1863: Harrison Nisbet to William Nisbet

This interesting letter was written by Harrison Nesbit (1838-1863), of Battery H, New York 3rd Light Artillery in which he talks about the battle of Ft. Anderson (also called “Deep Gully”) in coastal NC near New Bern. Five months later, on 17 August 1863, Harrison would die of disease.

Although the family’s last name is spelled differently on the attached envelope (which was purchased with the Letter), there is no evidence of a soldier by that name from NY in the Civil War. Harrison was the son of William Nisbet (1804-1870) and Catharine Fox (1819-1899) of Lee Center, Oneida county, New York. The letter was probably written to his younger brother, Theodore F. Nisbet (1844-1920), who would have been the closest in age to Harrison among his siblings.

Battery H was organized at Weedsport, mustered in the United States service at Elmira, May 22, 1861, under Capt. Solomon Giles, was transferred to Companies B and I September 28, 1861. A new company, commanded by Capt. William J. Riggs, took its place February 22, 1862. This company, formed of organizations recruited by Captains Clark, Mercer and Tryon, at Rome, for H. R. White’s regiment, and there mustered in the United States service for three years, and in which the Grinnell Light Artillery was merged, was converted into a light battery in May, 1862. At the expiration of its term of service those entitled thereto were discharged and the battery continued in service. It served in North Carolina from March, 1862; in the Artillery Brigade; 18th Corps, from December, 1862; at and near Fort Monroe, Va., from October, 1863 at Newport News, Va., from December, 1863; in the defenses of Portsmouth, Va., from April, 1864; in the Artillery Brigade, 18th Corps, from June, 1864, and in the 24th Corps from December, 1864. It was mustered out, commanded by Capt. Enoch Jones, June 24, 1865, at Richmond, Va.

“The Union capture of New Bern in March 1862 was a severe blow to the Confederacy. The second-largest town in North Carolina and an important railroad and river trade center, New Bern became a base for Union raids against railroads and communications in the interior. The Confederates attempted to recover the town three times: in March 1863, February 1864, and May 1864.” This letter pertains to the first attempt by the Confederates “to recapture New Bern—or at least contain its Union defenders in order to gather supplies and provisions from adjacent areas. In March 1863, Maj. Gen. Daniel H. Hill attacked New Bern with 13,000 Confederate troops. Maj. Gen. John G. Foster, commanding at New Bern, held the town with a greatly reduced force. Hill’s plan included a siege of heavy cannon firing from the north, an infantry assault from the southwest, and a cavalry advance to cut the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad in order to isolate the New Bern garrison. On the afternoon of 13 March, Hill’s men overran a Union outpost at Deep Gully, eight miles southwest of New Bern. The next morning, Brig. Gen. James J. Pettigrew’s cannons opened fire on both Fort Anderson and Union gunboats in the river. But the Confederates could neither significantly damage the fort nor drive off the gunboats, which bombarded them from far out on the river. Accordingly, Pettigrew abandoned the attempt and retired along the same route on which he had advanced. Because Pettigrew’s success was essential to the operation, Hill had no choice but to withdraw.” [excerpt quotations written by Paul Branch for NCPedia]

[Note: This letter is from the collection of Richard Weiner and is published by his express consent on Spared & Shared.]


Addressed to Mr. William Nisbet, Lee Center, [Oneida county,] New York

New Berne, North Carolina
Tuesday, March 17th 1863

Dear Brother,

I take my pen once more to let you know that I am alive and in good health. I received your letter of the first last Sunday. At the time I received it, our Section—with the 25th and 76th Massachusetts Regiments—was eight miles from here lying low for the rebs. The enemy made an attack upon this place last Saturday morning under the command of Gen. Longstreet.

Last Friday the rebs reached out pickets about nine miles from here at a place called Deep Gully on the Trent Road. About sundown the roar of the enemy’s artillery aroused us and in ten minutes we was on our way. We supposed it to only be a dash upon our pickets. We went within half a mile of them. Our pickets said there was a brigade of infantry and a six-gun battery.

Capt. [James] Belger’s battery [1st Rhode Island Light Artillery] and four guns of our battery and some infantry halted within one mile of the enemy and our Section—that is, Lieutenant [John D.] Clark’s under the command of Lieut. [William E.] Mercer [along] with the 25th Massachusetts—advanced within half a mile of the enemy and we all lay dawn upon the ground for the night but we did not sleep much. The nearness of the enemy did not disturb us but it was very cold and we did not have any blankets for we expected to go back to New Berne that night. It froze so hard that the hibs was quite hard in the morning.

About sunrise the enemy made an attack upon the city from the north side of the river but we supposed that it was our forts a firing a salute in honor of the taking of this place for it was just a year since it was taken. We advanced to attack the enemy and brought our guns ¹ in position near enough to hear the enemy give their commands and the woods was all that kept them from our sight. One company advanced as skirmishers and was engaged with the enemy and we had our guns loaded and ready to touch off when one of General [John G.] Foster’s aides come with orders that New Berne was attacked and we must not engage the enemy but fall back and draw the enemy towards the guns of Fort Totten. In ten minutes more, we would have been engaged. I think we could [have] whipped them in a short time if we had engaged them.

We fell back about two miles and all of the artillery but our section and a part of the infantry went to New Berne and sent us some blankets and provisions. We lay at that place that night and the next day and night and then we found the rebs had left. We followed them about eight miles and found no enemy and returned and that used up three days and nights. In [all] that time, our horses [were] not unharnessed nor unhitched and we was ready to get up and fight at a moments notice.

The enemy gave General [John G.] Foster a very polite invitation to surrender the place and he sent back word to them if they wanted it to come and get it. They throwed a few shells across the river into the town but did not do any damage. Everything is quiet this morning and I think that the enemy has given up the idea [of] taking us and have retreated.

I wrote you last Wednesday giving a description of an expedition that we went upon in Onslow county. If this letter is a good while a coming, you must not think strange of it for the mail boat that brought your letter has left with the return mail and there is no other boat in. I suppose that you take the Rome Citizen now and have read in it that David J. Evans of this company wrote giving a description of camp and how we pass away the time—that is, in its number, of the sixth of this month. It is the best description of our camp life that I have seen yet.

I see by your answer that you don’t like my ideas about the darkeys very well but I think if you was here about six months that you would change your opinion. Every soldier that has been here six months has lost all his abolition sentiments. The newspapers tell you how useful the contrabands make themselves and how industrious they are. They are as industrious as Bob Frank. ² They work when hunger fetches them to it and when they are forced  to work by the government officers. And if the people of the free states wants to bring demoralization and defeat upon the army that is in the field, all they have to do is to put the negro slave—the down-trodden race of this country—into the field by the side of their sons and brothers to fight their country’s battles instead of coming theirselves. I am here and am not sorry that I enlisted and all that we want to be successful is men to take the place of them that will go home in the spring and white men at that. I don’t have anything to say against freeing the slaves as fast as we can get them, but we have got to get them before we can free them.

I got a few lines from Charles Merchant ³ the other day. He wrote that he was living a married life and enjoying himself finely. All of the boys are well and it is warm and nice weather today. I must come to a close so goodbye for the present.

Your affectionate brother, — Harrison

¹ Battery H had six 12-pdr Napoleons in the field with them under the command of Capt. William J. Riggs.

² Robert (“Bob”) Frank (b. 1812), a mulatto, lived near the Nisbet family in North Bay, Lee Center, Oneida county, New York. He was a farmer, though apparently not a very industrious one.

³ Charles F. Merchant was 19 years old when he enlisted in October 1861 at Lee Center as a private in Co. H to serve three years. He was discharged for disability on 11 February 1863.

Harrison Nisbet’s Headstone

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