“…not taking time to bid their friends adieu…”

As Confederate General Robert E. Lee was meeting with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to surrender the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, another Union force was now moving through western North Carolina to disrupt rail lines stretching eastward to Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston and his Confederate Army of Tennessee in North Carolina. This force was a cavalry division under the command of Union Brigadier General Alvan C. Gillem, but under the overall command of Major General George H. Stoneman. General Stoneman was directed to “raid” into western North Carolina with the support of local Union forces under the command of Colonel George Washington Kirk and disrupt the Confederate rail infrastructure in support of Major General William T. Sherman’s Union armies advancing westward toward Raleigh, North Carolina. On March 24, 1865, Stoneman’s force left their camp in Morristown, Tennessee, and by March 28th, the Union cavalrymen had taken Boone, North Carolina. They quickly moved through Wilkes County, and turned north into Virginia by April 3, 1865. Some seven days later, the Federal cavalry had reached the small community of Germanton located sixteen miles northwest of the duel communities of Winston and Salem, North Carolina.

At this point, General Stoneman ordered Union Colonel William J. Palmer to move his brigade of three regiments toward the county seat of Forsyth County in an effort to destroy factories producing cloth for the Confederacy as described in our earlier posts several years ago. As Colonel Palmer and his Union cavalrymen rode toward the town of Winston, local officials were meeting to convene the Forsyth County Superior Court on Monday, April 10, 1865. The Clerk of Superior Court, John Blackburn, described the events that were unfolding that day in an entry in the Forsyth County Superior Court Minutes. While waiting for the judge to arrive, word was received that the “…Yankee army was apparently on its way…” Blackburn described those called for jury duty and those who had arrived to pursue cases in court soon “… began to disperse rather unceremoniously…” from the Forsyth County court house. As clerk of court, Blackburn began to gather his court papers and dockets to prevent them from falling in the hands of what he described as the “…Yankee army…” Interesting enough, he chose to hide the records in several houses of women in the town such as one widow named “Mrs. Elizabeth Long,” maybe under the belief that Union cavalrymen will not harm the dwellings of women in town. He also noted that the local Confederate Conscription enrolling officer and his detachment “…left precipitately…”

After locking up his office, Blackburn joined the mayors of both Winston and Salem, the principal of the Salem Female Academy, and one other individual as they walked up to Liberty Street to meet the Union soldiers. Near sunset, a squad of Union cavalry rode up with pistols drawn, and the small party “…raised White handkerchiefs to let them know our mission was peace…” The cavalrymen were looking for “…Confederate or rebel soldiers…” who had recently fired on them. Soon after, Colonel Palmer and his staff arrived on the scene and accepted the surrender of the two small communities, and asked the small party to accompany him into town. Blackburn closed his account of the events of that day by noting that Colonel Palmer established his headquarters in the house of the Joshua Bonor, the Mayor of Winston.

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Lt. Walsh: “Raleigh’s Lone Defender”

These two accounts [see links below] of the first moments of the Federal army entering the capitol city of Raleigh give slightly divergent details about the time-line of events.  They both, however, agree upon the final action centered on the initial occupation: a Confederate soldier – a Reb – shot at the Federals and in return was hanged.

The City of Raleigh was wedged between two opposing forces – the retreating Confederates and the advancing Federals.  Governor Zebulon Vance had created a small party of men, including two former governors, to go out and meet with the Federal officers and surrender the city.  It was hoped that in doing so the city would be spared the fate of other capitol cities that fell to Sherman’s army. The honorable Kenneth Raynor also went out to surrender the city.  No timely word was received by Vance, the surrendering party having been delayed along the route. Vance decided he would leave and went to meet the main body of Confederate troops near what is now Cary.  He left the keys of the State Capitol in the hands of Alex – described as a “faithful old black.”  Raleigh itself was left to General Wheeler’s cavalry who began to plunder in earnest the night of April 12th.  Early on the 13th they set fire to a train depot to keep the goods out of the Federal’s hands and retreated.

As the sun’s first light shown on Raleigh, the remnants of Confederate looters scattered from the city.  Even as the sound of their horses’ hooves died down the martial sounds of a conquering army entered the city and echoed up Fayetteville Street.  At the northern end of the street stood former Governor Swain, who had been one of Vance’s surrender emissaries.  He now held the keys previously entrusted to Alex.

As Federal forces under General Kilpatrick came abreast of the Market House on Fayetteville Street two Confederate cavalrymen appeared at the head of Fayetteville Street near where Swain was standing.  A citizen happened by at that moment and seeing one of the cavalrymen pull a pistol and level it at the Federals cried out “for God’s sake don’t shoot the city has surrendered.”  His cry was too late for the cavalryman snapped a round from his pistol at the Federals.

The other cavalryman fled down Hillsborough Street leaving the shooter alone.  Kilpatrick’s men recovered from being shot at and began a dash up Fayetteville Street towards the State Capitol.  The window sash of a nearby house flew open and the occupant yelled to the remaining cavalryman – ‘The town has surrendered.  Don’t fire; you are jeopardizing us all.” The cavalryman cursed the Yankees, saying “I’ll take one last crack at ‘em” and emptied five more shots in the direction of the Federal riders.  The shots scattered the Yankees but a group of US cavalrymen spur their mounts on and give chase to the lone Confederate.

The shooter lost precious seconds riding down the wrong street to leave Raleigh. The street ended in a land drop too steep for his horse to make – the bridge was a block away on Hillsborough Street.  Retracing his path allowed the Federals to catch up and when his horse went down the Rebel cavalryman was at the mercy of the Federal soldiers.  They gathered him up and took him back to the end of Fayetteville Street where Kilpatrick and Swain were standing near the statue of George Washington.

Kilpatrick asked the man what was his command.  “I belong to Wheeler’s Cavalry and am from Texas.  My name is Walsh.”

Kilpatrick ended the brief exchange by ordering Walsh’s execution – “take the man out where no ladies can see him and hang him.”  Walsh was executed on April 13, 1865.

[For an excellent account of the Walsh story see the News and Observer, Raleigh, N.C. July 3, 1927, page 5.]

James D. Crozer letter

Newspaper article giving account of the Lt. Walsh incident

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New Acquisition Highlights Appomattox Court House

[This blog post was written by Matthew M. Peek, Military Collections Archivist in the Special Collections Section.]

Pictured is an original company pay roll for Company G of the 38th North Carolina Infantry, a new addition to the State Archives of North Carolina

Road to Appomattox: Company G of the 38th North Carolina Troops and Their Path to Surrender

In January 2015, the State Archives of North Carolina Military Collection received a rare, original company pay roll for Company G of the 38th North Carolina Infantry, Confederate States Army, dated February 29, 1864. The document was dated two weeks after their new commanding officer, who remained the commanding officer until the surrender at Appomattox Court House, was assigned that position. The payroll was donated by the direct descendants of one of the company’s officers, who most likely carried this payroll while the company was at Appomattox Court House. In honor of the 150th anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, we would like to utilize the company payroll to trace the experience of Company G and some of its men from February 29, 1864, until their surrender on April 9, 1865.

Company G of the 38th North Carolina Infantry was raised in Alexander County, N.C., on November 2, 1861. It went into state service at Camp Mangum on December 31, 1861, near present-day Raleigh. Known as the “Rocky Face Rangers,” the great majority of its members were farmers, mechanics, and teachers. The 38th North Carolina Infantry and Company G served with distinction at some of the Civil War’s most important battles prior to February 1864, including the Seven Days Battles, Second Battle of Manassas, Sharpsburg, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. By 1864, Company G had suffered significantly from wounds, deaths, captures, and desertions to the enemy. 1864 would prove to be a turning point for the unit—as it had for so many other North Carolina regiments, worn down by the grueling fighting as the tide seemingly began to turn in the Union’s favor.

By February 1864, Company G had 46 men listed in its ranks, with many of these men having family connections to each other, such as the Murdock (listed in the payroll as Murdah) brothers and the Lackey family.  By the time of April 9, 1865, Company G had suffered tremendously from the course of war, with the following fates coming to the men of its ranks as listed on the February 1864 company payroll:

7 soldiers were captured during battle, and released after they took the Union’s Oath of Allegiance; 5 soldiers deserted to the Union side; 13 soldiers surrendered at Appomattox Court House with the 38th North Carolina Infantry; 5 soldiers were transferred or retired to the Invalid Corps due to injury; 1 soldier left the company and returned home, believed to be due to injury; 6 soldiers were killed in combat or died of disease before the surrender at Appomattox; 7 soldiers are unaccounted for due to unknown circumstance by the time of Appomattox; and 2 soldiers were discharged before the end of war.


Each of the company’s men who remained in service until the surrender at Appomattox found their own unique path to the doorsteps of defeat.

The company’s commanding officer, Captain Richard M. Sharpe, had just been promoted to captain and was assigned as the company’s commanding officer on February 16, 1864. Richard Sharpe served in the same company with his four brothers and one cousin, George W. (also a company officer), John C. (also a company officer), James F., Thomas J., and Christopher T. (cousin). Of all his relations in the company, only Richard survived through the Civil War to the surrender at Appomattox Court House. Richard Sharpe would lead Company G in the fierce combat at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House, Va., where he was wounded in the right shoulder on May 13, 1864. Sharpe would be unable to return to full service until sometime in July or August 1864, regaining command of Company G. Sharpe oversaw his company’s surrender to the Union forces at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865.

Alfred A. Hines was promoted to First Lieutenant of Company G on February 16, 1864. Having been a teacher before the Civil War, Hines served in the company with his two brothers and a family relative. Hines appears to have suffered greatly from illness, having been absent from the company before his 1864 promotion, and absent again due to illness for most of the year until October 1864. During this period of illness, Alfred learned of the death of his brother Benjamin at Petersburg, Virginia, on June 24, 1864. Finally unable to continue in full service, Alfred retired to the Invalid Corps, and would surrender with Company G and his sole living brother Samuel

Not all of those who surrendered at Appomattox had a clear path to the end of the war. Private Henry M. Poplin entered service with Company G at the advanced fighting age of 38 in March 1863. Before 1864, Poplin was captured by the Union forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., on May 3, 1863, and confined at Washington, D.C. He would be involved in a prisoner-of-war exchange with the Confederacy around May 13, 1863, and returned to duty with Company G within the next few months. Poplin would face the Union forces as victors again on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox.

Private Robert Clementus Lackey is one of the most unique soldiers in Company G to have made it to Appomattox. Lackey was one of thirteen members of the Lackey family of Alexander County who served in Company G, along with his first cousin Thomas Fielding Murdock (also Murdah). The Lackey, Murdock, and Sharpe families, represented by 22 members in Company G during the Civil War, are all related through marriage. The Lackey family at the start of the Civil War was one of the largest families in Alexander County. Robert worked as a farmer before the war, and enlisted in November 1861. Lackey was wounded about June 26, 1862, at Mechanicsburg, Virginia; he appears to have been bothered by the wound throughout the remainder of the war. He rejoined Company G by September 1862 and served until about March 1864, when he was promoted to be a Musician (again, likely due to his injuries). Robert Lackey retired to the Invalid Corps on December 7, 1864, remaining in a non-combat capacity with Company G until Appomattox.

One of the most unusual stories from the members of Company G by February 1864 was that of Private Cyrus Drum. At age 38 when he enlisted in March 1863, Drum was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Va., during May 1-4, 1863. After his absence from his company due to injury, Drum would be listed on August 13, 1863, as a deserter, having not returned to his company after more than three months’ absence. Drum returned to duty sometime in November or December 1863, after which he was court-martialed for desertion and sentenced to death by the Confederate Army. However, likely due to the shortage of Confederate soldiers by 1864, his death sentence was remitted. Drum would remain with Company G, only to end up surrendering to the Union Army at Appomattox.

Finally, we come to the Company G payroll’s original owner, Thomas Fielding Murdock (listed as Murdah). Thomas Murdock was a 19-year old farmer when he enlisted in Company G; Thomas’ younger brother Robert would enlist at some point in the same company. Thomas became the 3rd Lieutenant of Company G on May 11, 1863, and served in this capacity throughout the rest of the Civil War. Thomas surrendered on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House. During the surrender, Thomas appears to have retained an original February 1864 payroll, along with a diary he kept throughout the war, and took the payroll back with him, folded up, to Alexander County

The surrender of the Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox Court House, and later of Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee on April 26, 1865, did not spark the end of fighting for the Confederate veterans of Company G. They would return home to farms and communities in Alexander County, requiring the veterans to pitch in to fill the void of those men county men lost in war. The returning soldiers had to learn to deal with the horrors of war as they re-learned to live at home and reunite with their families. The men also had to learn how to deal with the residual injuries of the war, even as their Southern culture would be shocked with changes following the end of the Civil War and beginning of Reconstruction. Each member of Company G found their own way at war’s end.

Richard M. Sharpe returned to Alexander County, and married Barbra E. Mehaffey on April 4, 1867. Alfred A. Hines would eventually settle in Iredell County, and raised a family with his wife Rebecca C. Hines. Despite his various infirmaries, Alfred lived until May 15, 1926, getting to see a son and daughter into adulthood. Henry M. Poplin returned to Alexander County and his family, including his wife Mary and their four children—one of whom, Catherine, had been born at the start of the Civil War.  In a double ceremony with his cousin Thomas F. Murdock, Robert C. Lackey married a Civil War soldier’s widow, Panthy Susan Beckham, on November 22, 1865. The Lackeys went on to have a large family and built their own house.

Cyrus Drum returned home to his wife Nancy in Alexander County. It is not known what, if any, effect Drum’s desertion had on his reputation in the county. Drum died on August 23, 1904 at the age of 78. Drum did not die before seeking a Confederate veteran’s pension in 1902—without mentioning anything about his court-martial or desertion in his official application.  After the war, Thomas Murdock married Elizabeth H. Beckham on November 22, 1865. He and his wife had a large family, and Thomas became a local public official. Later, he became a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives. The entire time, his family retained the Company G payroll, until Thomas Murdock’s descendants donated it to the State Archives in January 2015. The documents preserved by the State Archives of North Carolina and the Military Collection assist in completing gaps in the record of our state’s Civil War heritage. And with donations by members of the public, such as this donation of this document, we are able to offer North Carolinians richer understanding of their past.

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“…to remove as soon as possible to the valley of the Haw River…”

By mid-April 1865, the eastern and western theaters of the American Civil War were now within 150 miles of each other. To the north in Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had abandoned Richmond, Virginia and their defensive works and was moving westward toward Lynchburg, Va. General Lee was seeking to reach the supplies positioned along the Danville Rail Road to re-energize his weaken army and to seek the security of open countryside to maneuver against Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union armies. Grant understood what General Lee was trying to accomplish, and attempted to move his Union forces in position to block the Confederate retreat route and to prevent their attainment of supplies from the rail lines coming out of North Carolina.

Near Smithfield, North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was also preparing to move westward as well. Confederate cavalry scouts were reporting that Major General William T. Sherman’s combined Union armies were preparing to leave their camps in Goldsboro, NC to advance westward to engage General Johnston’s Army of Tennessee. Upon his arrival in Goldsboro, General Sherman discovered that his Union armies were not needed by General Grant in Virginia, and he was quickly directed to turn his focus toward the “new” Confederate Army of Tennessee and defeat it militarily in the Tar Heel state. General Johnston knew that he did not have numbers to face General Sherman’s Union forces head on, but needed to retreat westward to favorable ground to mount a limited strike similar to his actions at Bentonville, NC.

On 8 April 1865, Confederate Lieutenant Colonel John J. Garnett issued orders to begin the retreat from Johnston, County, North Carolina. These orders directed Confederate Lt. Colonel Joseph B. Starr to move his artillery batteries westward from Clayton Station “…to the valley of the Haw River” in Alamance County. The north-south flowing Haw River was seen as possible defensive barrier between the Confederate forces and the General Sherman’s combined Union armies’ potential westward advance. In addition, the Confederate government was currently in Danville, Va. and any retreat toward Greensboro, NC to bring the Confederate Army of Tennessee in closer communications with its civilian government. General Johnston knew that it was important to keep organized armies in the field as a manifestation of that civil authority in order for the Confederate States of America to continue to survive

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Bells Across the Land 2015

On April 9, 2015 the National Park Service will commemorate the surrender of Confederate forces under General Robert E. Lee to Union forces under General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Bells will ring across the country in remembrance of this monumental moment and the subsequent end of the American Civil War.


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First Wednesdays – “They never come to hand…”

As the state of North Carolina was becoming increasingly besieged by enemy forces entering the state from all sides, the civil authority within the interior of the state was collapsing as well. This was not an overnight phenomenon. The cracks became evident during the implementation of the conscription acts in North Carolina during the war, where the poor and middle class became convinced that they were being forced to shoulder the burden of majority of the fighting in the sectional conflict. This chasm grew even more as county governments became as fractured by the internal conflicts erupting between the opponents and supporters of the war as they fought for the control of local governments. The internal struggle soon forced Governor Zebulon Vance to take measures to militarily deal with counties that were in open rebellion to the Confederate and state governments. These measures brought additional pain and suffering to the state’s population, and weaken the state’s material support for the idea of separate Confederate government within the boundaries of North America.

As the war continued, county governments became dominated by wealthy land owners, who were able to avoid military service due to exemptions in the Confederate conscription acts. This was not a new occurrence, since most county governments were controlled by justices of the peace, who were appointed by state legislators who were in turn elected into office themselves by the wealthy property owners in the county. During the war, these justices of the peace used their authority to control the prices within the county, forced “undesirables” into military service, and levy taxes on the poor. Much of the revolt against the Confederate government was in part a struggle against the practices of courthouse politics in North Carolina.

The arrival of Union forces in February 1865 brought another player to further disrupt local governance within the state. Now, local governments had to contend with arrival of military operations within their boundaries. County courts cancelled scheduled court terms and other vital components of local government simply disappeared with the sight of blue-coated soldiers on courthouse grounds. In many cases, the county government would just disappear from sight, as court officials rushed home to protect their properties from Union soldiers. In the case of our letter dated 30 March 1865, P. J. Coppendge, the Clerk of Anson County Court, wrote to Governor Vance to make a second request for the commissions for the local magistrates that were appointed during the last term of the General Assembly. As noted by Mr. Coppendge, “They never have come to hand our mail Facilities have been interrupted by Yankee Raids our mails are uncertain…” It is assumed that April Term of the Anson County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (County Court) was able to meet, since the Trial Docket for that court did survive the war. Interestingly enough, the regular court docket did not survive, and we are not completely sure that all the magistrates’ commissions were delivered from Raleigh, North Carolina.

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“The aid of the people of the county is necessary…”

After the engagement at Bentonville, North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston pulled his army back to the area near Smithfield to reorganize his growing forces and to keep an eye on Major General William T. Sherman’s Union armies in Goldsboro, North Carolina. During the same period, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched a desperate attempt to breach the Union siege lines at Petersburg, Virginia on March 25, 1865. General Lee attempted to drive a wedge in the Federal lines at Fort Stedman, and possibly delay the impending Union Spring Offensive slated for the end of March 1865. There was also hope that a possible victory might allow elements of the Army of Northern Virginia to slip into North Carolina, unite with General Johnston’s new “Army of Tennessee,” and strike at the Federal forces gathering in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Roughly 300 miles to the west in the North Carolina Mountains, Major General George Stoneman led a force of 6,000 Union troopers on a raid out of East Tennessee exploiting the foundation laid by Union raiders such as George Washington Kirk. The Confederacy was slowing collapsing in the east, and North Carolina was becoming the center of that disintegration.

In Smithfield, General Johnston continued to work to form his new army named after the principle Confederate field army of the heartland, the Army of Tennessee. This new force was integrating elements from the old Army of Tennessee destroyed at the Battle of Nashville, Tennessee in late 1864, the Confederate Department of North Carolina, and numerous miscellaneous units displaced by the movement of General Sherman’s Union forces into North Carolina. He had to appoint new division and brigade commanders, and consolidate veteran regiments into new battalions to bring structure to this force. In addition, General Johnston’s army needed supplies to clothe, equip, and feed these soldiers, and to bring them up to par to be able to resist General Sherman’s Federal forces. Due to the weaken state of the Confederate rail system, General Johnston was forced to rely on obtaining foodstuffs from the civilian population through a method known as impressment. In this manner, military officers and/or military units would “impress” food and supplies from the civilian population with the promise of payment later. In the eyes of the civilians, “impressment” was just another term for theft.

Also on guard to protect his citizens from the abuses of the central government, Governor Zebulon Vance protested to General Johnston to prevent the theft of civilian property in and around Smithfield, North Carolina. General Johnston also had a growing discipline problem with starving soldiers deserting their units and stealing food from the local inhabitants. In his telegram dated March 28, 1865, General Johnston assured Governor Vance that he was going to bring an end to what he called “…illegal impressments” by the soldiers in his command and “If the property so impressed is identified it shall be restored.”

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“I was on the Skirmish Line”

By nightfall on March 20th, Major General William T. Sherman had finally connected both wings of his combined Union armies along the Goldsboro Road. He finally felt secure in the knowledge that his veteran regiments were now in support of each other, and any new Confederate assaults would now face the united strength of his armies. In heavy skirmish lines were deployed along the united Federal front running parallel to the Confederate lines protecting the long column of Confederate troops and wagons retreating northwest toward the town of Bentonville. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston continued to push his troops to the bridge over Mill Creek, and hopefully, safety with the deep creek separating his army and the advancing Federal brigades.

The fighting now fell upon the Union veterans of the Army of the Tennessee, which was composed of both Fifteenth and Seventeenth Army Corps. Their commander, Major General Oliver O. Howard, had orders to push General Johnston’s Confederate forces back, strengthen the weak connection with the Left Wing, and to hold the Confederates in place to prevent any future attacks. On Monday, March 20th, Fifteenth Army Corps, specifically the First Division, led the push down the Goldsboro Road to reach the embattled Left Wing. Sergeant William Frederick Thayer, Company A, Fourth Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry described the fighting in his diary entry for March 20th as “…march 6 mls & forced the Rebs the 2 Brig drove them 4 mls, the Rebs made a charge & was repulsed our Brig was brought up on the double quick…”

On the next day, March 21st, the Union Army of the Tennessee once again began heavy skirmishing with the Confederates in their front. For Sergeant Thayer, his Fourth Iowa had to anchor the left of his brigade’s line of battle, while they pushed the Confederates back to Bentonville. He wrote “Our Brig moved forward & put a heavy skirmish line…” Despite heavy enemy fire, the Hawkeyes pushed forward to take the Confederate rifle pits. They immediately began to reinforce them for their own use. Thayer wrote that “…moved forward & drove the Rebs in their main works & took their pits.” During Sergeant Thayer’s action with the Fourth Iowa, Seventeenth Army Corps had sent one infantry division on a probe to the Confederate left flank, found an opening, and nearly pushed through to Confederate General Johnston’s headquarters. The timely commitment of Confederate reinforcements prevented the loss of the only retreat route available to General Johnston.

On Wednesday, March 22nd, Sergeant Thayer and his fellow Hawkeyes again found themselves pushing northwest toward Bentonville, North Carolina. Except for Confederate cavalry, they found the Confederate army had retreated across Mill Creek. Thayer noted that his company had lost a number of men killed and wounded including Captain Teal of Company D “…shot through the leg.” In his report of the Carolinas Campaign, Colonel George A. Stone wrote “Captain Teale, of the Fourth Iowa, deserves especial note for his gallantry in holding the most exposed and dangerous part of the line. I regret to announce this gallant young officer was severely wounded in the leg.”

Confederate General Johnston succeeded in getting his army over Mill Creek, and pulled his forces back toward Smithfield, North Carolina to receive additional reinforcements from the Confederate Army of Tennessee. With the Confederates gone, General Sherman turned his two Union armies northeast to march to Goldsboro, North Carolina for reinforcements and supplies as well. Sergeant Thayer noted on March 23rd “…marcht 12 mls twords Goldsboro & camp.”

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“…Enemy moving…”

Despite the success during the afternoon of March 19, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston realized that it was imperative for him to withdraw his forces back over Mill Creek before Major General William T. Sherman can bring his combined Union armies to bear against him. Unfortunately, General Johnston only had one road leading back to the small community of Bentonville (or Bentonsville as some may call it) to the bridge over the Mill Creek to use as his escape route back to central Johnston County. During the night of March 19, Johnston began to gather his wounded and wagon trains together to start the arduous trek northwest to Bentonville and the crossing at Mill Creek. The severe rains and the use of the road by moving columns of infantry served to damage the road to the point where any rapid movement was nearly impossible. The elderly Confederate general also knew that the Federal columns would start to recoil back and come to the support of the Left Wing as soon as possible. Johnston knew that he needed to ask his men to buy him time to get his trains across the creek, and to prevent the uniting of General Sherman’s columns as long as possible.

The unexpected Confederate attacks threw General Sherman’s carefully calculated plans into a quandary. He now faced the prospect of dealing with a Confederate force of unknown size, while being unsupported by other Federal columns moving up from New Bern and Wilmington and nearly out of supplies. General Sherman was convinced that the need for support and supplies was more important than closing in and destroying this Confederate army. However, he knew that he could not leave his Left Wing unsupported in the face of an unknown Confederate force. As General Johnston prepared to retreat, General Sherman ordered his Union Army of the Tennessee to reverse course and come to the aid of his Left Wing.

To stop this Union threat, General Johnston formed his new army into a “U” shaped position to protect the road to Bentonville, and to block the road intersection between the Left Wing and the Union Army of the Tennessee moving down the Goldsboro Road. During the day on March 20th, both sides settled into heavy skirmishing in an attempt to gain control of the Goldsboro Road. Not until nightfall, did the Federal forces were able to bull nosed their way past the Confederate forces guarding the road intersection near Ebenezer Church.

While General Johnston trying to save his newly formed army from General Sherman’s Union brigades, the strategic situation for the Confederacy began to deteriorate. Both Federal columns moving up from both New Bern and Wilmington were moving closer to Goldsboro, North Carolina. In Richmond, Virginia, rumors were circulating concerning the new spring offensive being planned by Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The weather was warming and soon the roads would be dry enough to move troops into position for a final strike against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate central government. In a telegram dated March 20, 1865, Confederate Brigadier General Laurence S. Baker, commander of the garrison protecting the railroad at Weldon, NC, contacted Governor Zebulon Vance to see if any home guard units can be spared to protect the railroad. General Baker was acting on a telegraph sent by Confederate General Robert E. Lee reporting the movement of Union troops from Hatchers Run, Va toward Weldon, NC. By this point of the war, the eastern and western theaters of combat were slowly merging into one arena of operations.

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“…old Sherman lit up with a sad disappointment…”

By the middle of March 1865, the Confederate forces in the Eastern North Carolina found themselves within a slowly closing vise of three major Union military advances. Union Major General John G. Schofield was moving his “Army of the Ohio” westward out of the federal occupied areas in and around New Bern, North Carolina. Roughly ninety miles to the southwest, Union Major General William T. Sherman’s raiding force of four infantry corps and one cavalry division was moving into North Carolina toward the town of Fayetteville on the Cape Fear River. To the southeast of Fayetteville, Major General Alfred Terry and his federal veterans of the recent capture of Fort Fisher (Tenth Army Corps) was moving through Duplin County toward the railroad hub of Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had to assemble an army to buy the Confederacy time to mount an active defense of Central North Carolina within these three advancing enemy forces. Around Smithfield, North Carolina, he began to gather a force consisting of Confederate troops from recently abandoned military posts, arriving regiments from the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and elements of the Confederate Department of North Carolina under the command of Warrenton native, General Braxton Bragg. In attempt to buy General Johnston time to form an army, General Bragg struck Union General Schofield’s column near Wyse’s Forks, and was able to temporarily stop the Union advance coming from New Bern, NC on March 8, 1865.

This extra time afforded General Johnston the opportunity to formulate a plan to strike General Sherman and his federal forces positioned at Fayetteville, NC on March 11, 1865. Johnston did not have the numeral forces to take on General Sherman’s Union corps in a head to head fight; however he could possibly single out one of his columns for a quick attack and then pull his outnumbered forces back before the entire weight of Union armies can counterattack. To implement this plan, Johnston had to know where General Sherman’s forces were heading in North Carolina. The Confederate forces planned a rear guard action at Averasboro across the Cape Fear River from Fayetteville on March 16 to determine where Union General Sherman’s ultimate goal was in North Carolina, which was the rail town of Goldsboro on the banks of the Neuse River in Wayne County.

On March 18, General Johnston began to move his army southeast from Smithfield, NC to get his forces in position to assault the Left Wing of General Sherman’s Union columns marching overland to Goldsboro. The exposed Union Left Wing, consisting of the U.S. Fourteenth and Twentieth Army Corps, provided an opportunity for General Johnston’s Confederate forces to quickly strike and retreat before the Union forces had a chance to counter attack.

In his letter dated March 28, 1865, the correspondent titled “Son Lane” described the initial engagement near the small community of Bentonville, North Carolina, which we now know as the first day of the Battle of Bentonville on March 19, 1865. He described the initial arrival of Federal forces on the field near the Cole and Morris farms along the Goldsboro Road at 9 o’clock that morning, and the Union attempts to push the Confederate blocking units away from the road. He also wrote of the Confederate assault at 3 o’clock where “…our whole army charged the yanks and taken 2 lines of there works killing wounding and capturing thousands of them…”  Despite his description, only one Union infantry division, First Division, Fourteenth Army Corps, was routed from the field, and the Confederate assaults were soon stopped by the arrival of reinforcements from Union Twentieth Army Corps and the defense of Second Division, Fourteenth Army Corps below the Goldsboro Road. By nightfall on March 19, a stalemate existed across the battlefield as the Confederate forces retreated back to their earlier positions held that morning.

Unfortunately, we do not know who “Son Lane” was and which unit he served with on that Sunday, March 19, 1865. We do know that his letter came from Chatham County, and he described his unit as “battery” and was currently serving as “horse artillery” at the time of his letter to his mother. He may have served with one of three North Carolina artillery units from the Confederate Department of North Carolina, but unfortunately, there is no clear evidence available to determine which artillery battery that he served with.

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