Lee won at Chancellorsville despite having sent away Longstreet and two of his divisions. They were supporting operations in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia that were designed to gather food in this rich agricultural region and put pressure on the Federal garrisons that occupied several towns on the Coastal Plain. The Yankees had established their presence in this region in early 1862 with the Burnside expedition, but they had failed to use it effectively as a springboard to attack vital lines of communication. More important operations in Virginia, most notably McClellan's drive on Richmond and Lee's subsequent efforts to mass troops for the Seven Days battles, had forced both sides to recall units from eastern North Carolina. The war had therefore stagnated on the Coastal Plain, with both sides content to watch each other from their respective towns.
The stalemate ended in mid-December 1862 when Maj. Gen. John G. Foster launched a raid from New Bern to Goldsborough to cut the Weldon Railroad. It was organized as a support for Burnside's offensive at Fredericksburg. Foster gathered a sizable force, four brigades with 10,000 infantrymen, forty guns, and 600 cavalrymen. He left New Bern on December 11, the same day that Burnside's engineers bridged the Rappahannock River, and encountered trees felled by the Rebels for several hundred yards along the road. Foster's pioneers, helped by details from the infantry regiments and even by freed blacks from the surrounding area, cut a path through the roadblock.1
Foster neared Kinston on December 13 to find Brig. Gen. Nathan G. Evans's South Carolina brigade of 2,000 men holding the town. Evans had also placed the 61st North Carolina in a forward position at Southwest Creek, four miles south of Kinston. The Tar Heels were entrenched along the north bank of this stream a short distance from the creek bluff and straddling the road to Kinston. The line consisted of a simple trench with a ditch but no traverses. Two artillery emplacements reinforced the line. A one-gun emplacement was located just to the left of the road; the other emplacement, for three guns, was on the far right of the line. It was a strong position but vulnerable to a