150 Years Ago, My Great-Grandfather 'Saw the Elephant" at Battle of Goldsboro Bridge

Inexperienced soldiers in the Civil War often talked of "seeing the elephant," a phrase used to describe being in battle for the first time.

But after they heard bullets whiz past them, saw what a .58-caliber rifle bullet did to human flesh and bone, and watched their friends die, those soldiers were more likely to describe combat in terms similar to General William T. Sherman's description. "War is at best barbarism," Sherman said. "Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell."

My guess is that my great-grandfather, William C. Dry, was curious about seeing the elephant 150 years ago. He was 23 years old when he enlisted in the Confederate Army shortly after the Confederate government instituted a military draft in April 1862.

I've long wondered what William thought when he entered the army. People are still arguing over what that war was about, but in my opinion, the Civil War was fought because of slavery. William's family did not own slaves, so he didn't have a personal stake about whether slavery was ended.

Maybe he wanted to go fight, but the war had been going on for more than a year before he joined the Confederate Army, so he clearly did not enlist in a passion of Southern patriotism. His family farmed in Cabarrus County, and William listed his occupation as "field hand" in his enlistment papers. Without slaves to work the farm, William's absence added to the family's burden.

Whatever his thoughts about the war and why it was being fought, he had no choice after the draft went into effect.

By December 1862, he'd been in the army for about eight months. But his unit, the 52nd North Carolina Infantry, hadn't done much more than engage in endless drills and ride trains back and forth between Petersburg, Virginia and Kinston, North Carolina.

A soldier in the 52nd complained of the monotony. "We have to drill nearly all the time," Sergeant A.C. Myers wrote in a July 27, 1862 letter to his wife.

That changed in mid-December, however. At the time, William's unit was stationed on the Blackwater River near Franklin, Virginia. On December 16, the 52nd was ordered to move immediately to Goldsboro, North Carolina. The men boarded a troop train and traveled through the night to reach Goldsboro in the early morning of December 17.

They didn't have to wait long for the elephant. At sunrise, a force of about 10,000 Union troops arrived from New Bern and moved toward their objective -- a wooden railroad bridge that spanned the Neuse River. The railroad was a vital supply line to Confederate troops in Virginia.

The Union Army's plan to destroy the bridge was part of an effort to inflict a major defeat on Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee. Union forces had launched an attack against Lee at Fredericksburg, Virginia on December 11, the same day the Union troops started moving from New Bern to Goldsboro. Union commanders reasoned that if they could destroy the bridge, it would cut off supplies to the Confederates and make it easier to defeat Lee.

The 52nd was ordered to hold the bridge. But the Confederates numbered fewer than 2,000 against the much larger Union force. After about two hours of fighting, a squad of Union volunteers raced through gunfire and set the bridge ablaze.

The 52nd and other Confederate forces counterattacked, but the bridge could not be saved. Somewhere in all the fighting, William was hit in the arm.

In the Civil War, a wound to an arm or a leg often shattered bones and required the limb to be amputated. Death from such a wound was not unusual. But William was lucky. The bullet did not hit bone. He was listed among the 58 wounded in his unit, but he recovered and returned to duty. Eight men in the 52nd were killed.

The destruction of the bridge did not help the Union's effort against Lee at Fredericksburg, however. Whatever advantage gained by cutting Confederate supplies was lost when Union General Ambrose Burnside foolishly threw wave after wave of soldiers against Confederates securely entrenched behind a stone wall at the top of a hill known as Marye's Heights. Burnside's troops were slaughtered, and he was forced to withdraw from Fredericksburg.

The bridge at Goldsboro was quickly rebuilt.

For several months after the Battle of Goldsboro Bridge, the 52nd North Carolina Infantry was shuttled between eastern North Carolina and Virginia. But in early June 1863, the 52nd was assigned to General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia.

A few weeks later, Lee began his fateful invasion of Pennsylvania that ended in futility at the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Although the war would continue for almost two years after that battle, the Confederacy never recovered from that defeat.

The Battle of Gettysburg also marked the beginning of 18 months of misery and loss for William and his family. By the time the war ended in April 1865, William's three brothers were dead and William had barely survived more than a year in a hellish Union POW camp at Point Lookout, Maryland.

I'll be writing occasionally about my family's experiences during the Civil War Sesquicentennial, including what I've pieced together about William's experiences at Gettysburg and Point Lookout. Check back at Drye Goods for updates.

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