This is a copy of the article I wrote for the Newport Voice in the February 2009 issue.It gives a brief overview of the operations that took place to help give more background to the project.
The Battle of Newport Barracks: February 2, 1864
On December 20, 1863 General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, would write to Confederate President Jefferson Davis recommending the recapture of New Bern, North Carolina. Such an operation would help to relieve pressure on the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad (a major supply line for Lee and his army in Virginia) and to push Union troops from key strategic points in Eastern North Carolina (areas occupied since early to mid-1862). He hoped this would force the relocation of Union forces from the main theater of war in Virginia back to North Carolina and would help to lessen the expected Union forces Lee would have to face that spring. General Lee stated that he could provide troops for such an operation until the spring of 1864. President Davis would approve the plan and as a result Lee would send troops from the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Major General George Pickett to Eastern North Carolina.
The major military thrust would come from Pickett and the battle-hardened veterans under his command against New Bern, but one major point of concern remained: the strong Union force near the railroad trestle over the Newport River located at Sheppardsville (now Newport).
General Lee directed that a diversionary attack be carried out by Confederate troops located in Wilmington, North Carolina. Major General William H.C. Whiting, commander of Confederate forces in the Wilmington area, ordered Brigadier General James G. Martin to lead the attack. General Martin would have under his command two infantry regiments from his brigade (the 17th and 42nd North Carolina) along with attached companies of cavalry and three batteries of artillery. General Martin and his combined force of over 2,000 troops would march from Wilmington on January 28, 1864. By the evening of February 1 Martin and his troops would be within ten miles from Newport. General Martin planned to launch his attacks on the Union forces the next morning. The hard hand of war was about to visit Newport.
On February 2, 1864 the main body of the Union forces defending the railroad trestle was located at the Newport Barracks just across the river from Newport. The barracks were a series of soldier’s quarters, store houses, and earthworks located between the railroad trestle and the Old County Road (roughly modern Old Hwy 70 and Chatham Street).The 9th Vermont Infantry garrisoned the barracks along with two blockhouses located near Gales Creek and Bogue Sound. Supporting the 9th was Company D of the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery which provided troops to man the artillery at Newport Barracks. Along with the 23rd New York Cavalry, the total number of Union troops facing Martin’s attack was around 800. Many of the soldiers at Newport Barracks would be considered green in terms of experience, but by the end of February 2nd could justly call themselves veterans.
About 8am on February 2nd a detachment of the 23rd New York Cavalry on picket duty near the Gales Creek Blockhouse was driven back by advance elements of Martin’s force. By 9am Martin ordered the advance elements of his force to deploy in line of battle to assault the blockhouse. Company H of the 9th Vermont was on duty at the blockhouse when the attack occurred and they fired one volley at the advancing Confederates before falling back to the Bogue Sound Blockhouse. Their line of retreat and that of the advancing Confederates was roughly the route of modern Highway 24. By 10am Lieutenant Colonel Valentine Barney, commanding officer at Newport Barracks, learned of the attack on the Gales Creek Blockhouse and met with the commander of the Beaufort Sub-District Colonel James Jourdan, who orders Barney and his troops to fight as long as possible.
Soon after, Martin and his troops attack the Bogue Sound Block House (near Gethsemane Cemetery on Highway 24) around 11am and soon a sharp fight followed. It would take close to two hours for the Confederates to dislodge the Union defenders, who retreated back to Morehead City. After successful attacks on both blockhouses the Confederates turned down the Old Country Road with their next target being the Newport Barracks. Barney and the troops at the barracks heard the sounds of fighting at the Bogue Sound Blockhouse and as a result Barney ordered the remaining troops of the 9th Vermont to form in line of march.
Barney advanced his force down the Old Country Road to meet the oncoming Confederates. The plan Barney devised was to form a skirmish line with his troops to slow down the advancing Confederates while orderly withdrawing back to the barracks. Once at the barracks the 9th was to make a stand behind the earthworks and rifle pits with the support of the artillery. Barney felt that between the strong fortifications and the artillery, his force had a good chance to hold off Martin and his attackers. Around 2:45 that afternoon the main body of the 9th Vermont opened with a volley on the 17th and 42nd North Carolina infantry regiments and fighting raged for 30 minutes before the 9th Vermont fell back.
Martin deployed the 17th North Carolina on the right side of the Old Country Road and the 42nd North Carolina to the left with artillery support between the two regiments. The 9th Vermont fought quite well, only stubbornly giving up each inch of ground as it fought back to the main earthwork defenses at Newport Barracks. The Union plan seemed to be working in good order until the 9th reached the barracks. To the shock of the 9th Vermont, the men of the 2nd Massachusetts Heavy Artillery without orders had spiked the artillery defending Newport Barracks and retreated back into the town. Without the artillery support Barney realized his force could no longer defend the barracks and so he orders his troops to retreat across the Old Country Road and the railroad trestle. The Union troops barely made it across thanks in large part to a courageous rear guard action by elements of the 9th Vermont. Three members of the 9th Vermont (Adjutant Josiah Livingston, Lt. Erastus Jewett, and Lt. Theodore Peck) would be awarded the Medal of Honor in 1891 for their actions in the rear guard action at Newport Barracks.
Once across Barney ordered both the trestle and the bridge over the Newport River burned, placing the river between his command and Martin’s troops. Now safely across the river, the Union defenders of Newport Barracks marched twenty-three miles through the night, down what is today Mill Creek Road and Highway 101, to Beaufort. Martin and his Confederates captured the barracks and the town and would remain in Newport until February 4 before withdrawing back to Wilmington after the unsuccessful attempt by Pickett to recapture New Bern. The next day the 9th Vermont recaptured the town and barracks without a fight.
After the battle Union forces would report 3 men killed, 13 wounded (two would later die of their wounds), and 49 captured. 31 of the 49 captured would later die in Confederate prison camps. Martin and his Confederates would report that 2 officers and 5 enlisted men were killed with 14 wounded.
Today a Civil War Trails marker at the corner of Main Street and East Railroad Boulevard commemorates the battle and those who fought. February 2, 2009 marked the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Newport Barracks and while those who took part have long since passed on, the record of their courage and sacrifice remains. Those who fought at Newport Barracks are certainly among those, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, “who gave the last full measure of devotion.”