The Civil War

In the predawn hours of July 20, 1863, Union troops under the command of Major Ferris Jacobs of the Third New York Cavalry rode into Rocky Mount, North Carolina, intending to destroy the vital railroad bridge across the Tar River. They successfully burned the bridge, before turning their guns and torches to the rest of Rocky Mount. By the time Jacobs’s forces left town, they’d burned a railroad train and the city depot, the local telegraph office, a smaller county-operated bridge across the river, a four-story tall flour mill, Confederate supplies waiting for shipment, cotton bales, and around thirty wagons. In Jacobs’s own words “the destruction of property was large and complete.”  Among the most important of their targets was Rocky Mount Mills. Union  burned the building to the ground, stalling operations for years and changing the course of the mill’s history.

Military raids were common throughout the Civil War, but the situation in eastern North Carolina during 1863 meant that the region was especially prone to them. Union troops had occupied islands along the Outer Banks since the earliest months of the war and captured the coastal cities of New Bern and Beaufort in March of 1862. For the next two years, however, Union forces were not strong enough to move inland away from their Atlantic supply lines, and the Confederate Army couldn’t assemble enough troops to repel the occupying Northern soldiers. A military stalemate existed in eastern North Carolina with both sides raiding the other’s supply lines but making little headway otherwise.

A later bridge at the site of the one burned by troops in 1863

The July 1863 raid against Rocky Mount was an example of a supply line attack.The small town was a strategic location because of the long railroad bridge that spanned the nearby Tar river. The bridge was part of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad which connected the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, with Wilmington, North Carolina,  one of the few Confederate held ports. During the war, military supplies and foodstuffs streamed into Wilmington and were quickly transported up the railroad to Richmond where it could be shipped to Confederate armies in the field. Union commanders realized that destroying the railroad bridge at Rocky Mount could make life much more difficult for the Confederacy, and Confederate troops likely suffered from the raid’s success.

The raid began on July 17 when the Union expedition commanded by Brigadier General Edward E. Potter set out from its base at New Bern. Marching toward Tarborough, the main body destroyed the bridge over the Tar River at Greenville. At three o’clock in the morning on July 20, Potter detached Major Jacobs and his cavalry troopers from the expedition’s main body. While Potter’s force defeated a small band of Confederates stationed at Tarborough and burned Confederate property and a bridge there, Jacobs’s force rode to Rocky Mount and arrived in the town at 8:30 a.m. There, they set about destroying any material that could be useful for the Confederate war effort. They targeted Rocky Mount Mills since it produced yarn and cloth for the Confederate government.

Early photo of Rocky Mount Mills building
Early photo of Rocky Mount Mills building

Before burning it, Jacobs described the mill as “employing 150 white girls, built of stone and six stories high.” Although the mill was destroyed, local legend explains how Union troops were about to burn the house of William S. Battle, the mill’s owner, until the mill’s superintendent pleaded with Jacobs to spare it, explaining that he, the superintendent, was a Northern man himself and a Mason.

Battle house at Rocky Mount Mills, early 20th century
Battle house at Rocky Mount Mills, early 20th century

By eleven o’clock, Jacobs’ troops left Rocky Mount and rejoined the main force five hours later. Although several bodies of Confederate troops did attack the Potter’s expedition during its return to New Bern, none were successful, and the Union force arrived back at its base in the morning of July 23, with  sixty-four casualties from the six-day raid.

The Union raid was successful, but only temporarily. The Wilmington and Weldon Railroad company soon replaced the burned bridge with one that lasted until the end of the war, and the telegraph lines were also quickly repaired. Rocky Mount Mills, however, remained closed for the next year, and William S. Battle was only able to reopen in 1865, constructing a new brick building of a similar size. The mill remained successful during the postwar years, but it’s future held many financial difficulties and at least one more fire.

Lucas Kelley