Battle of White Hall Ferry

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Battle of White Hall Ferry
North Carolina Civil War History

Battle of White Hall Ferry

Other Names: Whitehall, White Hall Ferry

Location: Wayne County, North Carolina

Campaign: Goldsboro Expedition, aka Goldsborough Expedition (December 1862)

Date(s): December 16, 1862

Principal Commanders: Brig. Gen. John G. Foster [US]; Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson [CS]

Forces Engaged: Amory’s and Stevenson’s Brigades [US]; Robertson’s Brigade [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 150 total

Result(s): Inconclusive (Federals withdrew)

Introduction: On December 16, 1862, Foster’s Union troops reached White Hall where Beverly Robertson’s brigade was holding the north bank of the Neuse River. The Federals demonstrated against the Confederates for much of the day, attempting to fix them in position, while the main Union column continued toward the railroad. Both sides claimed victory. The New York Herald published banner headlines announcing the alleged victory, as several New York regiments had taken part. The Union men claimed they had won because they inflicted serious damage on the CSS Neuse. However, the Confederates believed they won, since they inflicted much heavier casualties on the attackers than they suffered, prevented the Yankees from crossing the river, and had kept the gunboat from being destroyed. The CSS Neuse was completed late the war, but she got ran aground on a sandbar before reaching the sea and had to be scuttled to prevent her capture.

Battle of White Hall Historical Marker
Civil War Battle of Whitehall.jpg
(Civil War Battle of Whitehall Historical Marker)

Background: After departing Kinston on the 15th, the Confederates were engaged at White Hall (now Seven Springs), North Carolina, on the following day. The Confederates were situated on the north side of the Neuse River with the Union forces mounting their guns on a high hill on the south side. The battle was mainly an artillery duel, or cannon duel, with very little infantry involvement. See also American Civil War Artillery Organization.

The Confederate ram Neuse was also under construction at White Hall. During the battle, Union forces thought that they had destroyed it, but very little damage was actually inflicted on the ironclad. After the engagement, Foster's troops headed for Goldsboro, still traveling on the south side of the Neuse River and encamped that night just 8 miles from Goldsboro. See also Battle of White Hall: The Neuse.

Summary: The Civil War battle of Whitehall occurred on Dec. 15-16, 1862, at present Seven Springs in Wayne County when the Confederacy's Brig. Gen. B. H. Robertson and the Union's Maj. Gen. John G. Foster clashed during Foster's attempt to capture the railroad junction at Goldsboro. Late on Dec. 15, 1862 Union cavalry scouts reached Whitehall shortly after Confederate troops crossed north over the bridge spanning the Neuse River, set it on fire, and took up defensive positions. Foster's cavalry rolled hundreds of barrels of pitch to the riverbank and set them on fire to light the Confederate positions. Union artillery attempted to destroy the frame of the Confederate ironclad Neuse that was under construction while the cavalrymen exchanged fire with Robertson's pickets. After several hours of futile conflict, the infuriated cavalrymen burned the village and returned to camp.

Battle of White Hall Ferry from Harper's Weekly
Battle of White Hall Ferry Map.jpg
(Battle of Whitehall)

(About) The battle of Whitehall, present-day Seven Springs, North Carolina, fought 16th December, 1862. Harper's Weekly, January 10, 1863, p. 20. Neg. 80-425. NCC vault FFCC970.73 B96.

Battle of White Hall Ferry Map
Civil War Battle of Whitehall Map.gif
Civil War Battle of Whitehall Map

Confederate Ironclad Neuse
Confederate Ironclad.jpg
Civil War Ironclad

The next day Foster arrived at Whitehall and engaged the enemy, attempting to make the Confederates believe that his men intended to cross the river. Foster thought that he could then slip the rest of his army past Whitehall to attack a railroad trestle four miles south of Goldsboro. But the Confederates were not fooled and the battle lasted until sunset. By nightfall on Dec. 16, most of Foster's army had marched west, leaving a small force at Whitehall to remove the wounded and bury the dead.

On the 18th, Foster withdrew back through Whitehall and retired to New Bern. After his withdrawal, a Confederate patrol made an alarming discovery. One hundred Union troops had been left unburied on the field, and a 100-yard-long pit was filled with dead soldiers. Despite promotions for Foster and his men, many northern newspapers rated the expedition a disaster because of the extensive Union losses and the fact that Foster failed to capture the crucial railroad junction at Goldsboro.

Battle: On arriving at White Hall, eighteen miles from Goldsboro, General Foster found the bridge burned and General B. H. Robertson of General Evans' command, posted on the opposite bank of the river ready for battle. General Robertson, having under his command the Eleventh North Carolina (aka Bethel Regiment), Colonel Leventhorpe; the Thirty-first, Colonel Jordan; 600 dismounted cavalry from Ferrebee's and Evans' regiments; and a section of Moore's Battery, under Lieut. N. McClees, had been sent to burn the bridge and dispute Foster's crossing should he attempt to rebuild the bridge. General Foster sent forward the Ninth New Jersey Regiment, followed by Amory's brigade, and eight batteries took position on the river bank. A heavy artillery and infantry fired commence at 9:30 on the 16th. General Robertson says in his report:

"Owing to a range of hills on the White Hall side, the enemy had the advantage of position. The point occupied by his troops being narrow; not more than one regiment at a time could engage him. I therefore held Leventhorpe, Ferrebee and Evans in reserve, leaving the artillery [two pieces], Thirty-first regiment, and two picked companies in front. The cannonading from the enemy's batteries became so terrific that the Thirty-first regiment withdrew from their position without instruction, but in good order. I immediately ordered Colonel Leventhorpe forward. The alacrity of with which the order was obeyed by his men gave ample proof their gallant bearing, which they so nobly sustained during the entire fight....The conduct of his regiment reflects the greatest credit upon its accomplished and dauntless commander."

CSS Neuse and the Battle of White Hall
CSS Neuse.jpg
CSS Neuse and the Battle of White Hall

Civil War North Carolina Coast
Battle of White Hall.jpg
Civil War Battle of White Hall Memorial

The two guns of McClees were no match for the many batteries across the Neuse River, but he served them with coolness and gallantry. Captain Taylor, of Foster's signal service, reported that the fire from the Eleventh was "one of the severest musketry fires I have ever seen." Colonel W. J. Martin, historian of the Eleventh regiment, says of the conduct of his regiment:
 
"Posted along the river bank, from which another regiment had just been driven back, it was pounded for several hours at short range by a terrific storm of grape and canister, as well as musketry; but it never flinched, and gained a reputation for endurance and courage which it proudly maintained to the fateful end."
 
The Eleventh regiment that thus distinguished itself was the first regiment organized in North Carolina, and it was well known as the "First North Carolina." It was also known as the "Bethel Regiment," because it had fought at the first land battle of the Civil War. The first engagement was known as the Battle of Big Bethel (aka Battle of Bethel Church) and it witnessed the first Confederate soldier killed. General Robertson reported his loss at 10 killed, 42 wounded. The Federal loss was 8 killed and 73 wounded.
 
Analysis: In addition to damaging the town and its river fortifications, the Confederate ironclad ram, the CSS Neuse, under construction on the north bank of the river, was damaged during the raid. This fight was inconclusive, although both sides touted victory.
 
On December 15, Brig. Gen. John G. Foster's Union troops reached White Hall where Brig. Gen. Beverly Robertson had taken command of Confederate militia holding the north bank of the Neuse River. There was some skirmishing as the Federals set up several artillery units on a hill overlooking the town and Confederate defenses. According to the report of the Union commanders, the Federals demonstrated against the Confederates for much of the day on December 16, attempting to fix the Confederates in position, while the main Union column continued toward the railroad.

Civil War Battle of Whitehall Ferry
Battle of Whitehall Neuse River North Carolina.jpg
Battle of White Hall, North Carolina

Local historians dispute this account, claiming that one of the Union objectives of the Goldsboro Campaign (also known as Foster's Raid) was to destroy an ironclad ramming boat that the Confederates were building on the north bank of the Neuse river at that location. This boat (CSS Neuse) was one of several identical boats that were being built in upriver locations throughout the South, their purpose being to break the Union naval blockade. Only one of these boats, the CSS Albemarle, was completed in time to be useful, and succeeded in sinking several Union ships at New Bern, North Carolina, and opening the port to Confederate shipping.
 
(Right) Battle of Whitehall, present-day Seven Springs, Wayne County, N.C. Viewing the Neuse River bank opposite the position of the 44th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia. Photo produced in 1884. Credit: Record of the service of the Forty-Fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Militia in North Carolina, August 1862 to May 1863. Boston: Privately printed, 1887. VC970.742 M41r, print 572. Photo by William G. Reed of Boston. Neg. 80-220.
 
The Union plan was to take the bridge at Whitehall (present-day Seven Springs), destroy the CSS Neuse, and proceed by shorter route to destroy the rail line at Goldsboro. The Confederates had a superior defensive position, and they burned the bridge to prevent the Union forces from crossing. The Federals spent most of December 16 bombarding the town with artillery fire to destroy the Confederate defenses and to destroy the boat. Meanwhile, Union riflemen fired at the Confederates defending the boat. Local tradition says the Union riflemen were firing high all day, because the south bank of the river (where the Federals were) is actually higher than the north bank, though the river creates an illusion that the banks are even.
 
Tradition also says that among the Confederate casualties were two free black teenagers, fighting with the local militia. During the two days of battle, Union artillery leveled the town and heavily damaged the CSS Neuse. Tradition says that several civilians took refuge in a stone jailhouse, which was eventually destroyed by cannon fire.
 
Near sundown on December 16, fearing they would be caught between Confederate forces from Kinston and others thought to be marching from Goldsboro, the Federals abandoned their attempt to cross the river at Whitehall and withdrew to the west. They crossed the Neuse River between Whitehall and Mount Olive, and continued on to fight an engagement at Goldsboro.

Sources: D. H. Hill, Jr., Confederate Military History Of North Carolina: North Carolina In The Civil War, 1861-1865National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies; The Civil War Battlefield Guide History: North Carolina Civil War Trails; North Carolina Office of Archives and History; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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