RALEIGH — The battle of New Bern on March 14, 1862 is one of the many important events in North Carolina history largely unknown to North Carolinians. Unfortunately, the list is a long one.
The battle wasn’t one of the American Civil War’s celebrated set-piece battles. It didn’t involve huge armies of veteran troops skilled in battle and capable of wreaking great destruction and casualties. Most wouldn’t consider the battle to be the “turning point” of anything. But as an historical event that had significant effects on North Carolinians and the course our state took during difficult and tragic times, the battle of New Bern deserves its due.
Unfortunately, because of general neglect and an inordinate amount of attention lavished on such dubious fixations as the Wright Brothers’ search for desolation and wind on the Outer Banks — they found it — the New Bern battlefield has now been judged one of the 10 most-threatened Civil War sites in the United States. Local supporters of an effort by the New Bern Historical Society to build a park and visitor’s center on the site welcomed the designation because it might help them get “federal and other grants.”
Respectfully, this is the wrong way to think about the problem. Historical preservation is not a core function of government deserving of a high priority in obtaining taxpayer funds (though there are some specific activities, such as preserving governmental documents and buildings, that I do believe are an appropriate state responsibility). What we as citizens of North Carolina should be doing is learning about our state, traveling our state, getting our children to embrace their history and be educated by it, and banding together as families, civic clubs, and communities to do what needs to be done to preserve the crucial legacies of the past.
The battle of New Bern, just to take one example, is a story with which all educated North Carolinians should have at least a passing familiarity. It featured the first effective use of combined naval and amphibious operations by the Union Army in the war, as three brigades of infantry came ashore from the Neuse River with support from federal gunboats and advanced on the outnumbered (12,000 to 4,500) and ill-equipped Confederate forces (many had been issued neither uniforms nor weapons, and resorted to the use of hunting arms and shotguns). The battle featured heroism on both sides, including future Gov. Zebulon Vance‘s tiny element of the 33rd North Carolina holding off a vastly superior Federal force for hours to assist the flight of other troops and civilians leaving the city in advance of its conquest. Having won the battle and taken North Carolina’s one-time capital, Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside — yes, he who would later give a name to a certain style of male follicularity — had established a base of operation that the U.S. would find useful for the remainder of the war.
It is shameful that so little has been done to preserve the battlefield at New Bern and the other sites of historical importance, large and small, spectacular and modest, that are sprinkled throughout our state. The story of North Carolina, and America, is in part a story about the birth and blossoming of freedom against all the impediments presented by human imperfections, adverse fortunes, hatreds, tyrannies, tragedies, and travails. This story can’t adequately be told merely by books. The objects and the places of history must be preserved, studied, and experienced.
Let’s do what it takes to make sure that the story of American freedom continues to live, inform, challenge, and inpsire.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.