Major General John G. Foster’s Report on his Expedition to Goldsboro, North Carolina, December 1862.
The Union Army and Navy captured significant portions of the North Carolina coastal regions in 1861 and 1862, and held onto much of it for the remainder of the Civil War. Federal forces launched several raids and expeditions from the coast into the interior of the state during the war. One such raid occurred in December 1862, when Major General John G. Foster led a 10,000 man force out of New Bern with the objective of capturing the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad bridge over the Neuse River at Goldsboro. The raid was in support of the Army of the Potomac, which was engaged in the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia at that time. The railroad was an important supply line into Virginia, and its disruption would hinder reinforcement and resupply of the Confederate army there.
Foster’s expedition included 12 infantry regiments from Massachusetts, three New York infantry regiments, two Pennsylvania regiments, and one each from Connecticut, New Jersey, and
Rhode Island. Also accompanying were some New York cavalrymen and artillery units from New York and Rhode Island. This force of northeasterners left New Bern on the 11th of December.
On December 14th, Foster made contact with a Confederate force of North and South Carolinians under Brigadier General N.G. Evans near the town of Kinston. Evans’ line was protected bywooded cover and swamp to its front, and was anchored on the left flank by the Neuse River. Foster sent some regiments around to try and flank the Confederates, while others advanced into the swamp. Lieutenant Gershom C. Winsor of the 45th Massachusetts recalled that “the first step into the swamp filled their shoes with black ooze…the bottom was network of gnarled roots, covered with thick black ooze, about two and one half feet deep–even my top boots did not keep it out”. The fighting at The Battle of Kinston was intense, before the Confederate left was turned, forcing a retreat. Evans withdrew across the river.
Foster learned that the Union army at Fredericksburg had been defeated, but he decided to continue his mission. The Federals advanced to Whitehall, where fighting occurred on the 16th. Federal artillery fire drove out the Rebels, and Foster continued on to Goldsboro, arriving on the 17th. The Confederate garrison under Brigadier General Thomas Clingman guarding the bridge over the Neuse at Goldsboro was forced to retreat after being attacked by the much larger Union force. Foster’s men damaged the railroad and burned the bridge over the Neuse before calling it a day and beginning the march back to New Bern, where they arrived on December 20th.
Foster had succeeded in his objective of destroying the bridge, but the damage was repaired and the railroad was back in service by the end of the year. Union losses for the expedition were listed as 92 killed, 487 wounded, and 12 missing. The general filed this report on the operation:
HEADQUARTERS DEPARTMENT OF NORTH CAROLINA,
New Berne, N.C., December 27, 1862.
GENERAL: Referring to my letters of December 10, 14, and 20, I have the honor to report that I left this town at 8 a.m. of the 11th with the following forces:
General Wessells’ brigade of General Peck’s division (kindly loaned to me), Colonel Amory’s brigade, Colonel Stevenson’s brigade, Colonel Lee’s brigade–in all, about 10,000 infantry; six batteries Third New York Artillery, 30 guns; Belger’s battery First Rhode Island Artillery, 6 guns; section of Twenty-fourth New York Independent Battery, 2 guns; section of Twenty-third New York Independent Battery, 2 guns—total, 40 guns; the Third New York Cavalry, about 640 men.
We marched the first day on the main Kinston road about 14 miles, when, finding the road obstructed by felled trees for half a mile and over, I bivouacked for the night, and had the obstructions removed during the night by the pioneers.
I pushed on the next morning at daylight. My cavalry advance encountered the enemy when about 4 miles from the bivouac of the previous night, and after a sharp but brief skirmish the enemy were routed with some loss. On arriving at the Vine Swamp road I ordered Captain Hall, with three companies of cavalry, to push on up the main Kinston road as a demonstration, while the main column proceeded by the Vine Swamp road to the left, thereby avoiding the obstructions and the enemy on the main road. Captain Hall encountered the enemy in some force, but after a severe fight whipped them, taking 18 prisoners and killing a number. The march of the main column was somewhat delayed by the bridge over Beaver Creek being destroyed. This was rebuilt, and I pushed on, leaving a regiment (Fifty-first Massachusetts) and a section of artillery (Twenty-third New York) at the bridge to hold it and to protect the intersection of the main road and the road I was on, to support Captain Hall, and to prevent any force driving him back and occupying the cross-roads in the rear. The main column pushed on about 4 miles and bivouacked for the night. There was some cavalry skirmishing during the day.
On Saturday, the 13th, we again started, leaving the second main road, the one I was on, to the right, and leaving at this intersection the Forty-sixth Massachusetts and one section of artillery (Twenty-fourth New York) to hold the position, and feint on the second main road. We reached Southwest Creek, the bridge over which was destroyed, and the enemy posted on the opposite bank, some 400 strong, with three pieces of artillery. The creek was not fordable, and ran at the foot of a deep ravine, making a very bad position for us. I ordered a battery in as good a position as could be obtained, and under their fire the Ninth New Jersey, which had the advance, pushed gallantly across the creek by swimming, by fragments of the bridge and by a mill-dam, and formed on the opposite bank. At the same time the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania, of General Wessells’ brigade, forced a passage by the felling of trees and fording about half a mile below the bridge, and engaged the enemy’s left, who thereupon retired and deserted his breastworks. I had ordered the Twenty-third Massachusetts, of Colonel Amory’s brigade, to cross at the mill to support the Ninth New Jersey, and also crossed the remainder of General Wessells’ brigade. Colonel Heckman, with the Ninth New Jersey, advanced and was fired upon, when about 1 mile from the creek, with canister and musketry. The regiment charged at double-quick, drove the enemy, took some prisoners, and captured a 6-pounder gun, caisson, &c., complete. General Wes-sells bivouacked on the farther side of the creek with the Ninth in the advance. The balance of the command, with the artillery, remained on this side of the creek. The Ninth New Jersey; Company K, Third New York Cavalry, and Morrison’s battery Third New York Artillery, had quite a skirmish with the enemy, but drove him and encamped for the night. From the south side of the creek I sent a company of cavalry to strike and proceed up the Kinston road, No. 2 (I was on No. 3). The company proceeded up the road toward Kinston, and found the enemy posted by a bridge, which was prepared to be destroyed. The company charged them, and they retired with some loss, destroying the bridge. The enemy’s three at this place was estimated at one regiment and four pieces of artillery. Major Garrard, with three companies of cavalry and one gun of Allis’ section of artillery, proceeded on a reconnaissance on a road leading to White Hall. After following this road about 10 miles, and having met with no opposition, they rejoined the main column.
Sunday, the 14th instant, I advanced the column, and when about 1 mile from Kinston encountered the enemy in strong force. They were posted in strong position in the wood, taking advantage of the ground, which formed a natural breastwork. Their position was secured on their right by a deep swamp and their left was partially protected by the river. The Ninth New Jersey was deployed as skirmishers, and General Wessells’ brigade, with Morrison’s battery Third New York Artillery, was ordered to advance to the right and left of the road, the battery being sent to our extreme right supported by one of General Wessells’ regiments. Colonel Amory’s brigade was then advanced, the Seventeenth Massachusetts Volunteers being sent to support Colonel Heckman on the right, and two regiments (Twenty-third and Forty-fifth Massachusetts) advanced up the road. My artillery (three batteries) I posted in a large field on the right of the road and about three-fourths of a mile in rear of our line of attack, the only position they could be placed in. I then ordered Colonel Stevenson’s brigade, with Belger’s Rhode Island battery, forward. The Twenty-fourth Massachusetts supported this battery, and the Fifth Rhode Island, Tenth Connecticut, and Forty-fourth Massachusetts were ordered forward, the two former on the left of the road and the latter on the right, to support the regiments there in pushing the enemy and turning that flank.
The Tenth Connecticut advanced steadily to the extreme front, relieving two of Wessells’ brigade, which were short of ammunition, and after receiving a terrible fire for some twenty minutes made a most gallant charge in conjunction with the Ninety-sixth Regiment New York Volunteers of General Wessells’ brigade, which, with the advance already made (slowly, but surely) of the entire line, forced the enemy to retreat precipitately for the bridge over the Neuse, which they crossed, firing the bridge, which had been prepared for that purpose. Several regiments were so close, however, that about 400 prisoners were taken from the enemy. A line was formed to the river and the fire extinguished before great damage was done.
The Ninth New Jersey and Seventeenth Massachusetts Regiments and General Wessells’ brigade were at once crossed, pushed into the town, and halted. I ordered the bridge to be at once repaired for the crossing of cavalry and artillery.
General Evans retired about 2 miles from town with his command and formed line of battle. I sent a flag of truce to inquire whether he proposed to surrender. He declined. I immediately prepared to attack him, but knowing that he had three light batteries and one section to start with, was unwilling to sacrifice my men, and waited for my artillery to cross. I ordered Batteries E and I, Third New York Artillery to shell the enemy with their 20-pounder Parrotts (four in number) from the opposite bank, and crossed Colonel Amory’s brigade with all dispatch; but before I could attack the enemy they had retired, and it being by this time night I was unable to pursue; moreover, my object was accomplished.
The troops bivouacked in the field beyond the town that night; a provost guard was established for the protection of the town and all necessary precautions were taken. I sent Captain Cole, Company K, Third Regiment New York Cavalry, down the east bank of the Neuse to a work commanding the river. He reported it deserted, with six guns in position, and the work to be of great strength. I sent the company back with teams to bring up the guns and blow up the magazine Captain Cole being unable to remove the two heavy guns, one 8-inch columbiad and one 32-pounder, destroyed them, and brought back four field pieces complete. These, with two others deserted by the enemy and the one taken by the Ninth New Jersey, I sent to New Berne, under escort of Captain Cole’s company (K) Third New York Cavalry.
The next morning, the 15th, I recrossed the river and took the river road for Goldsborough. I left a strong guard of cavalry in the town, under Major Fitz Simmons, to make a demonstration on the Goldsborough road on that side of the river. Colonel Ledlie, Third New York Artillery, remained to destroy commissary and quartermaster’s stores and burn the bridge. Major Fitz Simmons advanced some 9 miles in the direction of Goldsborough, when, hearing the whistle of a locomotive, he fired three shots in the direction of the sound, upon which the train immediately returned in the direction of Goldsborough. Colonel Ledlie, before leaving Kinston, destroyed a locomotive, a railroad monitor, &c.
I advanced without opposition to within 3½ miles of White Hall, where I halted for the night. I sent Major Garrard with three companies of cavalry to make a reconnaissance to White Hall. He found one regiment and four guns on our side of the bridge over the Neuse, but they quickly retreated as he approached, firing the bridge effectually.
The next morning (16th) I ordered Major Garrard, with five companies Third New York Cavalry and one section of artillery Twenty-third New York, to proceed to Mount Olive, a station on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, 14 miles below Goldsborough. In passing White Hall en route for Mount Olive his command was fired upon from the opposite side of the river. He placed his guns in position and returned the fire until the main column arrived, when he limbered up and proceeded toward Mount Olive, which point he reached without opposition. Here he destroyed the railroad track for about a mile. He then proceeded along the line of the railroad for 4 miles and destroyed the bridge over Goshen Swamp. The track between Mount Olive and the Goshen Swamp Bridge was torn up and burned in five places.
The column having arrived at White Hall and finding the bridge burned and the enemy in some force, with infantry and artillery on the other side, and this being the direct road to Goldsborough, I determined to make a strong feint, as if to rebuild and cross. The Ninth New Jersey and Colonel Amory’s brigade were sent forward and posted on the bank of the river to engage the enemy. I then ordered up several batteries and posted them on a hill overlooking the enemy’s intrenchments. They opened on and silenced, after an hour’s firing, the enemy’s guns. The enemy still maintained their admirable position with sharpshooters, but deeming any object accomplished I moved my command forward toward Goldsborough, leaving sharpshooters in rear to continue the fight. We bivouacked that night 8 miles from Goldsborough, encountering no further opposition.
On the morning of the 17th I advanced on Goldsborough. I ordered Major Fitz Simmons, with two companies of cavalry, to make a feint in the direction of Dudley Station and Everettsville. They scattered a small force of the enemy there in every direction, burned two trestle-work culverts, destroyed a train of four railroad cars, water-station, depot, &c., as well as some small-arms, which they were not able to carry off, and captured a flag of the enemy. They then returned by a short cut to the main column. I also ordered Major Garrard, with four companies of cavalry and one section of artillery, to make a feint in the direction of a bridge over the Neuse, on our right, called Thompson’s Bridge. He found the enemy in force, supposed to be one regiment of infantry and four pieces of artillery, and the bridge already burned. I then directed, in order to make the feint more complete and to further distract the enemy, one regiment (Forty-third Massachusetts) and Angel’s battery Third New York Artillery to the support of the cavalry and engage the enemy, which they did, silencing, after an hour’s brisk engagement, the enemy’s fire.
Colonel Lee’s brigade was in advance of the main column and came upon the enemy in small force on the edge of the wood lining the railroad track. Riggs’ battery Third New York Artillery was placed in position and opened on them, when the enemy retired. The Ninth New Jersey’ and Seventeenth Massachusetts were ordered to strike the rail road track and follow it up direct to the bridge, which they were to burn. Three regiments of Colonel Lee’s brigade were ordered to their support (the Twenty-fifth, Twenty-seventh, and Third Massachusetts); the remaining regiment was thrown on the left to protect our flank in that quarter. General Wessells’ brigade was advanced and formed on the hill overlooking the track, &c.; three regiments were thrown to the left, and the remaining regiments in lines, to be available at any point. My artillery was brought forward and placed in position, firing to the front and left, principally at the bridge. The enemy replied with artillery from the other side of the river. Colonel Heckman advanced steadily up the track, fighting the enemy’s infantry posted at the bridge and receiving a fire from the artillery in a monitor-car on the track of the bridge. After two hours he reached the bridge, and under a heavy fire Lieutenant Graham, Twenty-third New York Battery, acting as aide-de-camp to Colonel Heckman, fired the bridge. All who had previously attempted it were picked off, as was wounded Lieut. B. N. Mann, Seventeenth Massachusetts, who accompanied him.
I brought all my artillery to bear to prevent any effort to save the bridge, and, when the fire was doing its work, ordered a countermarch for New Berne, leaving Colonel Lee to form the rear guard. Colonel Lee was forming his brigade to leave the field, deeming the fight over, when three regimental colors were seen across the railroad track, the men protected by the embankment on which the track was laid. Colonel Lee placed Morrison’s battery in position and recalled his regiments in line. The enemy advanced with cheers across the railroad, steadily in line, upon Colonel Lee’s brigade. Morrison’s battery opened on the advancing line with spherical case and with good effect, but they advanced steadily until within 300 yards of the battery, when, unable to stand the fearful loss they were sustaining from the battery, they broke and retreated. Their retreat was unexpectedly covered by a masked battery in the woods on our left. Belger’s Rhode Island battery, which had been brought back, opened in reply to the battery and on two regiments which came in view, supporting their guns. Riggs’ battery Third New York Artillery was placed on an eminence on our left and in line with the enemy, thus bringing a cross-fire to bear. They were thereby forced to retire, as was also a regiment in the woods on our right.
Colonel Lee, having orders not to attempt any further move, again formed his brigade and batteries and proceeded to join the column, which I had halted on hearing the firing from Colonel Lee.
This was a bold attempt of the enemy to entrap and secure Colonel Lee’s brigade and Morrison’s battery. Owing to the efficiency of Colonel Lee and Morrison’s battery it was a disastrous failure. With a strong cavalry rear guard I then started on my return by the direct road, took and transported my sick and wounded men from White Hall and Kinston, carrying them all safely to this point.
On the 13th a fleet of small boats left. New Berne, under Commander Murray, U.S. Navy, to attack the works on the river at Kinston, but owing to the lowness of the water in the river only one small boat, the Allison, under Colonel Manchester, Marine Artillery, was brought into action. The works being too strong she, after a gallant resistance, was obliged to retire, having, however, effected a good purpose by mystifying General Evans as to where the attack was to come from, and induced him to retain, several regiments on the Kinston side of the Neuse, thus diminishing the force opposed to us.
In conclusion I take great pleasure in reporting on the conduct of the officers and men under my command. It was most excellent, and maintained fully their high reputation.
General Wessells’ brigade, of General Peck’s division, behaved like veterans, and reflected, by their drill, discipline, and steadiness under fire, the qualities of their commanding officer.
Colonel Heckman, of the Ninth New Jersey, was, with his admirable regiment, always in advance, and displayed the greatest courage and efficiency.
The Tenth Regiment Connecticut Volunteers, under Lieutenant-Colonel Leggett (as they always have done), behaved in the most gallant and dashing manner, making a charge under a fire which in twenty minutes killed and wounded 90 men out of 340.
Colonel Potter, of the First North Carolina Volunteers, acted on my staff, and was of the greatest aid and assistance to me by his coolness and observation.
I must particularly mention the conduct of Lieut. George W. Graham, Twenty-third New York Battery, acting as aide to Colonel Heckman. Throughout the entire march he was conspicuous for his venturesome courage, and at Goldsborough, in company with Lieut. B. N. Mann, Seventeenth Massachusetts Volunteers, advanced and fired the bridge under the fire of the enemy’s infantry and artillery. He only escaped capture by jumping from the bridge down the bank. Lieutenant Mann was wounded.
The artillery force, under Colonel Ledlie, was well placed and well served, and the commanding officer and the batteries, without exception, did most excellent service.
The Third New York Cavalry, though not acting as a regiment, were, in all eases prompt, brave, and efficient, as shown in the body of my report.
Much credit is due to Mr. H. W. Wilson, engineer, who, in charge of the pioneers and a force of contrabands, did most excellent service in building bridges, repairing roads, &c.
I inclose to General E. A. Hitchcock the lists of paroled prisoners, numbering 496.
I herewith inclose lists of the killed, wounded, and missing, showing an aggregate of 90 killed, 478 wounded, and 9 missing.
Among the killed I must mourn Colonel Gray, of the Ninety-sixth New York Regiment. He was killed at the head of his regiment at the Kinston Bridge. Though but a few days in this department he had already won the high esteem of all here.
In the charge of the Tenth Connecticut they lost Capt. H. A. Wells and Lieuts. W. W. Perkins, T. D. Hill, and J. C. Coting, all good and excellent officers who died doing a gallant duty.
For many details of distinguished services of individual officers I beg to refer to the brigade and regimental reports herewith inclosed.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. G. FOSTER, Major-General, Commanding Department.
Maj. Gen. H. W. HALLECK,
General. in-Chief, U. S. Army, Washington, D. C.
The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett
Heroic Deeds of Heroic Men–The Expedition to Goldsboro by John S.C. Abbot. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, December 1864.
History of the Forty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia By Albert W. Mann.
Kinston, Whitehall, and Goldsboro Expedition December 1862. Published by W.W. Howe, New York, 1890.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I , Volume XVIII.