Recently while researching for my book on the 26th North Carolina, I came across two interesting finds. While they are not earth shattering or change the overall narrative of what happened at the Battle of Newport Barracks, they are still important and help to further our understanding of the battle. Even though my book on the battle was publishing in June, the research on Newport Barracks never really ended and I will always at some level continue to search for more information (still holding out hope for a few letters from Confederate troops in the 17th and 42nd North Carolina!).
The first find I found at the Chatham County Library in Pittsboro, North Carolina. While going through the family history binders in the Local History and Genealogy section, I found a group of letters by William W. Edwards who belonged to Company E of the 26th North Carolina. As I continued to thumb through the family histories I came across a mention of Thomas West Harris who was the captain of Company E of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry. Co. E of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry made the initial attack on elements of the 23rd New York Cavalry at the Gales Creek Blockhouse on the morning of February 2, 1864. While no letters or other primary source material was found in his family file, I did come across a great sketch of the life of Harris written by his wife.
Thomas West Harris was born on December 15, 1839 two miles from Pittsboro, North Carolina in Chatham County and was raised there as well. His father, Thomas Brooks Harris was a farmer and stock raiser, he also was described as owning "many slaves." His mother, Nancy Clegg Harris, was a descendant of President James K. Polk on her maternal side. Thomas West Harris "entered the university of his state in 1855 and graduated in 1859." One can assume this was most likely the University of North Carolina.
Harris enlisted on April 15, 1861 (a few days after the attack on Fort Sumter and over a month before North Carolina leaves the union) as a sergeant. On June 4, 1861 he was mustered into service with Company M of the 15th North Carolina. It appears that on July 4, 1862 that Harris transfered to Company I of the 32nd North Carolina. Shortly thereafter Harris was commissioned a captain on August 3, 1862 and assumed command of Company E of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry. Captain Harris would remain with the 5th cavalry for the remainder of the war.
The service of Captain Harris in the fighting in and around Newport on February 2, 1864 is described in the sketch of his life as follows:
During the winter of 1863 and 1864 Gen. Pickett attacked Newbern, and a force of cavalry, infantry, and artillery under Brig. Gen. Martin was sent to Newport. Capt. Harris was the senior cavalry officer and was engaged in fighting the Federal cavalry near Newport, leading the first charge upon the Federal outpost. His horse was thrown into a deep mud-hole in the road breaking its neck, and Capt. Harris was completely immersed in the black mud. He lost his hat, and with a handkerchief tied over his head, covered with the black mud, he mounted the horse of one of his men, and in this plight continued to fight for two or three hours until the enemy had been completely routed. During this engagement he showed the same daring, dashing spirit and cool deliberate bravery that always characterized him when duty called.
This account was given to the wife of Captain Harris by Edmund W. Atwater who served as a sergeant in Company E of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry.
After the battle, Harris and the rest of his command joined the rest of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry which was part of the Army of Northern Virginia. Harris would be wounded three times with the final wound coming on April 1, 1865. He would be hospitalized in Danville, VA on April 2, 1865 and soon transfered to Raleigh, NC on April 5, 1865. From the sketch of his life it appears he was recovering from his wounds at his home with Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, VA on April 9, 1865.
Harris was one of eight children when the war began and when the war finally ended in 1865 only four remained. Two of his brothers died serving in Confederate forces and two of his sisters died of disease.
After the war, Thomas Harris "decided to take up the study of medicine." He was married in November of 1865 and soon after joined by his bride left for Paris, France to continue his medical studies. After he completed his studies, Dr. Harris returned to North Carolina and practiced medicine in the eastern portion of the state and later near his hometown of Pittsboro, NC. In 1878 he was made the Professor of Anatomy and Materia Medica at the University of North Carolina and would remain there until 1886. On November 19, 1888, Dr. Thomas Harris passed away from a stroke, leaving behind a family of five.
His death was reported throughout North Carolina. In the Christian Advocate it was written that "he was a master of the healing art, and his gentleness and thoughtful care in the sick room won him a place in the hearts of all who came in contact with him." The editor of The Raleigh Sentinel stated that Harris "was one of the best physicians North Carolina ever had." The Chronicle described him as follows: "Dr. Harris had one of the brightest minds of any physician in the state. Educated in Paris, and well educated, he taught classes in medicine at the state university. He was an excellent physician and ranked with the best."
The second interesting find that related to the battle I discovered at Duke University. I was going through a collection of letters written by Artemus Caddell from Moore County, North Carolina who served as a private in Company H of the 26th North Carolina. Caddell was a teacher before the war in Moore County. Included in the collection were letters to Caddell from his family and friends while he was serving in the 26th. One of those letters was written by Caddell's long time friend Noah F. Muse. Noah F. Muse later served as a lieutenant in Company E of the 5th North Carolina Cavalry under Captain Thomas Harris. Muse was killed during the charge led by Captain Harris against the 23rd New York Cavalry on the morning of February 2, 1864 near the Gales Creek Blockhouse. Less than a year before Ashley Muse, the younger brother of Noah Muse, was killed in action with the 26th North Carolina on the afternoon of July 1, 1863 during the regiment's successful fight against the 24th Michigan. In the same action Private Artemus Caddell was wounded.