Lawrence O'Brian Branch (1820-1862)
Lawrence O'Brian Branch was born in Enfield, Halifax County, N. C., November 28, 1820. He came from a distinguished background. His grandfather, John Branch, was a notable North Carolinian who had served the county of Halifax as High Sheriff, in the state legislature, the North Carolina Constitutional Convention, and as a Lieutenant Colonel under Nathaniel Green during the American Revolution. Lawrence's uncle, also named John, was a three-time governor of North Carolina, a state representative in the General Assembly, a United States Senator, the Secretary of the Navy under Andrew Jackson, and a one-term governor of the newly formed state of Florida.
At the age of five, Branch's mother died, and his father, who had removed to Tennessee, died in two years later in 1827. He was then brought back to his native State by his guardian, Gov. John Branch, and was taken to Washington when the governor was appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1829.
At the national capital the boy studied under various preceptors, one of them being Salmon P. Chase, afterward Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln. The young scholar then studied at the Bingham Military School (N. C.), the University of North Carolina, and and graduated with first honors from College of New Jersey (now Princeton) in 1838. Branch then studied the law in Nashville, Tennessee and owned and edited a newspaper there. He moved to Florida, where his uncle was governor and a brother lived, he was admitted to the bar by a special act of the state legislature and established a law practice in Tallahassee. He resided eight years in Florida. In 1841, he served as an aide-de-camp to General Leigh Reid, involved in the battles concerning the forced removal of the Seminole Indians.
In 1844 he married the daughter of Gen. W. A. Blount, of Washington, N. C.. In 1846, Branch entered the political scene for the first time. He was a candidate for the General Assembly of Florida, as a representative for Leon County. He lost. In 1848 he moved to Raleigh, and the next year received his license to practice law in the state. Between 1850 and 1855, he held a variety of jobs and posts: North Carolina Literary Board; director for the North Carolina Institution for the Deaf and Dumb; director for the State Bank; Democratic Presidential Elector; and the director and president of the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad Company.
In 1855, Branch was elected for his first term in the United States house of Representatives. He had defeated James B. Shepard for the seat. He represented North Carolina for three terms until the war began, serving in Congress from March 4,1855 until March 3, 1861. He was not a candidate for reelection in 1860.
On December 2, 1860, upon the resignation of Howell Cobb, Branch was offered the post of Secretary of the Treasury, which he declined, not wanting to vacate his seat in Congress.
With so many of the Southern congressmen leaving, Branch became the premier spokesman for the South. Branch was staunchly dedicated to the Confederacy. However, he expressed some reluctance to "throw down the pillars of the Union," but added " . . . the honor and security of North Carolina are dearer to me than life itself."
Returning from Congress March 4, 1861, he advocated immediate secession, and in April enlisted as a private in the Raleigh Rifles but had only attended one drill before the governor appointed him as a colonel and gave him the position of Quartermaster and Paymaster of North Carolina state troops. His job was to procure and supply all of North Carolina's soldiers. In September, Branch resigned his position and was sent as a advisor for the governor of North Carolina to the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. After returning from a meeting with the president concerning the North Carolina coastal defenses, Branch was commissioned Colonel of the Thirty-third North Carolina Troops. Six weeks later, on January I 7, 1862, he was commissioned a Brigadier General and given the position recently vacated by fellow North Carolinian, Daniel Harvey Hill. Branch was assigned to one of the three departments on North Carolina's coast, near New Bern. He was given six regiments of regular troops, a small battalion, several unattached militia companies, and eight batteries of artillery.
Branch's small force was defeated by the much larger force of Union Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside in March 1862. The Battle of New Bern, fought on March 14, 1862, was his first battle, commanding the forces which disputed the advance of Burnside. Branch's brigade was reorganized a short time afterwards, composed of the the 7th, 18th, 28th, 33rd and 37th regiments around New Berne, North Carolina.
Retiring to Kinston, Branch's brigade was transferred in May of 1862 to Virginia, to help counter the vast array of Federal forces under the command of General McClellan. His brigade was attached to A. P. Hill's famous Light Division. It was the first in the fight at Slash Church (Hanover Court House), also the first to cross the Chickahominy and attack the Federals, beginning the Seven Days' battles, in which the brigade fought at Mechanicsville, Cold Harbor, Frayser's Farm, and Malvern Hill, winning imperishable fame, at a cost of five colonels and 1,250 men killed and wounded, out of a total strength of 3,000. General Branch bore himself throughout this bloody campaign with undaunted courage and the coolness of a veteran commander.
Soon followed the battles of Cedar Run, Second Manassas, Fairfax Court House and Harper's Ferry. Hurrying from the latter victory on the morning of September 17, he reached the field of Sharpsburg with his brigade about 2:30 in the afternoon, just in time to meet an advance of the enemy which had broken the line of Jones' division and captured a battery. "With a yell of defiance," A. P. Hill reported, "Archer charged them, retook McIntosh's guns, and drove them back pellmell. Branch and Gregg, with their old veterans, sternly held their ground, and pouring in destructive volleys, the tide of the enemy surged back, and breaking in confusion, passed out of sight The three brigades of my division actively engaged did not number over 2,000 men, and these, with the help of my splendid batteries, drove back Burnside's corps of 15,000 men."
Soon after, as Hill and the three brigadiers were consulting, some sharpshooter sent a bullet into the group, which crashed through the brain of General Branch, and he fell, dying, into the arms of his staff-officer, Major Engelhard. Branch's remains were transported under military escort to Raleigh, were they where received by a committee and interred in the Old City Cemetery. General Hill wrote this about Branch: "The Confederacy has to mourn the loss of a gallant soldier and accomplished gentleman. He was my senior brigade commander, and one to whom I could have intrusted the command of my division, with all confidence."
General Branch left one son, W. A. B. Branch, who has served in Congress from the First district.