Monday, March 12, 2012

March 14, 1862: 9th NJ Regiment at New Bern, North Carolina

In March 1862, the men of the "Jersey 9th", now nicknamed "The Muskrats," attacked New Bern,  NC. As in the Roanoke Island, NC battle in February, the 9th NJ Regiment made an amphibious landing and again had to fight the Confederate fortifications from a swamp.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Heckman's troops repelled a counter attack.  The men of the Ninth kept a constant enfilade on the Confederate fortifications while the 21st Massachusetts Regiment charged a redoubt.  The Massachusetts troops were repelled by a brigade of Georgians. Heckman, of Phillipsburg, when his regiment had only ten rounds of ammunition left, convinced his Brigade commander to allow his men to mount a bayonet charge.

The Ninth led the charge on the fortifications, followed by the 51st New York Regiment.  The soldiers ran forward, jumping into and climbing out of ditches, and wading through knee-deep mud and swamp water, while Confederates fired volley after volley at them.  As they neared the line of fortifications, the soldiers  had to hack their way through a thick abattis [an obstacle made of cut down trees with branches sharpened].  Company H, with its Belvidere contingent, came under gunfire.  Warren County's Captain James Stewart, Jr. seized a rifle to do some sniping at the enemy artillerymen.  When a Confederate officer stood up to direct his gunners, Stewart shot him in the head.   

The Ninth reached the fortifications in the center, capturing two redans [v-shaped fortifications].  Stewart and the boys of Company H rushed into the redan and found the body of the dead Confederate officer.  The Ninth captured 69 field guns in the center fortifications.  The New Yorkers captured the fortifications on the right.  Two days later Heckman received his commission as Colonel of the regiment.

Later, Stewart would recall the incident in a letter to the State of New Jersey: "At the battle of Newberne, N.C., March 14, 1862, the Ninth New Jersey Regiment was on the left of the line and Company H (which I commanded) on the left of the regiment.  We had driven the Confederates behind their breastworks and our line was within 100 yards of their line of works.  Our firing was so well directed that the enemy were not only unable to use their      mounted guns, but their infantry were compelled to keep under close cover.  In consequence of this the firing from the 9th was desultory.  It was then that I noticed a man (a short distance to our right) spring upon the Confederate works, run along them for, say, 15 or 20 feet, and then jump down behind them.  It was a most reckless piece of daring.  He was fired at by many, but escaped being hit.  Shortly after this exhibition of bravado, I had my men lying down and I was leaning against the side of a young tree and was looking into the muzzle of one of the siege guns and wondering to myself in which county I should land if that gun was discharged, when I noticed a man's arm reaching over and near the breech of the gun. I seized the rifle of Private Lott of H Company, and as I brought the gun to my shoulder, the man raised himself, exposing his head and shoulders and evidently trying to prime the heavy gun.  The moment I fired, he sprang straight up and fell back.  Immediately following this shot, "Charge, Ninth New Jersey!" sounded along the line, and our men sprang forward. 

"As we sprang into the works here lay the man gasping his last, the wound he received plainly showing as he lay on his back.  The ball had entered under the right ear and came out near the left temple.  He had in his bosom, or under his coat, a flag upon which was inscribed the 'Beaufort Plow Boys,' I think.  I saw all this, but it was early in the war, and I would not have removed that flag for anything.  Captain Castner, of Company B, then came up and he recognized the man as Captain W. P. Martin of Company 4, Twenty-Sixth North Carolina Volunteers, who had formerly lived in Washington, a small village new New Brunswick, which was Captain Castner's home.  Captain Castner secured the flag and also the belt and sabre, which were afterwards sent to Trenton, N.J.  It was generally accepted as a fact that the shot I fired was the shot which killed Captain Martin, but no one can say that it was, and I have no desire to contend that it was.  I simply neither affirm nor deny. It was performed in the line of duty and my conscience has never rebuked me."

There is some controversy over the New Jersey citizenship of Captain William Pinckney Martin, commander of Company H, 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment.  Former Warren County resident Skip Riddle, a Revolutionary War and Civil War re-enactor, now living in New Bern, and other historians believe there were two William Martins, based on the 1850 Census.  The 1850 Census for New Jersey lists a William Martin, age 31 while the 1850 North Carolina Census lists a William P. Martin, age 32,  in Moore County, North Carolina.  The 1850 Moore County, NC Slave Schedule lists Martin as the owner of 21 slaves.  The Moore County, NC William P. Martin enlisted in the infantry at age 43 in Moore County on May 13, 1861 and was elected Captain of Company H, 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment, known as the "Moore Independents," on June 3, 1861.  After he was killed, Captain Martin was replaced by 1st Lieutenant Clement Dowd as commander of Company H. 

After the war, the State of New Jersey eventually returned Captain Martin's "Beaufort Plow Boys" flag to the State of North Carolina. 

Copyright 1997-2012: Jay C. Richards

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