THE BATTLE OF NEW RIVER
by L. J. KIMBALL
21 JANUARY 1998
THE BATTLE OF NEW RIVER, Onslow County's most storied Civil War engagement, took place over a three-day period beginning 23 Nov. 1862 when the irrepressible Lieutenant William B. Cushing, the Union Navy's youngest and most dynamic commander, took his iron-hulled gunboat, the converted side-wheeler tug Ellis, up the New River. His mission was to capture the county seat of Jacksonville, 20 miles from the river inlet, seize any blockade runners found in the river, and destroy whatever salt works might be encountered en route.
The seemingly fearless Cushing would acquire a reputation of almost mythical proportions during the war through his daring adventures and be characterized afterwards by Admiral David Farragut as having been "the hero of the war." This deep and unsupported penetration into the heart of Confederate-held Onslow County with his first command was typical of the endeavors undertaken by the young officer, just 20 years of age and already an implacable foe of secession. The effects of the blockade were already being felt. Blockade runners sought sanctuary from the Union cruisers in the smaller, less accessible havens such as those offered by the New River. Salt works had materialized along the inlets and sounds to produce the increasingly scarce but vital necessity, salt. These were his targets.
His bold incursion the morning of the 23rd achieved tactical surprise. Four hours of steaming through the river's narrow channels and the destruction of an outbound schooner along the way brought him to the city docks before the pickets posted at the inlet could make their way over the primitive road net and warn the inhabitants. A landing party was thrown ashore and the public buildings quickly occupied. After ceremoniously returning the U.S. flag to the court house and capturing two schooners, a store of clothing, numerous stand of small arms, and several contraband, he withdrew. But, the local Confederate authorities were now fully aroused.
Two companies of Rebel horsemen from the 2nd North Carolina Cavalry were operating in the area and shadowed the gunboat's attempt to reach the inlet before dark. Cushing, impeded by the slower moving schooners and engaged by the cavalry from both banks, was forced to anchor in midstream with the coming of darkness. The Southerners took advantage of his delay to bring up a section of howitzers from the 2nd North Carolina Artillery company stationed at the Topsail Battery and constructed an ambush on the western side of the river near Snead's Ferry where the only channel would force the Ellis to within point-blank range.
On the morning of the 24th when Cushing again maneuvered toward the narrow channel leading to the inlet, the Rebels opened up on the gunboat from their concealed positions. Not yet confined to the channel, he turned away and drove the Confederates out of range with his two guns. Once assured of their withdrawal, he steered cautiously back into the channel, leaving the dispersed enemy force in his wake. Fortune, however, smiled on the Southerners. Upon exiting the channel, the Ellis missed the turn to the inlet and ran hard aground within easy range of the temporarily abandoned positions.
All efforts failed to free the stranded gunboat. But Cushing was not ready to concede defeat. Before darkness fell again, he struck ashore with a landing party and burned a nearby salt works. Then, facing the inevitable if the next morning's tide would not lift them off the imprisoning shoal, he lightened his vessel of nonessentials and one gun and sent the schooners downstream and out of range with all but six volunteers. During the night, the Confederates, reinforced by the remainder of the artillery company, moved back into their positions overlooking the river.
The Confederates opened fire at first light on the 25th, rapidly overwhelming the Ellis' depleted crew and single gun. Under the withering fire from shore and his gunboat now damaged beyond the possibility of escape, Cushing set her afire and manned the remaining ship's boat to try for the awaiting schooners. The exultant Rebels attempt to pursue in boats from shore was deterred by the thunderous explosion of the ship's magazine. Their concurrent attempt to reach the inlet on horseback ahead of the fleeing Cushing failed by a matter of minutes. He was back in the safety of the Atlantic.
Both sides claimed victory in the engagement. Cushing was rewarded with another command and went on to greater glory. His greatest fame would come in 1864 with the daring destruction of the formidable Confederate ram, the Albemarle. The Rebels were left with the burned out hulk of the Ellis which rusted in solitude until claimed by a salvage crew in 1867. Onslow continued as a minor battleground for the remainder of the war, serving at its end as a route of march for part of the Union forces converging on General Joseph Johnston's beleaguered army.
- L.J.Kimball. The Battle of New River. 1997.
- Ralph J. Roske and Charles Van Doren. Lincoln's Commando: The Biography of Cdr. William B. Cushing. 1957.
- R.N. Scott, et. al., The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Ser. I, vol. 8. 1880-1901.