of Roanoke Island. New Bern is located about 35 miles up the Neuse river at the time was the second largest city in North Carolina. It was protected by Confederate General Lawrence Branch and 4,000 troops.

Sailing south along the coast and up the Neuse River, Burnside arrived with 12,000 troops and 13 gunboats about 15 miles south of New Bern. Then they marched closer to the port city and the Confederate fortress.

On March 14, 1862, the area around New Bern was clouded in a heavy fog. Under cover of the fog, Burnside launched his attack on New Bern. Burnside sent two of his brigades to attack the main Confederate fortification. Union Gen. Jesse Reno took the third brigade and attacked the weakest section of the Confederate stronghold. As the Confederate line began to weaken, Burnside sent one of his other two brigades to join Reno’s brigade.

With the combined brigades, the Confederate line soon fell and Burnside’s gunboats sailed into New Bern. The battle lasted about 4 hours and when it was all over, the Confederates suffered 68 fatalities, 116 wounded and had 400 of their troops captured. Burnside’s forces had 90 fatalities and 385 wounded.

According to the 1860 census, the total population of New Bern was 5,000. By December, 1862, it had five times the population as more than 20,000 Union troops occupied the city.

The victory resulted in Burnside being promoted to Major General of volunteers. The rest of Burnside’s military assignments didn’t go as well as his North Carolina campaigns. Some were victorious but others were not. At the 1865 Battle of Petersburg, Union forces managed to place a mine under the Confederate lines. When it detonated, it created a fifty-yard gap, however, Burnside failed to take advantage of the opening in time, resulting in the loss of a number of Union soldiers.

On April 15, 1865, Burnside resigned his commission before he heard about the death of President Lincoln. A year later Burnside was elected governor of Rhode Island, serving three one-year terms.

In 1874, Burnside was elected to the US Senate from Rhode Island. He served until September 13, 1881 when he died from heart disease.

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Sources for the above includes: Ambrose Burnside; Ambrose E. Burnside; New Berne: The Battle of New Bern; Overview of the Battle of New Bern; Battle of New Bern – March 14, 1862 (Total War); New Bern Battlefield Park; Battle of New Bern, North Carolina; Ambrose Burnside Biography; Roanoke Island Captured by Union on this Day in 1862.


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