A Civil War exhibit titled “American vs. American: Our Most Cruel War” has opened at the Johnston County Heritage Center, 241 E. Market St., Smithfield.
The display features many artifacts, including a Confederate officer’s sword and hand-painted canteen; a rifle made in 1864 at the Fayetteville Arsenal; a bugle played by a local soldier at Appomattox; a soldier’s wallet with a girl’s tintype photograph still inside; Confederate currency; a saddle from a Union cavalryman’s horse; uniform buttons and other items unearthed by local citizens; a bayonet found in a tree near Bentonville; and church records bearing poignant messages from Union soldiers.
Also, the exhibit has photographs from the war period, including a rare collection of tintype photos of U.S. Colored Troops.
“There are some amazing stories from this period in our history,” said Heritage Center Director Todd Johnson. “We had men who fought on both sides, so the title of this exhibit could also be Johnstonian vs. Johnstonian.”
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The exhibit’s title panel shows Pvt. William Lee of Johnston County wearing a U.S. Army uniform. Lee was one of the first men to volunteer in the Confederate Army in 1861, but for unknown reasons, he later walked to federally occupied New Bern and volunteered to fight against his old comrades.
Johnston County was decidedly pro-Union throughout the war, Johnson said. Local voters sent Unionist delegates to the secession convention in Raleigh even after President Abraham Lincoln called for North Carolina to furnish troops for the U.S. Army.
“When North Carolina finally entered the war, Johnston County men volunteered and served valiantly.” Johnson said. The boys and men who fought in the war made up one-tenth of the county’s population of about 15,000. Around 500 died from wounds or disease.
Toward the end of the war, desertion was rampant as many tired of risking life and limb in what they believed to be a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” Johnson said.
While deserters were hiding out in local forests and swamps to avoid capture by state militia in the spring of 1865, more than 100,000 soldiers from North and South converged on Bentonville, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. Union soldiers burned several finer plantation houses in eastern Johnston County, although their superiors had not given such orders. Among the houses was the Thomas Atkinson mansion on Brogden Road near the Wayne County line.
For more information about the exhibit, call 919-934-2836 or visit the Heritage Center’s website, www.jcheritagecenter.org.