New Bern is perhaps best known as the former colonial seat of government with its palatial home of royal governor William Tryon. The city, however, has a rich history that continued long after the British were defeated and the state capital was relocated to Raleigh. Indeed, the central coastal location – part of Governor Tryon's reason for choosing New Bern as his capital – provided for growth opportunities throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Neuse and Trent rivers, wide and slow-moving, allowed maritime commerce to flourish. The addition of the railroad in the nineteenth century solidified New Bern's commercial character. Lumber and turpentine production were major New Bern commodities.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, New Bern was a bustling urban town. It had its share of businesses and had attracted a population of varied backgrounds. At the outset of hostilities in 1861, New Bern sentiment mirrored that of North Carolina as a whole; it was divided. The split between those with Union and Confederate sympathies fractured families as well as the town. The Stanly family, whose predecessors had, in the eighteenth century, played host to George Washington during his southern tour, was a classic example of this division. Edward, Fabius, and Cicero Stanly were active in Union efforts, while their brothers, Alfred and Frank, sympathized with the Confederacy. Edward Stanly's nephew, Lewis Addison Armistead, became a noted Confederate general who lost his life leading Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Loyalties were strained throughout New Bern and the state – understandably delaying secession. Yet once the state became part of the Confederacy, New Bern and its environs worked diligently on its behalf, organizing twelve companies of soldiers by March of 1862.
The ideal coastal location of New Bern caught the attention of the Union government. In the spring of 1862, Gen. Ambrose Burnside's forces mounted an attack on New Bern, in an effort to gain control of the North Carolina coast. Although the Battle of New Bern did not occur until March, the populace of New Bern was anticipating such an action months earlier. Mass evacuations started in January.
Gen. Lawrence O'B. Branch oversaw the defense of the city with approximately 4,000 Confederate troops who had never seen combat under his command. Although there were defensive earthworks about ten miles below New Bern, General Branch felt that his small force would be better served defending New Bern from a different location. His main concern was the possibility that the Union forces would land further upriver. Branch relied instead upon a series of defenses running from Fort Thompson (about six miles below New Bern) for about a mile in a westerly direction. While these defenses looked impressive, they were in reality vulnerable, especially if the Union troops came overland instead of by water. In addition, a further detachment of two heavy guns that were expected to protect the defenses at one end never were put into place.
The battle took place on March 14, 1862. The Confederate artillery at Fort Thompson was effective, yet Union troops under Brig. Gen. Jesse L. Reno soon discovered the lack of defenses where the two additional guns were supposed to have been located. Although the Confederate troops attempted to fill the gap, they were forced to retreat. Some of the retreating forces were able to catch the train leaving with evacuees from New Bern, and the Confederates burned the bridge after the last troops crossed over. Additional troops retreated to Tuscarora, where they were able to get a train to Kinston. According to official reports, the Confederates lost 578 men (killed, wounded, or missing) while the Union forces lost 471 men.
The hours that followed the battle were chaotic. Fleeing Confederate troops burned part of the town, and many homes and businesses were looted and stripped before the Union forces established order. By the summer of 1862, President Lincoln determined to establish a loyal government in eastern North Carolina. He called upon Edward Stanly to become the military governor of the state. Stanly, while sympathetic to the Union, had close family members who were staunch Confederates. According to reports, one of these relatives told Stanly to resign and leave if he did not want the Stanly name "to become a by-word and reproach, and to be spoken with scorn and hatred by North Carolinians."1
Upon the announcement of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Stanly chose to resign his post. While he agreed with the re-entering of the Union, he contended that the proclamation "altered the conceptual purpose of waging the war, thereby undermining [Lincoln's] earlier promises that the administration intended only to restore the Union and reaffirm the constitutional rights of the people."2
Stanly's torn feelings about the purpose of the war and the occupation of his hometown were reflected by the general populace of New Bern. The coastal location of New Bern that had allowed its capture also contributed to its survival through the war, since General Burnside set up his headquarters in town. The soldiers stationed in the area generally treated the immediate environs with some propriety. Nevertheless, incidents of vandalism enraged the public. Stanly, while still in office, complained about the actions of the Union soldiers, stating that they were insulting to the people of New Bern. He accused them of performing unauthorized searches, burning structures, and looting.
Despite the evacuation of the populace that supported the Confederacy upon the completion of the Battle of New Bern, the population actually increased throughout the duration of the Civil War. This can be attributed to the presence of Union soldiers, who attracted the attention of enslaved people from nearby plantations and farms. By April of 1864 the number of African Americans in New Bern had grown from 2,981 to 8,661. By the end of the hostilities, this number had expanded to approximately 15,000.
Without distinct orders, General Burnside took it upon himself to appoint Vincent Colyer as the Superintendant of the Poor. This position was designed to cope with the numbers of black and white refugees coming into New Bern. Colyer worked to register each person by name, dispense food, and organize lodgings. The position passed to Rev. James Means, and then, in 1863, was renamed Superintendant of Negro Affairs when Gen. John G. Foster appointed Union army chaplain Horace James to fill that role. James created three refugee camps on land confiscated by the Union army – ironically, some of which had served as the winter quarters of Confederate forces in late 1861 and early 1862. James laid out streets and lots, ordered construction of approximately 800 houses, and assisted in the establishment of businesses. Other facilities erected included the Freedman's Bureau headquarters, a school, a blacksmith shop, a hospital, and multiple churches. The largest and most enduring of these refugee camps, the Trent River Settlement, was renamed James City at the end of the war, in honor of Horace James.
The newly-freed African Americans found some employment with the Union army. In most cases, this was menial labor, and occasionally it was forced. However, by 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, had authorized the organization of a brigade of African American troops. The "African Brigade" was to be made up of four regiments stationed in New Bern – three from North Carolina and the 51st Massachusetts.
The Confederacy tried on a number of occasions to retake New Bern. Each attempt failed due to poor planning or execution. While the bulk of Confederate troops left Kinston in order to focus on other military targets, a contingent remained behind continuing work on the CSS Neuse, the ironclad gunboat being built in the hopes of recapturing New Bern. The Union continued to utilize New Bern throughout the rest of the war. It served as the central base for the Union in eastern North Carolina and was a waypoint for supplies destined for General Sherman in the interior of the state in 1865.
The legacy of the Civil War is remembered through the interpretation of various historic homes at Tryon Palace. The George Dixon House, now located next to the reconstructed Palace, housed members of various Vermont regiments during the occupation of New Bern. Two fireplace mantles on the first floor of the Dixon house disappeared during this time, either used as firewood or carried home to Vermont as souvenirs. The house also served as a regimental hospital, an important site during the occupation as a typhoid epidemic hit the city in the summer of 1862.
The John Wright Stanly House is the birthplace of military governor Edward Stanly and his brothers. The same house that provided lodging to George Washington in 1791 became the Union headquarters of General Burnside. The Jones House, currently used for office space at the site, served as lodging for Union troops and, according to local legend, housed the Confederate spy Emeline Piggot. The New Bern Academy, located four blocks from the Palace, served as a Union hospital and now houses a Civil War museum.
While James City has changed drastically over the years and is now filled with modern homes and businesses for a diverse population, its legacy, and the legacy of African Americans in New Bern, has continued. Archaeological excavations have uncovered many household and personal items from the original James City residents, some of which are on display in the new North Carolina History Center. The impact of the occupation of New Bern on the local African American population has been immortalized by Mark Twain. His character Aunt Rachel in A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It (November 1874) recalls her arrival in New Bern as a slave, being freed by the Union troops, and working as a cook for Union officers. She also recalls the organization of the African Brigade, which she called the 'African Regiment,' as well as the various entertainments available to the occupation troops.
1. Wheeler, John H. Reminiscences and Memoirs of North Carolina and Eminent North Carolinians. Columbus, Ohio:Columbus Printing Works, 1884. p. 18.
2. Watson, Alan D., A History of New Bern and Craven County. New Bern, N. C.: Tryon Palace Commission 1987. p. 386.