Fort Branch was named for Lawrence O’Brian Branch of Halifax County, N.C. He was born in 1820 to a prominent and wealthy family in Enfield, N.C., but was left an orphan at a very early age. He was then taken into the home of his uncle John Branch of Raleigh, N.C., who served as Secretary of the Navy in Andrew Jackson’s administration. Lawrence lived in Washington, D.C., with his uncle where he had the benefit of having Salmon P. Chase, later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as his private tutor.
Branch attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a short while, but graduated with honors from Princeton in 1838. He then went to Florida where he studied law but was so young when he finished his study that it took a special act of the Florida legislature to give him a license to practice there. He moved back to Raleigh where he became president of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad. He then served as congressman from 1855-1861. A staunch, Southern Democrat, he resigned his seat in Congress at the outbreak of the War Between the States and came back to North Carolina where he actively promoted the secession of North Carolina.
In April 1861, he joined the “Raleigh Rifles” as a private, but in May, Governor Ellis persuaded him to accept the office of Quartermaster General of North Carolina. Wanting to be actively involved in the field however, he resigned his position and in September was commissioned colonel of the 33rd Regiment North Carolina Troops. By January of 1862 he was promoted to brigadier general and was given command of the Southern troops defending New Bern, N.C.
At that particular time, all of eastern North Carolina was threatened with attack by Federal forces under the command of General Ambrose Burnside. They were unable to stem the flow of Union troops however, and had to retreat from the area. The job of holding their ground proved to be a difficult one since his troops were poorly trained and undisciplined. Their lack of training was due to the fact that most of them were volunteers and militia men who had very little formal military instruction. Before Branch could train them, they had to move against the well-trained troops of Burnside, but they made a gallant stand against overwhelming odds. Although he was blamed for the loss of New Bern to the Federals, his brigade ultimately won the tribute of Stonewall Jackson for their valor and steadfastness in later confrontations with the enemy in the Seven Days Battles around Richmond.
After the fall of New Bern, Branch was ordered to Virginia where he was attached to A.P. Hill’s “Light” Division. His brigade then consisted of the 7th, 18th, 28th, 33rd and 37th North Carolina Regiments. Besides the battles around Richmond, they were involved with the battles of Hanover Courthouse, Second Manassas, Fairfax Courthouse, and Sharpsburg.
On September 17, 1862, he led his troops on a rapid march from Harper’s Ferry to Sharpsburg and arrived on the field of battle in time to help stop the Union advance, thus saving General Lee’s right flank from a crushing defeat. Soon after this victory however, a tragic end came to Branch’s career when a Federal sharpshooter shot him as he stood talking with three fellow officers. He fell, dying in the arms of a staff officer.
General Branch had won the respect of this fellow officers and after his death General A.P. Hill said of him, “He was my senior brigadier and one to whom I could have entrusted the command of the division with all confidence. No country has a better son or nobler champion, no principle a bolder defender than the noble and gallant soldier, General Lawrence O’Brian Branch.”
His body was laid to rest in the Old City Cemetery in Raleigh, N.C.
CREDIT:Written by and reprinted with permission of Elizabeth Whitley Roberson. The article also appeared in the October 14, 1993 edition of the "Enterprise" newspaper published in Williamston, N.C.
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