Some historians have suggested that General William T. Sherman’s terror campaign through the deep South came to an end when his troops crossed the state line into North Carolina, and some of his officers are on record noting a pronounced change in the conduct of their soldiers. It is true that North Carolina did not see the scale of ruthless destruction, plunder and criminality which had been visited on South Carolina, but a number of Sherman’s soldiers continued to be commit crimes against civilians, and these crimes continued even after the war ended by occupying Federal troops in the state. Official records of the war, as well as numerous civilian accounts, attest to the fact that all of Sherman’s troops did not suddenly transform into exemplary soldiers upon crossing the state line into North Carolina.
A book entitled The Women of the South in War Times contains the story of the Murchison family of Fayetteville, who were the victims of General Kilpatrick’s forces in North Carolina:
On the tenth of March, less than a month after the burning of Columbia, Kilpatrick’s cavalry overran Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the surrounding country. At Manchester, these troopers came upon the estate of the aged Mr. Duncan Murchison. Here Miss Kate P. Goodridge and her sister were “refugeeing” from Norfolk. The Goodridge family was originally from New England; but, like practically all New England settlers in the South, they were heart and soul with the Confederacy…Five of the Goodridge family had enlisted in Confederate service.
As in the case of thousands of other private houses, the Murchison mansion was thoroughly ransacked; but many of the family valuables had been hidden so successfully that some of the soldiers became enraged at not securing greater booty; in spite of protests, they burst into the room of a young girl who was in the last stages of typhoid fever. The child was taken from the bed in which she lay and died while the bed and the room were being searched for money and jewelry…
Although over seventy years old, Mr. Murchison…was threatened with death, but Miss Phoebe Goodridge fell on her knees and begged for his life. Consequently, the soldiers refrained from carrying out their threat, but dragged Mr. Murchison, half-clad, into the nearby swamps, where he was compelled to stay until the raiders had gone away. The troopers slashed the family portraits with their swords, broke up much of the furniture, and poured molasses into the piano. Everything in the nature of food was destroyed. Cattle and poultry were driven off or shot. All granaries of corn and wheat were torn open and the contents carried off or ruined. Consequently, the members of the family were, like many of the women of Georgia and South Carolina, compelled to live on scattered grains left by the cavalry horses…
In her book When Sherman Came, Katherine M. Jones records a number of stories of civilian mistreatment by Sherman’s soldiers. She includes a letter written on March 22, 1865, by a lady of Fayetteville, who reported: “Sherman has gone and terrible has been the storm that has swept over us … They deliberately shot two of our citizens—murdered them in cold blood—one of them a Mr. Murphy, a wounded soldier, Confederate States army. They hung up three others and one lady, merely letting them down just in time to save life, in order to make them tell where their valuables were concealed; and they whipped—stripped and cowhided—several good and well known citizens for the same purpose.”
The slaves in North Carolina suffered just as the white inhabitants did. One former slave named Martha Graham later described the Federal soldiers to a newspaper writer saying: “They came from ever’where but outen the ground and outen the sky … They took all the corn outen the crib and the things we’d stored. When they left, we didn’t have nothin.’”
On May 9, 1865, at Greensboro, General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick reported to General Schofield in Raleigh, “A soldier of my command killed an old man to-day, a citizen, because he would not give up his money.” In South Carolina, it had been a common practice among Sherman’s soldiers to hang or threaten to hang civilians, usually old white men or slaves, in order to force them to reveal where they had hidden their valuables. This practice, which was sometimes fatal, was continued in North Carolina.
Official army correspondence and reports also record that outrages were being committed against North Carolina women by Sherman’s army and by occupying forces after the war. In his book The Illustrated Confederate Reader, historian Rod Gragg noted, “In their search for hidden treasure, Sherman’s troops sometimes coarsely searched Southern women, ripping open dresses and hoisting skirts. Accounts of rape, however, appear to have been voluntarily suppressed. Such assaults were regarded as the worst fate that could befall a lady.” Gragg goes on to relate the story of Clara Maclean, “a rural North Carolina homemaker…who openly discussed her experience when the worst nearly occurred.” Mrs. Maclean’s story was published in the Southern Historical Society Papers in 1885 as “The Last Raid.” Compiled from diaries she began keeping in 1859, it was a first person account of her encounter with a “blue-coat” during the last days of the war.
When Mrs. Maclean saw Yankee soldiers riding up to her house, she armed herself with a stiletto, hiding it in her skirt. She watched as several of the men looted valuables from her house and followed one of them upstairs. This soldier, who claimed to be looking for weapons, demanded that she open a locked trunk, and she complied. When he found nothing of value in the trunk, he locked the door and turned to Mrs. Maclean with a menacing look. She faced him down, demanding that he unlock the door.
For a moment, nay, a long minute—centuries it seemed to me—we stood thus. There he was, a stalwart blonde of perhaps twenty-three or four, over six feet in height; his breath hot with the peach brandy they had unearthed on this raid; his eyes blood-shot, a reckless demon looking out of their grey-green depths, ready for any atrocity. I measured him from cap to boots, then fixed my eyes steadily on his, not fearful in the least, calm to petrification almost, only as I pressed my left hand against my side I felt there a strange, wild fluttering, as of an imprisoned bird. With the other I slowly and stealthily unloosed the stiletto from its sheath, for it stuck tightly in the silver scabbard, and still gazed at him with unflinching nerves and tense muscles.
Whether he saw or divined the movement, or whether he heard his companions galloping away, I know not; or if indeed any “means” were necessary in this wonderful intervention of a protecting Providence. I only spoke these words very low, and my own voice was strange to me in its vibrating intensity, “What do you mean, sir? Open that door!”
One moment more his eye retained its fiendish brightness, then drooped. He turned, unlocked the door, and went down, I following…
About a year after the war, North Carolina author Cornelia Phillips Spencer published The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina, a book recounting many of the crimes committed against civilians by Sherman’s army. After describing a number of these incidents, including the plunder of private residences at Fayetteville, Goldsboro and Asheville, the burning of houses, and the hanging of a number of male citizens until they were nearly dead, Spencer explained her reasons for writing the book:
If it be asked why these have been presented, and why I seek to prolong these painful memories, and to keep alive the remembrances that ought rather to slumber and be forgotten with the dead past, let me reply that it is deliberately, and of set purpose, that I sketch these outlines of a great tragedy for our Northern friends to ponder. The South has suffered; that they admit in general terms, and add, “Such is war.” I desire to call their attention to the fact that such is NOT war, as their own standards declare; that the career of the grand army in the Great March, brilliant as was its design, masterly as was its execution, and triumphant as was the issue, is yet, in its details, a story for which they have no reason to be proud, and which, if truly told, if there be one spark of generosity, one drop of the milk of human kindness in Northern breasts, should turn their bitterness toward the South into tender pity, their exultation over her into a manly regret and remorse. They do not know—they shall never know unless Southerners themselves shall tell the mournful story—what the sword hath done in her fair fields and her pleasant places.
Cornelia Spencer wrote that in 1866. In 2016, perhaps now more than ever, Southerners must keep telling the mournful story. If we don’t, no one else will.