Jane Phillips: Kinston’s bleak December of 1862
At the beginning of the Civil War Kinston was a sedate little town with its churches and industrious people. After the war was declared, Confederate soldiers began to occupy Kinston, change was in the air as military training camps were set up. First, soldiers came by the hundreds and then the thousands.
The war was transforming the little town of Kinston. Many men had left to go fight in the war. The women left behind by husbands and sons had to take charge and be responsible for the families and farms. Goods were getting scarce because of the blockades. Letters going to and from distant posts and battlefields were filling the post office. Rum shops, bars and sporting houses with the ladies of the evening were popping up in many places to the bewilderment of the ladies and good men of the town. Businesses were suffering.
When the Union Army came into New Bern and captured it, the citizens of Kinston really began to take notice and fear began to take hold. Some slaves, on learning that freedom was only about 30 miles away, began to flee toward New Bern. This left many farms without labor to harvest the crops. Agriculture in the county was in big trouble as many crops wasted in the fields.
Then came that bleak December in 1862. Word came there was fighting in Trenton. Not many became alarmed, as hearing of fighting miles away was becoming a common occurrence. However, the Union Army was on the march heading toward Kinston, on their way to destroy the railroad bridge near Goldsboro.
News reached Kinston, the ‘Yankees ’really were coming. Many packed up their wagons and headed to points west. The ones left behind tried to prepare for what was coming their way.
The Union forces had reached the Woodington community. Nearby on the other side of Southwest Creek was a small group of Confederate soldiers behind earthworks with cannons in place for battle. But the small group was no match for the thousands of “Yankees” barreling down on them. They made a hasty retreat toward Kinston and rested on their arms over night while the Union forces camped at and near the Woodington Meeting House. Union Gen. Foster had under his command 10,000 infantry, 640 cavalry, and 40 pieces of artillery. Confederate Gen. Evans only had 2,014 under his command. He was far outnumbered by more than five to one.
It was a cold Sunday morning with ice in their canteens, the Union forces were on the move coming closer and closer to Kinston. The Confederates were waiting behind a line of earthworks that formed a horseshoe like position from one point on the Neuse River to another point on the Neuse River. When the fighting commenced, the blast of cannon fire was almost deafening.
Rifle fire was coming from all directions. The fighting was so fierce that many loblolly pines caught afire. Many of the young soldiers were in battle for the first time and fear was in their hearts, but they fought on. The church, Harriet’s Chapel, became riddled with bullet holes and some cannon holes. It was written in a Massachusetts regiment’s history that “on that Sunday morning that little church was very holy.” Needless to say, we know what they meant. Also, in one of the regimental histories is told of one of their soldiers having his head severed from his body by artillery fire.
At the Jones Bridge (today it is the Queen Street Bridge) Confederates began to cross. Union forces were coming close behind. Cotton bales soaked with turpentine had before the battle been strategically place on the bridge. As the Johnny Rebs’ crossed the bridge they set the bales of cotton on fire hoping to prevent the Billy Yanks from following. But the Union forces were too close behind and came on the bridge with them.
All hell broke loose. It was pandemonium.
The soldiers from both sides were being shot, falling and the bodies were piling up on each other. One soldier caught fire and fell off the side of the bridge. Most of the Confederates withdrew quickly from the bridge and made their way up Herritage Street (at the time Herritage was the street that came into Kinston from the bridge) to the top of Washington’s Hill (Vernon Hill where the Bentley B & B is located today).
Union Gen. John Foster sent word to the top of the hill to tell Confederate Gen. Evans to surrender. Evans’ response was “go to hell”. He then led his troops away. There were field hospitals set up in homes and churches to take care of both the Union and Confederate wounded. Foster’s troops stayed overnight in Kinston. Union officers tried to maintain order but there was plundering and stealing throughout the town. During the night there were several fires set burning some businesses and houses.
The next morning Gen. Foster and his men headed out of town with their destination-Goldsboro. On their way out of town, what was left of the bridge was burned after they crossed.
Kinston was left in a state of confusion and shock. It was only 10 days to Christmas and what a sad one it was. Some prayed for peace and that there may never be such a happening in Kinston ever again. But there were three more years of war and Kinstonians survived the hardships. By the end of reconstruction, Kinston began to enter an era of progress and the town prospered.
Today portions of the Kinston Battlefield have been saved and preserved by the Historical Preservation Group and are listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Please take time to go visit the Kinston Battlefield Park located on Hwy 258 about ¼ mile past the Kinston/Lenoir County Visitors Center. The Kinston Battle Memorial Site is just off Hwy 70 East located behind King’s Restaurant There are plans for future development of a site near the bridge.
Threshold to Freedom
National Park Service: American Battlefield Protection Program
Civil War Survey of Lenoir county by Mudpuppy and Waterdog (Joe and Maria Brent)