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George Washington Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 16 March 1862

Dear Mother

We have given the Secesshers another thundering thrashing, and have gained a splendid victory. I went through the fight and did not get a scratch although the balls fairly rained around me, and several of our boys were struck down close by my side. I suppose you will get a great deal better acount of the fight, than I can give you (from the papers) but I know you will want to hear my account of it  so here it is.

We left Roanoke Island March 11th and landed 16 or 18 miles below this place on the 13th. As soon as troops were all on shore we pushed on as fast as possible towards Newbern which is a nice little Citty lying up the Neuse river about 25 miles from Pamlico Sound. Our land force was about 10,000 men with 2 batteries of artilary, and the fighting part of the fleet consisted of 10 or 12 gunboats. After marching through the woods 4 or five miles we struck a railroad track leading into the citty which we followed 3 or 4 miles and as it was then getting dusk the General ordered a halt for the night,  it rained nearly all night and as we lay on the ground our blankets soon got soaked through so that we passed rather an uncomfortable night, although I managed to get 5 or 6 hours good sound sleep. The next morning we were up at daylight and after discharging and reloading our rifles which had got pretty well soaked during the night we marched on towards Newbern. We had skirmishers extending about a quarter of a mile on each side of the railroad and we had not gone more than 3 or 4 miles before they came upon the rebels in strong force behind breastworks, as usual. (We marched right up under a terible fire, formed in line of battle and went at them and fought them in splendid Style for about 3 hours, when our boys drove them from their entrenchments and the day was ours.)2

Our men had 60 rounds of Catridge each when they went into action and had used it nearly all and were just about to fall back to let the 51st Pennsylvania Regt take our places (as they had not been in the fight at all) when the enemy run. Our regt went into the fight with about 650 men and as we lost about 100 in killed and wounded you may know that we had pretty hot work. One young fellow (Bob Smith Orderly Sergt of Co B.) that was killed lived in Portland Ave (in one of the brick houses below the vacant lots I think)  He was a member of Capt Spragues3 Co in the old 13th Regt and was a good fellow and an intimate friend of mine. During the fight, I saw our Leiut Col. R.B. Potter4 sitting on a log,   thinking he was wounded, I went up to him and asked him if he was struck, he said only with a spent ball that did not hurt him mutch, and he got up and went into the thickest of it again and did not give up untill the fighting was over which was an hour after I spoke to him, when he found a ball had struck him just above the hip and passed through his side. He is not dangerously hurt and I hope will soon be well.

After the fight I found our Major C. Legendre5 lying in the mud behind a log, where he had been carried after he fell,   he is very badly hurt  a ball haveing struck him in the back of the neck passing out of his cheek,   I took off the rubber blanket that I had straped on my back  put him on it, got some help and carried him about a quarter of a mile to a tent where he now lies in a very critacle condition,   The Chaplain6 of our regt was killed. one Captain wounded (probaly mortaly) one Leiut killed. one Leiut had a leg taken off and 2 other Leiuts was shot through the Leg. we had 3 orderly Sergts killed and some 16 or 18 privates. I dont know what the total loss on our side is but should think about 450 killed and wounded. The rebel loss is pretty heavy but I dont beleive they lost more than us as they were well protected by their breastworks  I was talking to a darkey to day who says he saw several car loads of their killed and wounded pass through Newbern, and they left quite a number on the feild.

After they retreated a part of our force followed them up but they had set fire to a bridge about 3/8 of a mile long, on which the cars cross, the river and it was some time before our folks could get boats and cross into the city, which they found nearly deserted and fired in three or four places but it did not burn mutch and we have made a good haul of Government Stores  got posession of a nice little citty that had 5 or 6000 inhabitants I beleive before they ran away. Our regt marched slowly up to the river (as we were pretty well tired) but we could not cross so we spread our blankets on the ground and had a good nights sleep,   the next morning we came to this camp, which is on the bank of the river and about 1½ miles from Newbern. The first Brigade are quartered in the City. We are very comfortably situated and will probaly stay here for some time and take it easy as our boys are pretty well used up. I went down on the battle ground yesterday and when I saw the almost impregnability of the enemys position I was almost scared. They had a chain of breastworks leading from the river, away back in the woods I dont know how far   I followed them about 2 miles and as I could not see the end I turned back,   The trees all around where our regt was engaged are perfectly riddled with balls and nearly all the small ones are cut entirely off. The enemys works on the side of the railroad where our Brigade fought, were so situated that we could not charge them, without getting up to our necks in water and they had cut down the trees and had them lying so that it was almost impassable. The feild yesterday, was quite a sight,   the dead had nearly all been buried but there were some 12 or 15 that I saw, that were not. quite a number of the enemys canon were scattered here and there and horses, that were used to draw them were lying about in the entrenchments,   From the best information I can get the enemy had more men than us and if they could not whip us with all the advantages they had in this fight they had better give it up. The nigers all say that the name of Burnsides expedition is a terror to their masters. The fleet after setting us on shore sailed up the river and walked into the rebels shore batteries in fine style  the rebels had sunk vessels all across the river but our boats got through somehow and drove them out of 4 or 5 Splendid batteries  some of them bomb proof at that.

The last letter I received from home, Mother, is dated Feb 19th   I do wish some of you would write oftener,   I had some papers too by the same mail but the last two mails have brought nothing for me. We have not been paid since the First of January, but expect to be soon.

Mutch Love to all   G. W. Whitman

March 18th   I have not had a chance to send this letter yet but hear that the mail leaves tomorrow. I hear to night that the first Brigade leaves tomorrow on some expedition probaly to atack Beauford,7   our regt is not to go. Another mail arived here yesterday but brought me no letter, and I feel just like giveing you a good scolding, but I guess I will wait untill I get home,   I recd 2 papers however.

Yours V T   G W Whitman

I wrote you a letter a day or two after we took Roanoke Island, did you get it.8


  • 1.

    The first four sheets of this letter were written on Confederate stationery. On the initial page there appears at the upper left a sketch showing a cannon being fired as the Confederate banner waves behind it. In the right-hand corner the following verses are printed: Bright Banner of Freedom with pride I  
     unfurl thee;
    Fair Flag of my country with love I be- 
     hold thee,
    Gleaming above us in freshness and youth, Emblem of Liberty, Symbol of truth; For the Flag of my country in triumph  
     shall wave,
    O'er the Southerner's Home and the  
      Southerner's Grave
    George Whitman has written in the space between the patriotic sketch and the verses the following note: This is some of the paper we found here  it is first rate to write acounts of Union Victories on.

    The letterhead also states that it was "Manufactured by W. & J. BONITZ, Goldsboro, N.C." And immediately beneath the verses, the words "Confederate States of America" are printed in swash letters.

  • 2. Parentheses added by another hand, possibly Walt Whitman's. [back]
  • 3. Horace A. Sprague held the rank of captain in Company B of the Thirteenth New York State Militia from April 23, 1861, to August 16, 1861. [back]
  • 4. Robert Brown Potter (1829–1887) was a lawyer who enlisted as a private at the beginning of the war. He rose rapidly and became a lieutenant colonel on November 1, 1861. [back]
  • 5. Charles W. LeGendre (1830–1899) was born in France and educated at the University of Paris. He helped recruit and later commanded the Fifty-First New York Volunteers. [back]
  • 6. Orlando N. Benton served as chaplain of the Fifty-First Regiment since October 15, 1861. [back]
  • 7. Beaufort. [back]
  • 8. For a more detailed account of Whitman's experiences in this battle, see Civil War Diary. [back]
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