Raleigh & The Civil War
With General William Tecumseh Sherman on the move toward Raleigh, the state called out its finest to save the city and the Capitol Building.
The Capitol was where the war began for North Carolinians. On May 20, 1861, North Carolina’s legislature passed a resolution becoming the final state to leave the Union. First blood was shed that day outside the Capitol. Celebratory cannon fire startled a bulldog which then bit one of the artillerymen in the seat of the pants. During the war, the Capitol served as a supply depot and the rotunda was used by Raleigh women who were making uniforms and bandages.
Sherman had cut a fiery swath across Georgia, which he called “child’s play” when compared to the Carolinas campaign. He had destroyed the statehouse in Columbia, SC. With an army of some 100,000 well supplied men on Raleigh’s doorstep in March 1865, former governors David L. Swain and William A. Graham formed a plan to avoid the fate of South Carolina’s Capitol.
Swain went to Raleigh to present the plan to Governor Zebulon B. Vance. The ex-governors wanted Vance to call a special convention of the state legislature and pass a resolution to end the hostilities. At the same time, they wanted to send a special delegation to Sherman to sue for peace while the legislature was gathering.
Swain and Graham were called upon to be the envoys. On the morning of April 12, they went through town toward a special train. Word of the mission had leaked and cries of “Traitor” followed in their wake.
It seemed an ill-fated undertaking from the start. Local Confederate officials allowed safe passage to meet Sherman, then word reached up the chain of command and the envoys were ordered to return to Raleigh. As they headed back, Union troops broke through and “piled down on them like wild Indians,” according to one eyewitness. The ex-governors were ordered off the train and relieved of watches, money and jewelry. Luckily, Union Brigadier General Smith Atkins showed up to restore some semblance of order. He apparently made a good impression because six months later he was Governor Swain’s son-in-law.
Sherman finally met the envoys late on April 12 and agreed that Raleigh would be spared if the Union troops met no resistance. Governor Vance, meanwhile, oversaw final preparations to remove government records and supplies. He left town at midnight, just ahead of encroaching Union troops.
“In the brief interval that elapsed from the retreat of her protectors to the arrival of her foes, the beautiful city of Raleigh stood under the outstretched arms of her noble oaks...in a silence that spoke, awaiting her fate,” said resident Cornelia Phillips Spencer. The next morning the peace commissioners headed back to Raleigh and were dismayed when they saw flames licking at the walls of the railroad depot. Confederate stragglers from General Wheeler’s army had done what the ex-governors had persuaded Sherman not to do: vandalize the town.
When the Union army showed up, the stragglers beat it out of town – except for one wild Texan, who fired on Union General Judson Kilpatrick. The Texans was promptly hanged and the battle of Raleigh was over.
added: December 18, 2008
updated: December 22, 2008