A tension hangs over the empty fields, mingling with smoke from fires in the Confederate camp. The day is warm for early November, and the trees shimmer orange and gold in the bright sunlight. A lone sentry stands atop a haystack in the field that borders Fort Branch. News of a Union advance has the camp on alert, and the sentry keeps a keen eye trained on the woods 200 yards distant.
As morning slides into afternoon, a crowd of spectators gathers along State Road 1416. By two o'clock, nearly a thousand people jam to road and eagerly await some action. Suddenly, the sentry begins furiously waving a signal flag. As the camp bursts into noise and activity, the first Union soldiers emerge like blue ghosts from the distant woods. They advance slowly into the open field, finally nearly 300 of them in two neat columns, a huge Federal flag snapping in the breeze over their heads.
Not a shot is fired as the Rebel units take their position behind a split rail fence lined with hay bundles. The relentless Union regiment keeps coming, and the expectation builds to almost unbearable levels until finally the Confederate line lets loose with a thunderous volley that cracks the afternoon. A collective sigh escapes the gallery, and the battle is on.
For a full hour, more than 800 Union and Confederate infantrymen, calvary, and artillery gunners fight for possession of this Martin County field. Smoke from cannon and muskets shrouds the battlefield. The thunder of calvary units on the charge shakes the earth beneath our feet. Rebel yells mingle with the moans of the dying.
Slowly, the Rebel line falls back from the furious Union assault until they are driven from the field. Then a lone gray figure stumbles onto the field waving a white surrender flag. The roar dwindles into silence, and the smoke dissipates. A Union horseman rides onto the field, raises a trumpet to his lips, and blows a mournful version of Taps.
The gallery then bursts into cheers and applause. The Battle of Fort Branch is over --until next year.
The real battle of Fort Branch took place in July 1862, an event which is now recreated each November at the Fort Branch Reenactment and Living History Weekend. The three-day even is rapidly becoming one of the most popular reenactment events on the East Coast.
Located near Hamilton in Martin County, Fort Branch was constructed on a high bluff overlooking the strategically valuable Roanoke River in 1862. Union forces had already gained control over most eastern North Carolina, and the fort was built as a Confederate defensive measure. Armed with a dozen heavy artillery pieces, the fort successfully prevented Union gunboats from navigating upriver to the Wilmington-Weldon Railroad Bridge.
After Lees' surrender in 1865, the Confederates spiked the fort's 12 guns and dumped them into the river. Two months later, the Navy located and raised three guns from the river, but the remaining nine were never salvaged.
In the ensuing years, the large earthen fort fell into ruin, its unique star-shaped earthworks overgrown with brush and barely noticeable. The submerged cannons were largely forgotten until 1972. That year, a group of Alabama salvers brought up three of the guns. The sight of out-of-staters taking a piece of their history galvanized the local community, and they filed suit. The State ruled that the guns were the property of North Carolina and ordered them returned to Fort Branch for display.
Shortly afterward, the Fort Branch Battlefield Commission was formed. Using contributed funds from many sources, the Commission cleaned and restored the guns and set about restoring the fort. Then, in 1986, a group of North Carolina reenactors started the First North Carolina Regiment and established Fort Branch as their winter headquarters.
In the following years, the fort and reenactment has become Martin County's top tourist draw. The fort's original guns are now on permanent display at the fort. A Confederate encampment is available for tours. And the fort is in the process of being restored.
But the main event is the annual Living History Weekend, when the blue and gray once again take the field in remembrance of Fort Branch's heritage.