Public gets chance to unearth Civil War history at Bentonville

mquillin@newsobserver.comJune 28, 2014 

  • About Bentonville Battlefield

    Where: 5466 Harper House Road, Four Oaks, NC 27524

    Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

    Phone: 910-594-0789

    Website: nchistoricsites.org/bentonvi/

— Relic-hunting is prohibited on state historical sites, so Stephen Ward jumped at the chance to be an amateur archaeologist and dig in the striated soil around the Harper House at Bentonville Battlefield on Saturday.

“I could do this all day,” said Ward, who traveled from Goldsboro to engage in a lifelong hobby at the direction of professional geographers and anthropologists.

“It’s slow and tedious, but I like the process. It’s just neat when you find something. You’re trying to connect with the past, and when you find a relic, you get a picture of back then, right now.”

North Carolina bought the Harper House and 51 acres around it in 1957, and has accumulated detailed information about the three-day battle that took place there when Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston tried to stop Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops from making their way back to Virginia. The battle, March 19-21, 1865, was the last full-scale action of the Civil War and the largest ever fought in North Carolina. The 6,000 acres over which it happened contained some of the best preserved earthworks and rifle pits that remained well into the 20th century.

Much is known about the advance and retreat of troops across the landscape. But many questions remain about the family home that Union troops took early in the battle to use as a field hospital. They allowed as many as 11 members of the Harper family to remain upstairs while surgeons and nurses turned the first floor into operating and recovery rooms. Historical accounts say amputated limbs were tossed out the windows as doctors worked on about 500 Union troops and a few Confederates.

The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which manages the site, allowed professors and students from UNC-Greensboro and N.C. A&T State University to conduct an archaeological investigation of the land around the Harper House to see whether they could determine what it looked like in the 1860s. Old census records indicate that the Harpers owned several slaves and a slave dwelling, but no one knows where the building was. Nor can they say where the original kitchen stood, or any other outbuilding such as a smoke house, corn crib or privy.

In March, Roy Stine and a team of his graduate students from UNCG’s geography department used ground-penetrating radar and a magnetic gradiometer to survey the subsoil around the house – a way of looking at what lies underground without digging. Radar images of the ground look like radar weather images, except that where red on a weather map might show a heavy downpour, on the landscape it can indicate something out of the ordinary in the dirt. Images from the gradiometer, which look a little like early black-and-white lunar photos, indicate objects that have a magnetic field different from the dirt around them.

Using those images and what they know about the house from photos, genealogy, news clippings, diaries and other sources, the team chose six places in which to dig on Friday and Saturday, and they invited volunteers from the public to help.

For John J. Mintz, assistant state archaeologist, the chance to engage the public in the study was as exciting as the prospect of helping to map the historical location of buildings on the site.

“Especially young people who might be at a point where they’re deciding what they want to do with their lives,” Mintz said. “Some might find they don’t like being out here in 90 percent humidity and 90-degree temperatures, with the bugs and the dirt. Others might say, ‘This is me.’ 

Several visitors watched the digging or helped sift the dirt using framed metal screens. The helpers included a few kids not much older than the Harpers’ two grandchildren who were living with them during the 1865 battle. By midday, they had unearthed a small trove of artifacts: hardware from an old gate, nails, bits of ceramic, glass and brick, and a plate-sized metal valve crank off what was likely a wastewater line that ran from a wing added to the house in the 20th century and removed after the state bought the property.

They did not find anything that could be positively associated with a particular kind of outbuilding.

Even so, UNCG doctoral candidate Jacob Turner said digging at a state historical site was a great opportunity. He stood in a trench about 3 feet wide and 4 feet deep and wrote in a notebook what he saw. Based on his radar scans, he had hoped to find the floor of an old building but instead uncovered a layer of naturally occurring dense clay soil.

No matter. He still got the experience of doing the work, the state got a little more information about the site, and the public got to peer down a hole into the past.

“I can’t tell you how awesome it is,” he said.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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