By J. C. Knowles
February 17, 2014
On May 20, 1861, it all started as a great day of jubilation. But, on April 13, 1865, four years later, it all ended in tears. This was the stage for the greatest conflict in North Carolina history. The story should never be erased from our minds, nor should the story be only a silent memory to our children, now and future generations.
The gavel rang down in the State Capitol on May 20, 1861. At that moment, North Carolina became separated from the great Union of the United States of America. Outside the hall of the chambers, people were shouting, “Hurray, we have seceded.” The town’s church bells burst forth with a sound never to be heard again. Guns were being discharged in honor of the men in the Convention. A fever of great joy ran over the people in Raleigh as the news spread. But, four years later on April 13, 1865, Raleigh was a great scene of sadness. Mayor Harrison and his committee appointed by Governor Zeb Vance met Union General Judson Kilpatrick just outside the city and surrendered the city to Sherman’s Federal Army. As the men stood before Kilpatrick in complete surrender, they were literally crying. Not for themselves, but rather for our beloved Capital City, Raleigh.
In March of 1865, General William T. Sherman and his army of 60,000 Union troops left Fayetteville and headed east through the back roads and dirt paths of Sampson County. They were in route to the “bloodiest engagement on the soil of North Carolina” that saw General Joseph E. Johnston hold off Sherman and his men until it was known that a victory could not be won by Johnston. In the Battle of Bentonville on March 19 - 21, 1865, more than 4,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or missing in action. Following this battle, Sherman made his way to Goldsboro for fresh supplies and rest. By early April, Sherman had advanced to Smithfield. It was there on April 9th, that Sherman received the message that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia has surrendered to General U. S. Grant.
It didn’t take long for the people in Raleigh to realize the war was about to come to their front yard. The mayor received word that the Confederate troops would be moving through Raleigh in a few days and all precautions were made. The arrival of Johnston’s retreating army came through town beginning on the 11th of April. The sight was shocking and saddening as the Confederate troops moved slowly through the city. Many of the citizens were lining the streets and waving handkerchiefs as the troop moved forward. A small group of boys started playing “Dixie” to the battle-scarred, worn-out veterans of Johnston’s army. It would take a couple of days for the troops to move through Raleigh. Staying behind were the wounded and sick. Make-shift hospitals were set up in the basement of the First Baptist Church and Christ Church across from Union Square.
Mr. John M. Gibson writes in his book, Those 163 Days, “After a brief rest the grey columns would resume their march to Greensboro. Moving out Hillsborough Street the dusty phalanx halted near St. Mary’s School, where daughters of General Robert E, Lee and President Jefferson Davis had been students. The sights stirred the girls to patriotic fever and pity. Many took their lunches to the tired troops. Although the sight of Johnston’s army gave cause for sadness, it also gave cause for action.”
Governor Vance knew well enough that the war, in so far as North Carolina was concern, was only days away from being over. He also knew that with Johnston’s army passing through the city, Sherman would be close behind. Vance had heard of the destruction of Atlanta and Columbia, and he was not going to let this happen to Raleigh, not if he could help it. Realizing the end was near, Vance was ready to call a truce and pull North Carolina out of the war. With this thought he found two sympathetic followers, David L. Swain, President of the University of North Carolina and William A. Graham of Hillsborough. Both men were former governors of the state.
On April twelfth, following breakfast, the three men drafted a letter to General Sherman. The letter called for an interview between Sherman and the Governor, thereby they might discuss the terms of stopping the war in North Carolina. With the letter in hand, the two former governors board a train at Union Station, bound for Sherman’s approaching army. By this date, Sherman was about five miles beyond Smithfield, heading toward Raleigh. Not far from town the train was stopped by Confederate General Wade Hampton and his Confederate cavalry. Learning of the two men’s plan, he told the two “city gentlemen” in no uncertain terms that he had no liking for their plans, but promised the safe passage through the lines. After a brief pause, Hampton backed down on his promise. While talking to Graham and Swain, a group of Hampton’s soldiers came dashing out of the woods, being shot at by a group of Yankees. Hampton took off immediately, to join his troops, leaving the two “frocked-coated, top-hatted” city gentlemen in an active area of warfare. The Federal troops could not hold back the laughter seeing how the two men were embarrassed by being in the area as they were.
After the two gentlemen told the Calvary officer of their mission, they were told that they could not see General Sherman without first speaking to General Judson Kilpatrick. Before the rough-speaking Kilpatrick the two men were dressed up one side and then the other. After a tongue-lashing permission was granted to see General Sherman.
Their visit with Sherman was most pleasant. During their conservation Sherman told the gentlemen, “I have no ill feeling toward North Carolina and its people. I wish them no hardship and hope that Vance will stay on in Raleigh to help hold the state in check.” By the time they finished their talk with Sherman, the hour had grown very late. It was not safe to travel at night with all the looting and fighting going on. Through an act of kindness, Sherman offered to let the two men spend the night at his headquarters. (To be continued.)