150 years ago, Sherman targeted 'offensively rebellious' Fayetteville
Posted March 8, 2015
Updated March 9, 2015
Fayetteville, N.C. — Gen. William T. Sherman arrived in Fayetteville on a dreary day and in a foul mood.
That mood was not improved when reports reached him that the Clarendon Bridge, the only structure across the Cape Fear River for miles, had burned. While a replacement was stretched over the rain-swollen river, Sherman and his army would call Fayetteville home.
For five woeful days in March 1865, Fayetteville became the most populous city between Richmond, Virginia, and New Orleans. It was a week punctuated with violence and explosions and the smells of burning buildings and rotting horses.
This week, Fayetteville remembers the 150th anniversary of the days, and the man, that changed the city.
"Sherman stayed in Fayetteville for only a few days," North Carolina historian Jim Leutze said. "But the effect lingered for decades."
Fayetteville in 1865 was North Carolina's "second city" to Raleigh. It was a business center of about 4,000 people and the most inland port in the state.
In early March 1865, everyone in town was looking to the southwest. The Union Army had crossed into North Carolina, and Fayetteville native Alice Campbell nervously penned what residents were thinking. Her accounts were written in "When Sherman Came" by Katherine Jones.
"It's Sherman, with his hordes of depraved and lawless men, bringing sorrow and desolation in their pathway."
Sarah Ann Tillinghast, a teacher in Fayetteville at the time, recalled the community's mood in letters now at the Museum of the Cape Fear.
"When Fort Fisher fell and Wilmington was taken by the Yankees, we felt very nervous. ... When Sherman got to Columbia, we were almost wild with excitement. His army came across the country and left almost a howling wilderness behind them."
Yet until a few days before his arrival, the city was clinging to the hope Sherman was planning to head toward Charlotte.
"Sherman was happy to let people guess where he was heading," said Civil War historian Wade Sokolosky. "The hope in Fayetteville was that he was heading somewhere like Raleigh or Charlotte, and
Sherman kept sending out patrols in all directions to keep the Confederate forces confused.
"But once he left Savannah in January, Fayetteville had a bull's-eye on it."
Two bull's-eyes, really – the Arsenal and The Fayetteville Observer. Sherman understood the need to capture one and had developed a burning desire to take the other.
When Sherman's forces entered the state, he seemed to have mellowed a bit. He had been told of the state's reluctance to join the Confederacy, and that there was doubtless a large loyal following ready to greet him and the Union army.
He instructed his commanders to "avoid wanton destruction" in their handling of civilian property here.
"Sherman didn't hold North Carolina responsible, not in the same fashion he did Georgia and South Carolina," Leutze said. "There's no question that the rampant destruction in South Carolina wasn't continued here.
"But with an army that had been aggressively foraging since it left Atlanta, it would be impossible to totally control things."
Livestock and food stores were confiscated and "bummers," the soldiers who plundered and terrorized civilians, kept up their trade. Troops delighted in lighting countless commercial rosin pits across the region just to watch them burn.
Confederate forces kept slipping east, and Sherman expected a Confederate stand at the Cape Fear River near Fayetteville. The river would provide a strong natural defense.
By March 9, Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston felt that such a stand would ultimately be fruitless against Sherman's massed army. He ordered all troops across the river, burning the bridge behind them.
That decision helped keep the army together a bit longer, but it earned Fayetteville Sherman's wrath. His army had spent six weeks slogging through mud and swollen streams as retreating Confederates burned every bridge along the way.
When the Confederate army arrived in Fayetteville, the Yankees were closing in from the south and west. After a brief skirmish at Monroe's Crossroads, north of Raeford, there was no stopping them.
Confederate troops crossed the river. Some civilians, figuring Sherman would then head to Raleigh, went with them. Most, however, chose to stay, hide their valuables and wait.
That night, wrote Tillinghast, "All the rolling stock of the railroad was taken off, and when the last train blew its good bye that night, a town full of old men, women and children were left to meet the foe."
The first foe arrived for breakfast, on March 11 about 9 a.m. An advance detachment of Union cavalry galloped up, hoping to secure the river bridge.
Gen. Wade Hampton, who had been eating a breakfast at the Fayetteville Hotel on Hay Street, assembled a spirited defense with his rear guard, who poured rosin on the Clarendon Bridge and torched it.
By midday, the fight was over. Union troops secured the Arsenal and began rolling down Haymount Hill into the city.
"Sherman's Army was in possession of our homes," Campbell wrote. "Every yard and house was teeming with bummers, stealing everything they could find."
The Union troops, who had quickly learned Fayetteville was not the hotbed of loyalty they anticipated, were in no mood to be polite. Many of the city's leading citizens were roughed up in searches to secure their valuables.
Still, by early evening, Mayor Archibald McLean had formally surrendered the town, and Old Glory flew over the Fayetteville Hotel. The occupying 14th Corps, which was to provide security in the city, marched past the Market House as its band played "Dixie."
D.P. Conyngham, a correspondent traveling with Sherman's army, added: "The streets are patrolled, and nothing else has been destroyed, or is likely to be destroyed - except the office of The Fayetteville Observer, a lying, truculent sheet that well deserves its fate. (It is) one of the infernatest nests of treason ever created in North Carolina."
Sherman had promised that if the people of Fayetteville would keep the bridge intact, his visit would be brief and merciful.
Now, it would be neither. Convinced that the locals were "offensively rebellious," Sherman issued Field Order 28:
"The Arsenal, all railroad property, all shops, factories and tanneries and all grist mills, save one, will be demolished."
At the time, Fayetteville had several cotton mills, and all were targets for Sherman. When businessmen begged him to spare the textile mills to allow civilians a means to work, the general was unswayed: "Gentlemen, .... (Slaves) and cotton caused this war, and I wish them both in hell. On Wednesday, those mills will be blown up."
The Arsenal, where Sherman set up his command, was a crown jewel to local residents. Set on about 30 acres of Haymount Hill, it had been built in the late 1830s and peacefully surrendered to Confederate forces in 1861.
The thick, light tan walls and meticulously kept grounds served as a source of civic pride. Picnics, church programs and weddings were often held on the grounds.
The Arsenal produced thousands of rounds of small-arms ammunition for the Confederacy. It also was a manufacturing site of the Fayetteville rifle, an accurate weapon for the South.
Above all, it was a symbol to Sherman of what he considered the treachery of rebellion. The use of a United States armory to aid the rebellion could not be forgiven.
After the fall of Wilmington, Arsenal commandant Frederick Childs took down any equipment that could be moved and sent it to safety in the Egypt Coal Mines near Sanford.
"This begs the question of whether or not Sherman had to destroy the Arsenal," said Civil War historian Sokolosky. "It was a viable military target, certainly, but it was no longer functional.
"From Sherman's view, it was better to be safe than sorry."
Additionally, Leutze noted, Sherman was not planning to stick around.
"Remember that this was not an army of occupation," Leutze said. "They were going to keep after Johnston's forces, and the last thing they wanted was a fortification in their rear.
"It might not have been necessary, but it was the smart move."
After taking Sunday off ("The people here generally attended their churches, for they were a very pious people," Sherman noted), Union forces began ripping down the Arsenal walls. Railroad ties hammered the walls into bits as regimental bands played. When the structure was flattened, soldiers took woodwork from the interior buildings and burned it. Fires were tossed into bunkers holding live ammunition. Explosions rocked the city into the evening.
"I can compare this day to nothing but what I imagine Hades would be, were its awful doors thrown open," Fayetteville resident Anne Kyle wrote in her diary.
The destruction of the Arsenal was business. Destroying the Observer was personal.
Sherman made clear his intention to punish the Observer and its publisher, Edward J. Hale. Sherman had developed a distaste for the paper in Savannah. It was both influential and unwavering in support of secession. It also published letters from Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton that demonized Sherman and the army. The Observer was the only newspaper he specifically ordered destroyed.
"The Observer's destruction was a last bit of retribution for Sherman," Leutze said. "He didn't like journalists at all, but he especially didn't like Hale."
It also was one of the few burnings he took time to savor. Sherman ordered Gen. Henry Slocum to destroy the building and burn the remnants. According to a letter by James Hale, son of the publisher, Sherman and Slocum "sat on the verandah of the hotel opposite, watching the progress of the flames while they hobnobbed over wines stolen from our cellar.''
Sherman's Army had the Confederates across the river. It also had an army nearly as large in its rear.
Refugees, as many as 25,000, had slowed the army down, eating both time and supplies.
"Sherman was not a great liberator," Leutze said. "His genius was in his strategy for ending the war. He wasn't conquering. He was just passing through.
"All these refugees were slowing him down. He was a by-the-book guy, and the chaos of this 'army' disturbed him."
Many of the refugees were liberated slaves. Some were whites who no longer had homes, businesses or farms. The whole bunch was a nuisance - "useless mouths" to Sherman.
So in Fayetteville, he decided to get rid of them. He instructed officers to send them all downriver to Wilmington, along with any sick and wounded soldiers. Those who could fit on vessels could ride. The rest rode wagons or walked the 120 miles to Wilmington. Reports indicate more than 400 drowned when one vessel sank in the river.
Once two temporary pontoon bridges spanned the river, the army followed Sherman's order to "... prepare to lean toward the northeast."
Without the rag-tag refugees following, there were suddenly hundreds of extra horses and mules. A pen was set up near the current Person Street Bridge.
Animals deemed fit to be of service were taken across the river. The remainder were shot and left to rot by the river so Confederate forces could not use them.
Before leaving, the army torched stores of rosin and cotton.
"Soon a pall of black smoke hung over everything," Fayetteville resident Sally Hawthorne wrote in Jones' "When Sherman Came."
"People were in a sad state of excitement and nervous exhaustion."
Aside from Savannah, Fayetteville was the only city of size that Sherman had left reasonably intact.
But the city his army left the evening of March 15 was a shell with no industry, save one grist mill to feed the city, and little hope. There was no rail stock, no river boats, no way to recover.
With no way to survive, many families left, including a large portion of the community's free black population.
Fayetteville had long been a haven for black artisans. Livery owners, coopers and specialized trade merchants, these "F.O.W." (free, other than white) residents were a combination of black and Indian skilled workers who lived in the city.
"It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write, but they weren't slaves," said Bertha Miller of Fayetteville State University. "So there were as many educated blacks in Fayetteville as anywhere in the state.
"It's not well documented what happened to them after Sherman's arrival. But many left."
In time, the community helped launch a new black literacy in Fayetteville. Gen. Oliver Howard, who had been one of Sherman's commanders, became the director of the Freedmen's Bureau. He helped determine which communities would be given preference for schools for blacks.
Several free blacks petitioned him, promising to support such a school in Fayetteville. That school was approved and, in 1867, O.O. Howard School opened. In time, that school grew into Fayetteville State University.
"It could be said that had Sherman gone elsewhere, we'd still have the Arsenal," said FSU history professor Sidney Johnson. "But we might not have Fayetteville State."
Within a decade, many of the mills were rebuilt. The Observer resumed publication in 1883. The city became a regional center for commerce again.
And war - this time overseas - helped spark Fayetteville's revival in the early 1900s. Army engineers looking for a large patch of land suitable for World War I artillery training found their "perfect tract" northwest of Fayetteville. In September 1922, Fort Bragg became a permanent post of the U.S. Army.
Ironically, it was named for Braxton Bragg, a Confederate general who had little success in North Carolina.
"Fort Bragg brought new life to Fayetteville," Leutze said. "It's interesting that the U.S. Army, the same one Sherman led, ultimately helped Fayetteville recover.
"He saw himself as an avenging angel. He wasn't a stupid, destructive brute, burning just for fun. He felt that radical forces had taken root and needed to be removed.
"Like a surgeon, he would remove them so the healing could begin. He made certain of that."
Fayetteville Observer Staff writer Chick Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3515.