north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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           On July 6, 1862, Gen. Ambrose Burnside and two divisions departed New Bern for Virginia, leaving his longtime friend Gen. John G. Foster in charge of the Department of North Carolina. Anchored to the New Bern area due to his small numbers, Foster oversaw the strengthening and construction of defenses and fortifications. Work crews, comprised largely of refugee slaves, constructed a line of defensive works from the Trent River to the Neuse intersected by Forts Totten, Rowan, and Dutton.

      The responsibility of confronting the invaders was left to the few North Carolina regiments remaining in the state, but their limited numbers seriously hampered their ability to dislodge the enemy. A surprise attack on the Federal force at Washington on September 6 had initial success with the Confederates capturing three field guns and supplies and destroying a ship. But the arrival of Federal reinforcements turned the tide of the battle. A separate attack on Federally occupied Plymouth in December had similar results.

      North Carolina’s attempts to drive off the enemy all ended in defeat, and the Federal force grew stronger every day. About the same time as the Confederate attacks on occupied Washington and Plymouth, Federal reinforcements streamed into New Bern, doubling the size of Foster’s force and allowing him to prepare for and carry out increasingly distant raids. Foster began with shorter raids in the vicinity of Tarboro and Williamston in November, achieving only property damage, forage, and the imprisonment of five Confederate soldiers. Returning to New Bern, the raiders prepared for their most important expedition yet, this time on Goldsboro, with a high priority target: the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad. Disabling it would severely hamper Confederate supply and troop movement.

      The Goldsboro raid began on December 11 as General Foster lead 10,000 infantry, 640 cavalry, and forty pieces of artillery down the Trent Road towards their target. Foster’s men tramped along relatively unchecked, battling only the winter cold, until December 13. At Southwest Creek, the raiders found the bridge in ruins, destroyed by the 61st North Carolina, which was then encamped on the opposite bank.

      Unable to ford, Foster ordered two regiments to cross and drive off the enemy. Gen. N. G. Evans arrived to take command just as the Federals launched the attack. Feeling the conditions were not in his favor after a brief engagement, Evans retreated his force to high ground within two miles of the Kinston bridge. Numbering only 2,000 men, they dug in and prepared for the fray.

      The two commanders prepared to square off on the morning of December 14. Foster expected the aid of a fleet dispatched from New Bern the previous day, but due to the low water, only one ship was able to make the journey. Foster was on his own. Hidden in the tree line, the Confederates waited until Federal skirmishers were within seventy-five yards to open up with grape shot. In response, Foster quickly deployed artillery and ordered his force to take cover in the woods surrounding the road. Confusion permeated the Federal ranks, many of which were comprised of fresh recruits.

      Despite the disorganization, Foster managed to push the Confederates across a bridge. Evans, believing his entire force had crossed, torched the bridge and opened fire upon his own men then stranded on the opposite bank. What remained of the Confederate line broke and ran for the burning bridge, the desperate soldiers trampling through the flames over comrades to reach safety.

      Foster had gained an overwhelming victory, and his prizes were impressive: eleven pieces of artillery, 400 prisoners, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, 500 arms, and a large quantity of commissary and quartermaster supplies. Evans regrouped his force, bolstered by the arrival of the 47th North Carolina, two miles outside of Kinston. Rather than give chase, Foster encamped for the night just outside of town.

      Foster determined to destroy as much of the railroad as possible. The raiders thoroughly pillaged Kinston on the morning of December 15 before disembarking. They marched all day, stopping for the night within four miles of Whitehall. A reconnaissance party travelled to Whitehall, arriving just in time to see the Confederates cross the Neuse and torch the bridge behind them. Federal artillery positioned itself on the bank opposite Whitehall and shelled the Confederates until night fell. Two thousand blazing barrels of turpentine on the riverbank lit up the vicinity “for miles around.” Under the blazing light the Federal artillery continued its furious fire, destroying a half-finished Confederate boat on the river in the process.

      The bulk of Foster’s force arrived at Whitehall the next morning, December 16. With the bridge down and the Confederates holding their ground on the opposite bank, Foster determined to fight. Artillery situated on a hill overlooking the Confederate position pounded the enemy as infantry laid down a fire from the sparsely covered riverbank. Using only half his force, Foster managed to drive the Confederates from the riverbank, ending the three-hour-long engagement. The Federal artillery fire left few trees standing on the Confederate’s side of the river when fighting finally ceased. The Federal raiders, once again, continued for Goldsboro.

      Foster’s force arrived within a few miles of Goldsboro on the morning of the 17th. The raiders fanned out in various directions to confuse the enemy and damage as much railroad property as possible. At Dudley Station and Everittsville, a small detachment destroyed a four-car train, two trestle culverts, the depot, the water tank, and a cache of small arms. Concurrently, five regiments made their way to the Neuse River railroad bridge to destroy it. Upon arrival, they found the bridge guarded by infantry under the command of Gen. Thomas L. Clingman. Col. S. D. Pool, with a mix of artillery and infantry, commanded the north side of the bridge. Despite Pool’s artillery fire, Clingman’s lines sustained heavy casualties, collapsed under the Federal attack, and finally retreated across an adjacent bridge to the north side of the Neuse.

      Under continued Confederate fire, Foster ordered man after man to light the bridge, but man after man was shot down. Finally, a soldier successfully lit the bridge. Foster laid down a heavy artillery fire to keep the bridge from being salvaged. Seeing it was well ablaze, the raiders turned to begin their march back to New Bern. As Foster’s rear guard prepared to leave the field, Confederate regimental colors appeared across the railroad. With a yell, they charged to within 100 yards of the surprised Federals before they were repulsed by artillery fire. The desperate and courageous Confederate charge was the last action in the Goldsboro Raid.

      Though Foster believed his raid was overwhelmingly successful, the damage done to the railroad was not extensive enough to disable it for long. Confederate engineers and work crews had the railroad running regularly by the dawn of the new year. The raid’s only lasting success was the thorough stripping of resources all along its path through the countryside.

References:
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963)
William R. Trotter, Ironclads and Columbiads: The Civil War in North Carolina, The Coast (1989)
Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, I, XVIII, 53-54, 112-113     
Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments, III (1901), 5-7-509
Lenoir County Battlefields Commission website: http://www.historicalpreservationgroup.org/wil_park.htm
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Gen. John G. Foster

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