The Battle of Goldsboro Bridge: The Journal of Howard J. Ford, Part V

By Susan Martin, Senior Processing Archivist 

This is the fifth installment in a series. Click here to read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

In my last two posts on the Civil War journal of Pvt. Howard J. Ford of the 43rd Massachusetts Infantry, I described his experiences during the Goldsboro Expedition in North Carolina, including the Battles of Kinston and Whitehall. Just one day after Whitehall, on 17 December 1862, Union and Confederate forces clashed once again in the third and final battle of the expedition, the Battle of Goldsboro (or Goldsborough) Bridge.

Oil painting of the Battle of Goldsboro Bridge, printed in Edward H. Rogers’s 1883 history of the regiment

When we last heard from him, Howard was lying face down in the middle of a road between the northern and southern firing lines. In his journal, he wrote about the visceral trauma of “expecting every moment would be our last.”

This time, Howard would be spared the worst of the fighting. His company was ordered on an ancillary mission to attack a rebel battery and disable its artillery if possible. He called this engagement the Skirmish of Spring Bank Bridge (known in the south as Thompson’s Bridge), and he spent most of it ducking from tree to tree to avoid grapeshot. Interestingly, he also explicitly acknowledged the danger of friendly fire amidst the chaos: “Some poor fools […] kept blazing away at random, with more danger to us than the rebels.”

Howard survived uninjured, but the Battle of Goldsboro Bridge did claim one of his friends. “The most terrible thing of all,” he wrote, “was the loss of the best and bravest man in the company, Wm. F. Sparrow. A man whose praise is in the mouth of all, from the highest to the lowest.” Cpl. William Freeman Sparrow was a 27-year-old carpenter from Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Howard also noted the deaths, at Whitehall the day before, of Isaac Young Smith and Theodore Parkman.

Following an individual’s day-to-day wartime experiences in close detail, you can clearly see the inevitable physical and psychological toll combat takes on them. The early days of patriotic fervor and noble ideals become grim determination and sometimes despair. The day after the battle, Howard wrote,

I assure you I shall never fo[r]get that work alluded to on this page. Never!!!! […] I dont know how human nature could stand it. ‘On to Richmond.’ [‘]Follow up your victories.’ ‘Chase them.’ ‘Cut em up.’ & such like ideas sound rather out of place when you come to realize something of the nature of the duties of a soldier.

Howard also admitted that he’d been having nightmares. “All times of night” he’d been waking in a panic, having dreamt that the army was leaving him behind, and these nightmares recurred long after any immediate danger had passed. He was emotionally and physically exhausted, even falling asleep standing up. However, as he said, “I am bound to tough it out.”

The battle was a strategic victory for the Union, but only a temporary one. Sources indicate that it took Confederate troops just two weeks to rebuild Goldsboro Bridge and restore their supply lines. Meanwhile, the Union Army’s simultaneous and devastating loss at the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia overshadowed events near Goldsboro. The 43rd Regiment returned to New Bern, “a limping lame, blistered, dirty set of men.”

Stay tuned to the Beehive for more of Howard J. Ford’s story.