Beaufort County’s Civil War union volunteers
Most history buffs in Beaufort County know following North Carolina’s secession from the Union that several Confederate volunteer regiments formed in Washington and the surrounding area. These regiments included the Washington Grays, the Jeff Davis Rifles, and the Beaufort Ploughboys, just to name a few. But many are surprised to know that following the occupation of Washington by Union troops, a Union regiment was formed of volunteers from Beaufort and adjoining counties.
Why did almost 1,800 men in eastern North Carolina, 300 just from Beaufort County, join the Union forces and fight against their native state? The nucleus of the First and Second North Carolina regiments, those who entered in the first enthusiastic burst of recruiting, were anti-slavery men who opposed secession. But some had other incentives. According to historian Wayne K. Durrill, the poor whites and small yeoman farmers resented their wealthy slave-holding planter neighbors. These men rushed to enter the Union army that would help them punish the secessionist plantation owners. They saw the “slave economy” as unfair competition for their labor. They were “generally down on the negro as well as his master.” Narrow class interest, not sympathy for the enslaved people, motivated their abolitionism. In addition, the economic incentives of Union service attracted many poor whites by the introduction of bounties that paid recruits $100 for enlisting in 1862 and increasing to $300 in 1863. These bounties amounted to more than a year’s pay for many impoverished North Carolinians.
The Union volunteer regiments commonly served as garrison troops or home guards for the Union-occupied towns. The core of the First North Carolina Regiment formed in April 1862, shortly after the occupation of Washington. North Carolinians did not expect to participate in significant battles, given their role as garrison troops. However, on September 6, 1862, these recruits found themselves in the most intense three-hour fight of their lives. Confederate Major Stephen D. Pool led 1,000 North Carolina Confederate infantry, cavalry, and artillery troops against the Union garrison at Washington of 1,200 men at daybreak. The Confederates surprised Union pickets stationed on the west side of town near the Elmwood Plantation. After a brief skirmish, the Confederate troops charged down Second Street while the cavalry rushed down Market. A Union battery was captured at the corner of Second and Bridge Streets, and the troops advanced further into town. Though surprised, the Union forces regrouped and attacked west down Main, Second, and Third Streets pushing the Confederates back to Bridge Street. After more than two hours of hard fighting, the Confederate forces withdrew. Confederate casualties were 31 killed, 30 wounded, and 24 taken prisoner, while the Union lost 26 killed, 55 wounded, and 12 captured. Two of those slain were Beaufort County Union Volunteers Benjamin Hudnell and John Davis. Of the Beaufort County volunteers, 25 died during the war, predominantly from infection.
On April 26, 1864, after the fall of Plymouth to the Confederates, the Union forces were ordered to abandon Washington. Along with other Union regiments, the volunteer units evacuated to New Bern to serve out the war. On June 27, 1865, all First North Carolina Union Volunteer infantry companies were mustered out at New Bern.