“They … could not believe there was any danger till it was upon them”: March 8, 1865, Wyse Fork

Although one of the largest engagements in North Carolina during the Civil War, the Battle of Wyse Fork is overshadowed by the larger battle of Bentonville.  Though some  some 120 miles northeast of Major-General William T. Sherman’s columns on March 8, 1865, Wyse Fork was a direct result of logistic needs for the Federals operating in North Carolina. I mentioned some of the placenames yesterday, but allow me to point them out on the map:

WF_MoreheadCity_Goldsboro_Fayetteville

As you can see, there was a lot of “map” between Fayetteville and New Bern, where Sherman might draw supplies.  And, as of March 8, Sherman was not yet in Fayetteville.  The intent was to use Morehead City as the main seaport supplying Sherman, using a railroad through New Bern up to Goldsboro.  Federals captured New Bern in March 1862, and then Morehead City shortly after.  Since that time, they’d maintained a rail line from the coast to New Bern.  But now the Federals needed a rail line extended some sixty miles inland.  About midway along the route was Kinston, on the Neuse River.

This task fell to Major-General Jacob Cox, who’s troops, roughly three divisions, would cover repairs to the railroad as they advanced on Goldsboro.  Cox was a veteran commander who’d seen much service from the opening phases of the war in West Virginia and during the Antietam Campaign.  Through 1864, Cox served as a division commander, during the Atlanta Campaign, in the Twenty-third Corps, under Major-General John Schofield.  After victory in the Battle of Nashville, the Twenty-third Corps, Cox included, came east to operate against Wilmington.

The Federals had operated in this area before.  In fact, Major-General John Foster lead an expedition from New Bern to raid Goldsboro in December 1862.  For his march, Foster had used the Trent Road, which enabled him to work against the flanks of Confederate defenses of Kinston.  Cox would not have that luxury.  With very few wagons to support his movement, Cox would advance down the railroad line.

WF_Cox_Advance

Starting from New Bern on March 2, Cox noted “Troops slowly getting in motion.”  Aside from the transportation issues, Cox’s troops were not experienced with field campaigning.  Much as had happened to troops in the Department of the South, the troops on the North Carolina coast served in various garrisons and rarely operated in brigades, much less divisions.  Two divisions dressed out from”District of Beaufort.”  Brigadier-General Innis Palmer commanded the first, with three brigades.  Brigadier-General Samuel Carter had the second division, also organized into three brigades.  Both divisions contained a sizable number of troops formed into provisional battalions.  (Many of these “provisionals” were formed from troops assigned to Sherman’s four corps – returning from convalescence or recently recruited.  Sent to North Carolina, but unable to rejoin their units, these men were formed into units pending transfer to their parent organizations.) Between these two divisions were two batteries of artillery.  Cox had only the 12th New York Cavalry and a troop of North Carolina unionists for a mounted arm.

Cox’s forces reached Core Creek on March 4.  Here the railroad ran through Dover Swamp, which Cox described as “one great swamp, with occasional dry spots in it, and a few roads.” On March 6, Cox moved Palmer and Carter forward along the rail line, while using his small cavalry force to screen along the Trent Road.  Behind, at Core Creek, Cox left the newly arrived (from Wilmington) division of Brigadier-General Thomas Ruger, from the Twenty-third Corps. These were the only experienced campaigners in Cox’s force.

On March 7, Palmer and Carter cleared out of Dover Swamp and moved towards Southwest Creek.  On the west side of the creek, the Confederates maintained a defensive perimeter defending approaches to Kinston and the railhead there.  Cox had Palmer’s division advance on the railroad while Carter’s division did the same on the Dover Road leading out from a cross roads called Wyse Fork.  At the creek, the divisions found Major-General Robert Hoke’s division, formerly the defenders of Wilmington.  Cox had each of his divisions make a probe of the Confederate lines across the creek, to no avail.  He then ordered dispositions to watch the Confederate line, with his small cavalry force posted for flank protection.  But those dispositions were somewhat faulty and lacked sufficient flank protection.

At that time, Schofield arrived in New Bern, and Cox departed the front to confer with his commander.  At about 10 a.m. the next morning, while Cox was greeting Schofield, a message arrived from the front – the Confederates were moving against Carter’s left.  Cox immediately put Ruger’s division in motion to reinforce, and then departed to see the situation himself.

Outside Kinston, General Braxton Bragg had assembled a patchwork force to oppose Cox’s advance.  In addition to Hoke’s division, Bragg had a “contingent” under Major-General Daniel H. Hill, consisting of three divisions (nine brigades total) mostly from the Army of Tennessee.  Bragg also had a brigade of North Carolina Junior Reserves.  Supporting this force was one battery of artillery and a few mounted troops.  Beyond that, Bragg had hoped the ram CSS Neuse might make a sortie, but even with the flood waters the vessel drew too much water to be of service.  All told, Bragg had about 8,500 men facing about an equal number of Confederates.  The one edge Bragg held was the experience of his troops.

wyse-fork-march-7-10-1985

On the morning of March 8, Hoke’s division shifted out of the trenches on Southwest Creek, leaving them to Hill’s men.  Hoke then took a route around Kelly’s Pond which placed him firmly on Carter’s left flank.  From there, Hoke launched a savage assault that cut into Carter’s line.  Colonel Charles Upham, commanding Second Brigade in Carter’s division, on the receiving end recalled:

About 10 a.m. of the 8th the enemy opened upon us with artillery, which was returned by our guns, and the skirmish line became briskly engaged.  Receiving information that a body of the enemy was moving upon a road to our left, I ordered the Twenty-seventh Massachusetts Volunteers into the woods to our left, forming across the British Road, with skirmishers thrown out on both flanks.  About noon the enemy made a sudden and impetuous attack upon the Twenty-seventh Massachusetts.

Upham soon found the attack cut off his two-regiment brigade from the rest of the division. One Lieutenant with a small band of men were the only ones from the Fifteenth Connecticut to escape capture.

Taking the queue from Hoke’s advance, the North Carolina Reserves then moved out of their trenches to attack Carter’s front.  But that advance ran into snags.  First the North Carolinians had to cross some marshy ground.  Further, for most of the men in their first open engagement, the experience overwhelmed them.  Hill later wrote, “The North Carolina Reserves advanced very handsomely for a time, but at length one regiment (the First, I think) broke, and the rest lay down and could not go forward.” Hill then moved to support the Reserves by taking up their left and pressing the Federals.  At about that same time, a suggestion came from Hoke that Hill might move along the Neuse (River) Road to British Road, and thus fall on the rear of the Federal force.  This suggestion was endorsed by Bragg.  Dutifully, Hill began a wide flanking march to the right.

Meanwhile, Carter took advantage of a lull in the Confederate efforts.  Learning of Upton’s plight, Carter went forward to take control of the situation.  At the intersection of the British and Dover Roads, Carter noticed an abandoned artillery piece and directed efforts to recover it.  But another Confederate surge swept the intersection.  Following that, Carter said his command “fell back a short distance” which on the ground equated to over a quarter mile.  On the Federal right, though he was not as hard pressed, Palmer realized his left was uncovered when Upham’s brigade fell.  He too fell back to the intersection of the British Road and the rail line.  There Palmer joined Carter erecting breastworks in anticipation of another assault.

By this time Cox arrived on the field and began salvaging the situation. Cox ordered a strengthened line to cover the valuable Wyse Fork intersection, running from Dover Road to the Railroad.  Carter would hold Dover Road while Palmer maintained the railroad.  Ruger’s division, arriving that afternoon, took the center.  “The tangled nature of the ground enabled us to retard the enemy’s advance so that it was nearly 1 o’clock before he was within musket-range from the line of breast-works constructed by our troops.”

As the Federals withdrew, Hill maneuvered to gain their flank.  “I pushed on rapidly to West’s house, and threw a picket across to the British Road, and went to it in person, but saw no enemy.” At that point, officers familiar with the area advised that a wider flank march was imprudent given the late hour.  Hill retraced his steps.  Hearing Hoke’s force still engaged, Hill moved to cover his rear.  Then he received new instructions from Bragg to link up with Hoke on the Dover Road.  Not until midnight was Hill’s command finished with that movement.

So at the conclusion of the first day of action at Wyse Fork, the Confederates had scored a tactical victory, but failed to translate that into an operational victory.  The Federals still maintained a hold on the railroad and road network.  In his journal, Cox recorded:

Our losses to-day appear to be about 600 captured from Upham’s brigade and 1 field gun. The cavalry lost 50 men and 2 [mountain] howitzers. The mischief was caused by the lack of care and the inexperience of that brigade. They had been two years doing garrison duty, and could not believe there was any danger till it was upon them.

The next day, the two armies held their positions.  Cox, with limited transportation and the railroad repair averaging one mile a day, had little to do but wait for the remainder of the Twenty-third Corps to arrive from Wilmington.  Other than reconnaissances and skirmishing, March 9 was a day of waiting.  However, before Bragg would give up Kinston, he wanted to give Cox one more push.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 931-2, 977, 998-9, 1087.)

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