The Skirmish at Wise’s Crossroads, or Dover Crossroads, North Carolina, April 28, 1863
Although the larger battles in the Civil War are well known, there were also countless lesser actions as well, including many in locations away from where the majority of the large battles were fought. The Union Army and Navy captured and held much of coastal and eastern North Carolina in 1861 and 1862. Throughout the next two years, various actions occurred as the Confederates tried to regain lost territory and the Federals tried to hold on to it and disrupt Rebel communications and railroads. In 1865, North Carolina saw heavier fighting as the Union Army and Navy captured Fort Fisher, shutting down the last Confederate port, and General William T. Sherman marched north through the state.
After the New Bern was captured by Union forces in March of 1862, it was used as a base for many operations in the New Bern-Kinston-Goldsboro area of eastern North Carolina . One of these was an action in late April 1863. Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer’s division of Union troops boarded train cars in New Berne on April 27th, and were transported west on the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad a few miles until, as Private Silas W. Lang of the 45th Massachusetts Infantry recalled “we were finally dumped at a place called Core Creek where we were informed we would bivouac for the night”. About midnight, heavy rains drenched the area “and many of us on that bivouac were flooded out” Lang recalled. The rain continued until noon on the 28th.
Palmer had received orders to investigate if Confederate troops were at a place called Sandy Ridge. “At the conclusion of the storm the whole country seemed flooded–the roads in a horrible condition; still I determined to make a movement on Sandy Ridge so that the enemy might at least be kept on the alert, even if we effected no captures or fought no fight. I felt confident, however, that we should find some of the enemy’s troops at the crossing of the Dover road with the railroad, and perhaps some few in the intrenchments at the easterly portion of Sandy Ridge” Palmer wrote in his after action report.
Palmer ordered two infantry regiments ( the 17th and 45th Massachusetts) under Colonel Thomas J.C. Amory to march along the railroad track while a second column under Colonel J. Richter Jones (58th Pennsylvania, 27th Massachusetts, a company of the 44th Massachusetts, and two companies of the 3rd New York Cavalry) would march along the Dover Road and meet at the intersection of the Dover Road and the railroad. Amory, who was ill, was replaced in command of the first column by Colonel Charles Codman of the 45th Massachusetts.
The General’s hunch turned out to be correct; the enemy was indeed at the crossroads:
Colonel Jones moved cautiously, and finding the intrenchments on Sandy Ridge abandoned he pushed on with his column beyond the ridge, seeing nothing of the enemy until the head of the column arrived within 100 yards of the crossing, when he was suddenly saluted with a volley of musketry from the opposite side of the railroad. Supposing that there was a chance the party might be a portion of Colonel Amory’s column he took measures to discover the truth, and found the enemy posted in rifle-pits, several hundred feet in length, and entirely concealed in the thick brush. Some 75 yards in rear was found another line of heavy earthworks of some 500 or 600 feet front, with all embrasure looking down the Dover road, but without a gun. Both these lines were parallel to the railroad and strongly protected on the flanks by marsh and thick underbrush, which was taken advantage of by the enemy’s sharpshooters.
Colonel Jones immediately opened fire upon the enemy’s works, gradually advancing, and was making preparations to turn both flanks of the position at the same moment, when a brisk fire was opened from down the railroad from the column of Colonel Amory’s brigade under Colonel Codman. After delivering one volley two companies dashed down the track with fixed bayonets and took possession of the work. This decided the affair, the enemy retiring in disorder up the railroad toward Kinston, leaving 4 killed and 2 wounded (1 mortally) on the ground.
The force of the enemy is variously estimated; probably about 300 men. He had no artillery. It was impossible to get in the rear and capture this force, for they had taken care to keep the line of retreat perfectly clear. After destroying the enemy’s camp, both columns returned to their respective camps.
There was another reason for this expedition besides a reconnaissance in force and engagement. Union operations against Suffolk in southeastern Virginia were underway at the same time. “We understood afterwards that the object was to compel the enemy to keep his forces at Kinston and thus prevent him from sending any troops to assist those who were threatening General Dix at Suffolk” Private Lang recalled. Palmer continued to demonstrate toward Kinston to hold the Confederates in place there, apparently successfully doing so. “From the information procured by Colonel Jones I have no doubt the enemy drew in all their forces on all the roads leading to Kinston after the advance and skirmish by the two columns on the 28th instant” Palmer wrote. The General received orders on May 1st to return to New Bern and withdrew his division.
The action on April 28th was referred to the fight of Wise’s Crossroads, or Dover Crossroads, or Gum Swamp, or the 1st Battles of these locations, as additional fighting occurred in the area in May.
Colonel Codman filed this report on his two regiment’s actions:
HDQRS. FORTY-FIFTH MASSACHUSETTS VOL. MILITIA,
Camp Massachusetts, near New Berne, N.C., May 1, 1863.
LIEUTENANT: In compliance with orders from brigade headquarters I have the honor to submit a report of the part taken by the troops under my command on the expedition up the railroad on April 28:
On the evening of April 27, the brigade being then at Core Creek, on the railroad, I received orders from Colonel Amory, commanding the brigade, to send two companies of this regiment, under a field officer, to proceed up the railroad the next morning early and endeavor to ascertain the strength of the enemy, with orders, however, not to drive in the enemy’s pickets or to engage in any action.
Early on the morning of the 28th the companies of Captains Minot and Tappan were placed under the orders of Major Sturgis, and that officer was directed to carry out the above instructions. The companies left camp before 7 o’clock and proceeded upon their destination. At the same time, in compliance with orders from Colonel Amory, Captain Bumstead’s company was directed to proceed to the cross-roads leading to the Dover road, with instructions to explore that road and to communicate with Brigadier-General Palmer, whose column was on the Dover road.At about 12 o’clock I received orders from Colonel Amory to proceed with the rest of the regiment and the Seventeenth Massachusetts Volunteers (Lieutenant-Colonel Fellows commanding) up the railroad to overtake Major Sturgis, and to push on to the cross-roads nearest to the junction of the Dover road with the railroad, with discretionary orders to proceed to the junction. I was instructed to intercept any parties of the enemy that might be driven down this cross-road by General Palmer’s column.
The troops immediately started upon the expedition, and upon reaching the cross-roads I found Major Sturgis who reported the enemy in some force in the neighborhood of the junction. That officer had carried out his instructions with the most scrupulous fidelity, having carefully concealed his force from the enemy, so as to give them no warning of our approach, and thus preventing them from receiving re-enforcements, the presence of which at a later period of the day might have been embarrassing. As his men were much exhausted I directed him to leave one company at the point at which I overtook him and to order the others to follow the column slowly. The column then proceeded, driving in the enemy’s vedettes and pickets. This duty was performed by Company B, Forty-fifth Regiment, Captain Churchill, the pickets being uniformly posted behind log barricades and uniformly driven out by flanking parties from Company B.
Upon arriving at the cross-roads and learning that General Palmer’s column, under Colonel Jones, Fifty-eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers, was pushing up the Dover road, I determined to proceed to the junction. Company F, Captain Daland, was ordered to relieve Company B, in the advance, and the column then pushed forward, one company of the Seventeenth Massachusetts Volunteers being left at the cross-roads. As we approached the junction Lieutenant-Colonel Peabody, in charge of the advance, sent me word that there was an earthwork across the railroad. I immediately ordered a halt and determined to make no attack until Colonel Jones arrived, not knowing what might be the wish of the brigadier-general commanding. The breastwork had no ditch in front, and I inferred that the enemy had no artillery, as they might have used it with effect before this time if they had had any in position. In a few moments the enemy fired a volley from the breastwork upon the advance of Colonel Jones, which was immediately returned, and I then made dispositions for an attack. The breastwork was thrown up across the track and extended some distance to our left. It also ran along the track, crossing the Dover road. I immediately ordered Captain Daland to open fire with his company, stationed on the railroad and deployed as skirmishers on the right and left, which was done very vigorously. I then deployed the companies of Captains Wales and Homans of the Forty-fifth, and subsequently two companies of the Seventeenth, as skirmishers on the left of the railroad, with orders to advance, firing. The firing of these companies was rapid and energetic, and that of the enemy, which was sharp for a time, soon slackened.
A favorable opportunity was then presented for a charge, and as night was approaching it was necessary to decide the affair at once. Company A, Captain Denny, of the Forty-fifth, having the
colors of the regiment, had been held in reserve, and was now ordered to fix bayonets and prepare to advance. It came up gallantly along the railroad in column of platoons, supported by a company of the Seventeenth, and as it approached the work the first platoon fired a volley, and then, stooping down, the second fired over the heads of the first. The company then rushed forward with the bayonet, the whole line of skirmishers charging at the same time, and the colors of the regiment were planted upon the work, the enemy giving way. I then communicated with Colonel Jones, and in accordance with orders the whole command marched back to camp.
In this affair the troops under my command sustained a loss of 1 man killed, Private H. M. Putney, of Company F, Forty-fifth Massachusetts (shot through the head), and 2 wounded seriously, Corpl. G. C. Richards, Company E (in the thigh), and Private J. F. Ames, Company K, Forty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (in the cheek). One man, Corpl. [William D.] Leatherby, Company K, of the Forty-fifth, received a slight wound in the thigh, and Captain Murdoch, also of the Forty-fifth, acting on the staff of Colonel Amory, received a contusion from a glancing ball. Four of the enemy’s dead were found behind the breastwork. The number of his wounded cannot of course be ascertained.
The conduct of the troops throughout this affair was perfectly good. Where all behaved well it would be invidious to particularize. I will only say that I am much indebted to Lieutenant-Colonel Fellows, commanding the Seventeenth Massachusetts Volunteers, for judicious advice and hearty support.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
CHARLES R. CODMAN,
Colonel Forty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia.
A. A. A. G., First Brig., First Div., Eighteenth Army Corps.
Colonel Jones, commanding the other column, filed this report:
HDQRS. FIFTY-EIGHTH REGT. PENNSYLVANIA VOLS.,
Camp at Batchelder’s Creek, N.C., May 1, 1863.
SIR: In reference to the forward movement ordered on Tuesday, April 28, with a view to strike any force of the enemy on Sandy Ridge and vicinity on the Dover road, I have the honor to report that I marched at the time designated by you, with the Fifty-eighth Pennsylvania Volunteers, the Twenty-seventh Massachusetts Volunteers, one company of the Forty-fourth Massachusetts, and two companies of the Third New York Cavalry. Expecting to find, as on all previous occasions, an enemy on Sandy Ridge, I moved cautiously, a line of skirmishers in the advance, composed of one company of the Fifty-eighth and one company of the Twenty-seventh, supported by two other companies of the same regiment, the cavalry 300 yards in rear of the first line, the main column 400 yards farther to the rear.
Finding no enemy on the Ridge, which ends about 5½ miles from Core Creek, I advanced beyond, on the road through the Pocoson. That road runs principally through swamps, with an occasional oasis of dry ground, and, being chiefly covered with water or very wet mud, is heavy and difficult. It was thus late before we emerged on the drier country toward the railroad crossing. When approaching that point, on the supposition that the column which you had ordered to move on the railroad some two hours earlier than I started must be already in position at the crossing, I allowed my main column to halt and rest, and proceeded with my advanced line and the cavalry. When less than 100 yards from the crossing a sharp fire, converging on the Dover road, was opened from beyond the railroad. My advanced line immediately took cover and began to return the fire; but, supposing our friends necessarily at the crossing and that it must be them firing under misapprehension, I ordered all whom my voice could reach to cease firing, and also ordered the guidon of the cavalry to be brought forward and waved, so as to manifest our true character beyond mistake. The volley with which the guidon was saluted manifested clearly the true character of the fire on us, and I immediately deployed my two reserve companies on the flanks of the two already in line; sent hastily for my main column, and directed Captain Pond, who volunteered to act as aide, to ascertain the whereabouts of our railroad column; at the same time I endeavored personally to detect the position of the enemy and the character of his defense. Scarcely a man was visible, but his fire in front came from beyond the railroad, while his wings were advanced under cover of woods and brush, the ground in his front being entirely open or affording very imperfect shelter. As soon as my main body approached I detached three companies to deploy as skirmishers and move by a flank on the right of the enemy’s line of fire so as to enfilade it, and then to sweep at right angles to the rear and along his line.
Just as this movement commenced, and while I was detaching three other companies to move around his left, a brisk fire was opened from a direction which I felt sure must come from our railroad friends, which Captain Pond, who just then returned, placed beyond doubt. They were advancing at right angles with the enemy’s line, who, being at the same time pressed in front by the companies of the Fifty-eighth and Twenty-seventh, soon gave way and retired in disorder. The true character of the enemy’s position and defenses now appeared. We found several hundred feet of rifle-pit breastworks on the rear of and parallel with the railroad, but entirely concealed by low bushes and brush, without flank faces, however, though flanked by bushes and woods. This way a kind of outwork, about 75 yards to the rear, is the principal defense, a heavy earthwork of 500 or 600 feet front and embrasure looking down the Dover road, flank faces, and altogether a strong fortification, especially as a swamp on the right, at short musketry range with open ground between, renders a flank movement difficult. Considering the character of the enemy’s works it is difficult to imagine why they abandoned them on so feeble a defense, especially as they seemed fully manned with additional men advanced on the flanks of the outer line. It is equally astonishing that our loss in carrying those works could be so small, being 1 killed and 1 wounded of the companies of the Fifty-eighth and none injured of the Twenty-seventh; 1 killed and 3 wounded of the line which advanced on the flank. The four companies in front, however, fought deployed as skirmishers, and took advantage of whatever cover the ground afforded. As to the enemy’s loss, 4 were reported to me as dead on the ground, 1 as mortally wounded–since died, I understand–and 1 wounded was brought a prisoner with us, the other wounded having been carried off by themselves.
In this affair the men behaved remarkably well. Those of the Fifty-eighth and Twenty-seventh I can speak of on personal knowledge; the others on information 1 received on the ground.
The number of the enemy I have no means of estimating, except from their fire, which was that of four or five companies. The people of the neighborhood said there was a regiment there, but I doubt it. They also stated that there was a brigade, with a battery, at Wise’s Forks, 2 miles in the rear, which may be true.
Having destroyed the enemy’s camp and effected the object of the expedition, I returned leisurely by the Dover road to our bivouac behind Core Creek.
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
J. RICHTER JONES,
Colonel Fifty-eighth Regiment.
Bearing Arms in the Twenty-Seventh Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteer Infantry During the Civil War 1861-1865 by W.P. Derby
The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett
History of the Forty-Fifth Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Militia by Albert W. Mann
Memorial History of the Seventeenth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War From 1861-1865 by Thomas Kirwan and Henry Splaine
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XVIII