N.C. Played Crucial Role at Civil War’s End

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

As I get older I understand certain sayings. One is “How time flies!” When I recently contemplated this year, the final year of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, “How time flies!” was my first thought. Only a couple of months remain.

During the horrid conflict (1861-65), when brother sometimes fought brother, approximately 750,000 lives were lost. Some scholars contend that one-sixth of the Confederate dead hailed from the Old North State. Unlike today, soldiers from the same county comprised regimental companies. As a result some communities — North and South — lost a great percentage of their male population. Many soldiers returned home alive yet without an arm, leg, or several limbs. Other veterans suffered from what doctors called “shell shock” during World War I and what we now call Post-Traumatic
Stress Syndrome.

In 1865, North Carolina was a primary Union target. Battles and military maneuvers had occurred before that year, to be sure. The battles of Roanoke Island, New Bern, Plymouth, and constant guerrilla warfare in the mountains are several examples.

During the war, Wilmington was a main harbor for blockade runners. Fort Fisher had ensured that the port town remained in Confederate hands and the Cape Fear River remained open to trade. In mid-January 1865, the garrison endured heavy bombardments and eventually the Union occupied the last bastion of Confederate waterways.

Union sights were set next on Goldsboro, a railroad hub connecting eastern North Carolina towns. While headquarters for this operation were moved to New Bern, Gen. William Sherman’s troops advanced through South Carolina and waged total war. By March 7, Sherman’s entire army was in the state.

On the way to Goldsboro, Union soldiers, under Gen. Jacob Cox’s command, were stopped near Kinston at Wyse Fork; Confederates had burned bridges across Southwest Creek. On March 8-10, the Battle of Wyse Fork ensued, and Kinston fell four days later. The Confederates, however, had delayed the Union advance for 10 days.

Sherman’s army advanced in two wings. Newly appointed Confederate Army commander Gen. Joseph Johnston planned with subordinates to crush one wing before Sherman’s army reunited.

On March 10, “Kilpatrick’s shirt-tail skedaddle” — a cavalry engagement  —occurred at Monroe’s Crossroads. Casualty reports are contradictory, but under Gen. Wade Hampton’s leadership, Confederates almost captured Kilpatrick and controlled road access that allowed them to join Gen. William Hardee’s army.

On March 11, Sherman occupied Fayetteville and abandoned some 20,000-30,000 white and black refugees, calling them “dead weight.” Sherman then directed a general to “destroy all railroad property, all shops, factories, tanneries, &c., and all mills, save one water-mill of sufficient capacity to grind meal for the people of Fayetteville.” And he ordered the arsenal destroyed.

Heavy fighting occurred in mid-March. At the Battle of Averasboro (March 16), Confederates delayed the Union advance and allowed time for Hardee’s men to reunite with Johnston’s command. The last major battle of the Civil War occurred at Bentonville on March 19-21. A decimated, patched-together, and unpaid Confederate army almost defeated a much larger foe. Sherman, however, maintained the field.

Meantime, Union Gen. George Stoneman led a total war effort in the mountains.

Sherman’s men were in Raleigh by April 13, four days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Even so, President Jefferson Davis maintained a will to fight. Johnston, however, convinced Davis that it was best for his war-weary men to surrender.

On April 17, 18, and 26, Johnston and Sherman negotiated terms at Bennett’s farmhouse (in modern day Durham). There, Johnston secured better terms of surrender for his men than Lee did at Appomattox. Although a few mountain skirmishes occurred later in April and May, the war in North Carolina had ended.