Most history buffs in Beaufort County know that after North Carolina’s secession from the Union, several Confederate volunteer regiments were formed in and around Washington. These regiments included the Washington Grays, the Jeff Davis Rifles, and the Beaufort Ploughboys, 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 neighboring counties.
Why did nearly 1,800 men in eastern North Carolina, including 300 from Beaufort County, join Union forces and fight against their home state? The core of North Carolina’s First and Second Regiments, those who entered the first wave of enthusiastic recruiting, were anti-slavery men who opposed secession. But some had other incentives. According to historian Wayne K. Durrill, poor whites and small Yeoman farmers resented their wealthy slave-plantation neighbors. These men rushed to join the Union army which would help them punish secessionist plantation owners. They viewed the “slave economy” as unfair competition for their work. They were “generally contemptuous of the negro as well as of his master.” Narrow class interest, not sympathy for enslaved people, motivated their abolitionism. In addition, the economic incentives of Union service attracted many poor whites by the introduction of bonuses which paid recruits $ 100 to enlist in 1862 and increased to $ 300 in 1863. These bonuses amounted to over $ 100. a year’s salary for many impoverished North Carolina residents.
Union Volunteer Regiments generally served as garrison troops or home guards for Union-occupied towns. The nucleus of the First North Carolina Regiment was formed in April 1862, shortly after the occupation of Washington. The North Carolinians did not expect to participate in major 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 in Washington of 1,200 men at dawn. The Confederates surprised the Union pickets stationed on the west side of town near the Elmwood Plantation. After a brief skirmish, Confederate troops charge on Second Street while the cavalry rushes to Market. A Union battery was captured at the corner of Second and Bridge Streets, and troops advanced further into town. Although surprised, Union forces regrouped and attacked west on Main, Second, and Third Streets, pushing the Confederates back towards Bridge Street. After more than two hours of hard fighting, the Confederate forces withdrew. The Confederate losses were 31 killed, 30 wounded and 24 taken prisoner, while the Union lost 26 killed, 55 wounded and 12 captured. Two of those killed were Beaufort County Union volunteers Benjamin Hudnell and John Davis. Of the Beaufort County volunteers, 25 died in the war, mostly from infection.
On April 26, 1864, after the fall of Plymouth to the Confederates, Union forces were ordered to abandon Washington. Along with other Union regiments, volunteer units were evacuated to New Bern to serve the war. On June 27, 1865, all the infantry companies of the First North Carolina Union Volunteer were assembled in New Bern.