HEADQUARTERS TWENTY-FIRST MASS. VOLS.,
Camp Reno, New Berne, N. C., March 16, 1862.
CAPTAIN: About 9 o'clock on the morning of the 13th instant the Twenty-first Massachusetts Volunteers, 743 strong, landed at the mouth of Slocum's Creek, and by order of General Reno advanced about 2 miles through the pine woods along the south bank of the river Neuse toward New Berne. Arriving out upon a large open field, the regiment stacked arms, to await the arrival of the general with the rest of the brigade. Company G, under Lieutenant Taylor, formed the advance guard, and discovered a short distance into the woods beyond the cleared space a large number of wooden barracks, which had been evacuated about two hours before by the rebel cavalry, whose equanimity had been disturbed by shells from the gunboats. An advance of 4 miles brought the regiment to Croatan, where we found a very extensive earthwork running at right angles to the highway.
This being unoccupied by the enemy, the colors of the Twenty-first were placed upon the parapet and heartly cheered by officers and men. Near this work a halt of an hour was made for dinner, during which the pioneers tore up the track of the railroad connecting New Berne with Beaufort. From this point the regiment was ordered to move forward upon the railroad track, and Company D, under Lieutenant Barker, was sent forward as advance guard. About a mile of advance brought the regiment to a place where the highway crosses the railroad, <ar9_224> and a half a mile to the right of the latter, on the river Neuse, a deserted earthwork was discovered by Lieutenant Reno, aide-de-camp to the general. Company H, under Captain Frazer, with the colors, was detached from the regiment, and under charge of General Reno visited the work, and waving the Star-Spangled Banner, bearing the honorable inscription 'Roanoke, February 8, 1862," and the spotless white colors of Massachusetts, with the noble motto, "Ense petit placi, dam sub libertate quietem," gave three hearty cheers and hastily rejoined the advancing regiment. Proceeding along the railroad about a mile farther, the advance guard came upon a building containing several tents, a complete set of artillery harness, and a few boxes of ammunition for 6 and 12 pounder guns. Lieutenant Barker, with Adjutant Stearns, then made a reconnaissance to the right of the railroad, and found an extensive encampment, also recently evacuated by rebel cavalry, where were large quantities of clothing, commissary stores, and hospital stores, over which a guard was placed. One mile farther on the regiment bivouacked for the night, throwing out a picket guard of two companies on the front and left, the right being guarded by the Twenty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers and the rear by the Fifty-first New York Volunteers. The rain, which commenced to fall about 10 o'clock of the 13th instant, continued in showers through the night, and on the morning of the 14th mist and fog enveloped everything. Notwithstanding every precaution on the part of both officers and men very many of the rifles were rendered quite unserviceable by the moisture. In some the powder became too wet to ignite, and in very many of the Enfield rifled muskets the rammers were almost immovable from the swelling of the stocks. It is a great defect in this weapon that the friction of the wood along the whole length of the rammer is relied upon to keep it in place, since it is quite impossible that the rammers be well secured when the musket is dry and sufficiently loose for service when wet. It is a noteworthy evidence of discipline and courage on the part of the men that more than 50 went into the battle having only their bayonets to work with, and it was very hard to hear them? in the thickest of the fight, while standing helpless in their places, beg their officers to give them a serviceable musket, and to see them eagerly seize the weapons of their comrades as fast as they fell beneath the leaden storm from the enemy's earthworks. Private Sheehan, of Company E, left his company to secure the musket of a man whom he saw killed in Company K, and when asked by Major Rice why he did not take the gun of one who had been shot in his own company replied that it was like his own, good for nothing.
About 7 o'clock a.m. General Reno ordered his brigade forward, the Twenty-first Massachusetts in the an. The advance guard, consisting of Company G, was led by Corporal Stratton, who deserves much credit for his coolness and intrepidity in pushing on through swamps and thickets and along the track of the railroad both on the 13th and 14th instant, every moment exposed to be fired upon by a concealed foe. Adjutant Stearns directed the movement of the first two squads of the advance guard in the most admirable manner during the entire march from the place of landing to the field of battle. As it was known that the defenses of the enemy were thrown across the highway to the right of the railroad, the regiment proceeded cautiously through the woods on the left of the railroad and parallel with it. After advancing about half a mile a locomotive was seen coming down the road, and General Reno at once ordered us to file to the left and advance into the forest, which was no longer a level, open pine wood, <ar9_225> but the ground was broken into hills separated by deep ravines, and the timber was of oak, "white wood," and other deciduous trees, and of the largest description. The First Brigade, under General Foster, having advanced on the highway, came first upon the enemy, and the battle was now raging fiercely upon our right along the whole line of the earthworks from the river to the railroad. The smoke from the rapid firing of more than thirty cannon and several thousand muskets was driven down upon us by the wind, and mingling with the dense fog, so completely shut out the light of day (never more anxiously longed for) that it was impossible to derive any information respecting the position of the rebels except where it was indicated by the noise of battle.
Our skirmishers now reported that we were opposite the right flank of a battery resting at this point on a deep cut in the railroad, and upon several buildings and brick walls in Wood's brick-yard, which was across the road from our position a few hundred yards distant. The regiment was at once formed in line of battle facing the railroad, and Company C, Capt. J. M. Richardson, was ordered forward to reconnoiter. As rapidly as the difficult nature of the ground would allow the other companies formed on the right by file into line, and as soon as the remaining companies of the right wing were ready I moved forward with the colors to the support of Company C, who were already engaging the rebel riflemen in the trench upon the opposite side of the deep cut on the railroad.
At the moment of their arrival at the cut the enemy were busily engaged in removing ammunition from the cars, which had just come in from New Berne with re-enforcements. At the first volley from Company C the enemy, in great astonishment, fled from the road and the trench to a ravine in the rear of the brick-yard. General Reno now ordered the color-bearer, Sergeant Bates, to plant his flag upon the roof of a building within the enemy's intrenchments. He immediately rushed forward several rods in advance of his company, and, amid a perfect shower of Minie balls clambered to the roof and waved the Star-Spangled Banner presented to the regiment by the ladies of Worcester.
At this moment the noblest of us all, my brave, efficient, faithful adjutant, First Lieut. F. A. Stearns, Company I, fell mortally wounded, the first among the 25 patriotic volunteers of the Twenty-first who laid down their lives for their country at the battle of New Berne. As he was cheering on his men to charge upon the enemy across the railroad he was struck by a ball from an Enfield rifle fired from a redan on the right and rear of the central breastwork, on which we were advancing. The fatal missile entered his left side, and passing through his lungs went out just below the collar-bone on the right breast. Corporal Welch, of Company C, noticing his fall, returned and remained with him during the battle. He lived about two and a half hours, nearly unconscious from the loss of blood, and died without a struggle a little before noon.
General Reno, with Companies C, A, B, and H, of the right wing, dashed across the railroad, up the steep bank, and over the rifle trench on the top into the brick-yard. Here we were subjected to a most destructive cross-fire from the enemy on both sides of the railroad, and lost a large number of men in a very few minutes. The general, supposing we had completely flanked the enemy's works, returned across «15 R R--VOL IX» <ar9_226> the road to bring up the rest of his brigade, but just at this time a tremendous fire of musketry and artillery was opened from the redans, hitherto unseen, and which were nine in number, extending from the railroad more than a mile to the right into the forest.
The general, being now obliged to devote his attention to the enemy in front of his brigade, ordered the left wing of the Twenty-first, under command of Major Rice, not to cross the railroad, but to continue firing upon the rebel infantry in the first two redans, with whom they were already engaged. These consisted of the Thirty-third North Carolina and the Sixteenth North Carolina Regiments, and were the best-armed and fought the most gallantly of any of the enemy's forces. Their position was almost impregnable so long as their left flank, resting on the railroad, was defended, and they kept up an incessant fire for three hours, until their ammunition was exhausted and the remainder of the rebel forces had retreated from that portion of their works lying between the river and the railroad.
Having been ordered into the brick-yard and left there with my colors and the four companies above named, and finding it impossible to remain there without being cut to pieces, I was compelled either to charge upon Captain Brem's battery of flying artillery or to retreat without having accomplished anything to compensate for the terrible loss sustained in reaching this point. Accordingly I formed my handful of men, about 200 in number, in line, the right resting on the breastwork of the enemy, and commenced firing upon the men and horses of the first piece. Three men and two horses having fallen, and the other gunners showing signs of uneasiness, I gave the command, "Charge bayonets," and went in to the first gun. Reaching it I had the pleasure of mounting upon the first of the New Berne guns surrendered to the "Yankees." It was a 6-pounder field piece, brought from Fort Macon, and marked U.S. Leaving this in the hands of Captain Walcott and Private John Dunn, of Company B, who cut away the horses and attempted to lead- and turn it upon the enemy, I proceeded to the second gun, some 300 paces from the brick-yard.
By this time the three regiments of rebel infantry, who had retreated from the breastwork to a ravine in the rear when we entered the brickyard, seeing that we were so few and received no support, rallied and advanced upon us. The Thirty-fifth and Thirty-seventh North Carolina Regiments, supported by the Seventh North Carolina, came up from the ravine in splendid style with their muskets on the right shoulder and halted. Most fortunately, or rather providentially, for us, they remained undecided for a minute or two, and then resolved on a movement which saved us from destruction. Instead of giving us a volley at once, they first hesitated and then charged upon us without firing. I instantly commanded my men to spring over the parapet and ditch in front and retreat to the railroad, keeping as close as possible to the ditch. As the enemy could not fire upon us to any advantage until they reached the parapet, nearly all of those who obeyed my order escaped unharmed, though thousands of bullets whistled over us. On the railroad I found Colonel Rodman, with the Fourth Rhode Island, waiting for orders, and informed him of the situation of things in the intrenchments of the enemy, and urged him to advance at once and charge upon their flank, as I had done. Soon after Colonel Harland, with the Eighth Connecticut, came up, and then the two regiments advanced along the railroad to the brick-yard and charged by wing. As soon as the enemy saw them within their lines they instantly retired again to the ravine without firing a gun. It is some satisfaction <ar9_227> to those who were obliged to retreat from the battery after once driving the enemy from it that no one of the five brass pieces stationed in this part of their works was ever fired by them after our charge.
Among the incidents of the day perhaps the following may not be out of place here: Capt. J. D. Frazer, of Company H, was wounded in the right arm just before charging, and dropped his sword. He, however, instantly picked it up with his left hand and led on his men with the colors. At the time of the retreat from the battery he was unable to clear the ditch, and fell into the water. As soon as the rebels discovered him they ordered him to get up, took him back over the parapet, and removing his sword, placed a guard of three men over him. When his captors in their turn retreated again he was unable or unwilling to move as rapidly as they, and when he had detained his guard sufficiently long to permit him to attempt it, he drew his revolver and declared he would shoot the first one who stirred. They surrendered to him and were delivered over to the Fourth Rhode Island as prisoners of war. The lieutenant to whom Captain Frazer gave his sword was also captured and the sword returned to its rightful owner. Captain Frazer, before the close of the fight, was again in command of his company. Private J. A. Miller, of Company A, in clambering over the parapet in the retreat, dropped his rifle into the ditch, and rather than leave his pet remained searching for it until captured. He was ordered to the rear of the enemy with a guard, and as the bullets were rather numerous in the air, he laid himself down between two logs and forgot to get up when his captors retreated.
Sergt. A. J. Weatherby, of Company B, was ordered by me to take care of a prisoner captured in the charge, and when obliged to retreat he did not forsake the rebel, but dragging him by the collar over the parapet and through the ditch, compelled him to double-quick with the "Yankees," and after the battle delivered him over to me in good condition. As soon as my men could be collected and the charges drawn from the rifles which had been wet in the ditch I returned along the railroad to rejoin the left wing of my regiment, which, after fighting with great steadiness and effect for three hours in front of the first two redans, were just rushing over the fallen timber of the almost impassable swamp intervening between them and the retreating enemy.
The conduct of my entire command, so far as I can learn, during both the march and the engagement, was worthy of great commendation, and has received it in the assurance of our brigadier that he is satisfied with us.
Having been ordered to occupy the captured works of the enemy, my regiment has been diligently engaged in collecting the arms, ammunition, equipments, clothing, tents, and commissary stores abandoned by them in their precipitate retreat. The prisoners taken by the different regiments have been placed on board the propeller Albany, under charge of Company E, Captain Bradford. There are about 260 of the well prisoners, including 12 officers, and about 40 wounded rebels, who are cared for by their own surgeons and nurses. The dead have been carefully collected and buried under the direction of Acting Brigade Quartermaster Hall. The killed and mortally wounded of my regiment number 25 and the other casualties 31, besides many cases of slight injuries and narrow escapes. The corrected list is herewith inclosed.(*)
During the engagement the killed and wounded were rapidly carried to the rear by the members of the band, under direction of Acting <ar9_228> Brigade Surgeon Cutter. The men deserve great credit for their attention to duty while their comrades were falling around them, no one attempting to leave the ranks to assist the wounded. This order they obeyed the more cheerfully, because they were certain that Surgeon Cutter, with his hospital corps, was attending to this duty in their very midst. Assistant Surgeon Warren and Hospital Steward Davis have labored with unceasing zeal to render the wounded comfortable since the battle, and their kind care and skillful treatment will never be forgotten by the regiment.
Hoping this report of the part performed by the Twenty-first Massachusetts Volunteers at the memorable battle of New Berne may be satisfactory, I am, captain, very respectfully, yours,
W. S. CLARK,
Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding Twenty-first Mass. Vols.
Capt. EDWARD M. NEILL,
Assistant Adjutant-General, Second Brigade.