Attack On New Bern "A Fine Plan Failed" February 1 - 2, 1864
On the morning of February 1, 1864, Gen. Seth Barton commanded the largest and most important of the three Confederate columns attacking Union-occupied New Bern, NC. With discipline and stealth, his men approached the town from the south, capturing Union pickets without firing a shot, until they came upon the enemy's main defensive line at the Trent River. Then Barton lost his nerve. Though he had the element of surprise on his side and could probably overrun the earthworks in a quick, sharp attack. Barton thought the Union position appeared too formidable to attack. Instead, he sent out patrols to find a weak spot in the Union line. When no weaknesses were located, Barton decided to not make the attack at all.
Col. James Dearing's assignment in the attack on New Bern was to capture Fort Anderson on the north side of the Neuse River across from the town. Once he had come within sight of the fort, however, Dearing, too, lost his nerve and decided the position was too formidable to be successfully assaulted. Only Gen. Robert Hoke's command completed its part of the three-pronged land attack, but it was too weak to capture the town without the support of the other two columns. A contingent of naval commandos led by Comdr.. John T. Wood did successfully complete its important mission- the capture of the Union gunboat anchored at New Bern. They had scrambled up the side of the USS Underwriter and, with cutlasses and pistols, had fought the Union seamen and taken over the ship. The commandos burned the Underwriter and then escaped upriver.
Confederate Gen. George Pickett had no choice but to call off the offensive and withdraw his troops. A fine plan had failed and a great opportunity had been lost. Though his men had inflicted about 400 casualties and suffered only 45 themselves, the attempt to capture New Bern was a dismal failure. Among the 300 Union prisoners were found 22 former Confederate soldiers. Perhaps out of frustration, Pickett had them court-martialed and executed.
Fascinating Fact: Seventy men from the 17th Massachusetts Regiment were among those captured by the Confederates. All but 11 would die while confined in the prison camp at Andersonville, GA..
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