‘The Skirmish of the Buck Nekkids’

Published 4:32 pm Tuesday, October 31, 2023

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Everyone knows the difference between a good story and a great story is how it is told. And when you are pressed up against a hard deadline for this column on the heels of a busy weekend of football, sometimes it’s okay in the business of newspaper publishing to share a great story penned by a colleague.

That’s what I’m doing this week as the following is a story researched and written by Amanda VanDerBroek, a former staff writer here at the News-Herald. She wrote it for our 2008 Crossroads edition, but it’s just as interesting today as it was back then. It’s a story about the Civil War battle at Boon’s Mill, a site on the outskirts of Jackson in Northampton County

The G-rated tale will tell you how the Union forces were surprised by the Confederate troops laying in wait, who ultimately defeated the men in blue at that battle in 1863. But there are two sides to every story, which leads us to a second tale of the battle, one where the Confederate soldiers were surprised by Union forces, who in return were as equally shocked when they found many of their enemies indisposed and, well, just out right naked.

To defend the exposed soldiers, it was a hot, muggy, high summer day in northeast North Carolina and the serene millpond, with its still mirror-like surface, probably called to them.

In the end though, the Confederates (both naked and clothed) gladly beat those Union forces, forcing them to retreat back to Federal occupied Winton over in Hertford County.

Despite the back drop of a little humor, the battle at Boon’s Mill sealed Northampton County’s safety from Union occupation until the end of the war. Families were allowed to live in peace, crops grew by abundance and a pertinent supply line for the Confederacy was spared.

During February 1862, Winton was completely obliterated by Union troops, who burned and sacked the riverside town. Winton was one of the first towns in the state to experience this type of devastation.

Northampton County answered the call of the war and provided several pinnacle figures in the conflict’s history. One was county native Matt Ransom, who later became a general and served in many campaigns, among them the battle at Boon’s Mill.

The county’s close proximity to the Weldon-Wilmington railway also made it vital to the Confederates’ effort. However, it was by this rail line that 5,000 Union troops and several artilleries, under the command of Colonel Samuel P. Spear, were able to infiltrate Northampton County in July 1863 and ultimately setting up the battle at Boon’s Mill.

As Col. Spear and his men made their way across Northampton, intent on destroying the railroad bridge over the Roanoke River and thus severing the important vein of support for the Confederacy, they were being watched. Confederate Intelligence was hot on the Union’s trail, calculating and calling for reinforcements.

According to North Carolina’s Historical Marker web site, Ransom’s men had been stationed in Petersburg, VA when word of the Union incursions reached them. He hurriedly sent the 35th North Carolina Troops to Garysburg by rail, followed shortly thereafter by elements of the 24th and 49th North Carolina regiments. After their arrival in Garysburg, the forces were joined by a Georgia artillery battery, the Macon Light Artillery, and marched to Boon’s Mill to meet the Union advance.

On the morning of July 28, 1863, Confederate troops rested and lunched on the edge of the millpond. In the steamy July heat, the water proved tempting as some of the troops decided to bathe, sans clothes.

While his men rested, Gen. Ransom headed out on a scouting mission.

A magazine article, “The Skirmish of the Buck Nekkids” by Clint Johnson reads, “Ransom rode into Jackson, did not find anything amiss and was riding back toward the mill pond when he said he heard a great shout behind him.”

To put it lightly, Gen. Ransom skedaddled, heading back towards his unsuspecting and unclothed men at the millpond.

An information plaque at Boon’s Mill reads, “As Ransom galloped across the mill tail bridge shouting orders, a few of his men, bathing in the millpond, were likewise surprised when bullets began splashing the water around them, and they started scrambling for their weapons.

“Skirmishers advanced against the Federals, but the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry (Union troops) and two guns from Stewart’s Mounted Battery soon pushed them back. As the Pennsylvanians formed for a mounted attack, Spear arrived with the 10th New York Mounted Rifles. The other seven guns of the Federal battery joined the shelling of the earthworks.”

It’s reported the battle lasted nearly five hours around the mill and no side were able to gain ground on the other. Col. Spear eventually decided to withdraw and head to Federal occupied Winton.

According to Confederate veteran Robert Graham, eleven Union soldiers were killed at Boon’s Mill in exchange for one dead and three wounded Confederates. The single Confederate killed was Private John Drum, Company I, 49th North Carolina, age eighteen. Three men of the 1st New York Mounted Rifles were killed and two wounded. The 11th Pennsylvania did not report its casualties.

As infamous as the tale is with its soldiers in the “buff” the triumph of the Confederates over the Yankees at Boon’s Mill provided security for the people of Northampton County.

“Northampton was to be spared from any further occupation until the closing weeks of the war in the spring of 1865 when an army of 8,000 Union troops moved into the Seaboard area and dug up embankments on the railroad. As the train approached, the danger was discovered, and the train with 2,000 Confederate troops backed down. No shots were fired and the railroad was cut,” according to information published in the 1976 book: Footprints in Northampton.

Today, Boon’s Mill bears a historical marker and information plaque bearing the story of the battle there. A roadside table where county residents and motorists traveling along US 158 stop to fish or eat a picnic lunch perhaps, never knowing the pivotal role the small millpond served 160 years ago.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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