The city’s official opening of Leigh Farm Park earlier this month acknowledges southwest Durham’s rise from near-obscurity to prominence in the life of the city. Along with the American Tobacco Trail, this part of Durham is finally getting its due.
Leigh Farm consists of 83 acres in the New Hope Creek bottomlands. You almost need a GPS to find the park, which is off N.C. 54 at I-40, but the venture is well worth it.
The 1837 farmhouse (now the caretaker’s residence) retains vestiges of its past, some of which venture into the darkest side of the American experience: slavery. You can see an original slave cabin there, although in 1865 there were others that housed up to 16 bondmen.
Or at least you can see the slave cabin if you take time from disc golf.
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No, really. The park has a disc (think Frisbee) golf course amidst this relic of the Old South.
But Leigh Farm is also associated with something of far greater import than disc golf. That would be Sherman’s March through the Carolinas, which ended April 26, 1865, with Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston’s surrender at the Bennett Place.
At the time, Leigh Farm sprawled over 1,000 acres. History decreed that the last shots of the Civil War in North Carolina would be exchanged there.
Travelers or anyone else not familiar with the last days of the Civil War here drive by unmarked historic sites in blissful ignorance of events that cost 15 lives before word reached the combatants that Johnston and Sherman had agreed to a truce.
Two skirmishes and an ambush on April 14-15, 1865, led to the casualties. The outcome of these dustups was preordained by Sherman’s overwhelming blue-clad host.
The Confederacy was on its last legs, but it still had infantry and artillery willing to fight.
It’s said among soldiers that no one wants to be the last to die for a losing cause, but three Rebs did so in the engagements along New Hope Creek. The Union lost 12 men.
James Davis, an indefatigable local historian, notes that the first action – a Rebel ambush – occurred at a wooden bridge that spanned New Hope Creek where N.C. 54 crosses the stream today. Despite having the initiative, 12 federals fell to Confederate fire.
Confederate cavalrymen under the command of Gen. Joseph (“Fightin’ Joe”) Wheeler put up a spirited defense on the west bank of the creek, but the federals had the manpower and Spencer repeating rifles. They carried the day, having bought it in blood.
Wheeler then rushed to a bridge over the New Hope at today’s Stagecoach Road in a vain attempt to hold off a federal force advancing toward Chapel Hill.
Wheeler’s men destroyed the bridge, but in a sharp fight there the next day, the federals again prevailed and the Confederates skedaddled for better ground, having lost three men.
According to Davis, the third and final encounter – the last shots in North Carolina – were fired near the intersection of I-40 and N.C. 751. Although the Rebs unleashed artillery against Union troops and made a brave stand, they accomplished nothing.
These actions are not well known, and more’s the pity. True, Civil War Trails has a small sign leading to an informative display at Patterson’s Mill Store off Farrington Road, on land that belonged to Richard Leigh.
But the cause of Civil War history, and North Carolina’s essential if reluctant role in it, would be better served with roadside markers at or near the sites of the three final fights.
The Bennett Place, where for all intents and purposes the Civil War ended with Johnston’s surrender of 80,000 troops, has been preserved. Not so the sites of the final engagements.
At least 12 Americans – the Rebs were always Americans in the magnanimity of Abraham Lincoln – died on the way to restoration of national unity. Those Americans deserve recognition, if no more than in the form of highway markers, as much as those who died at Gettysburg.
Bob Wilson is a journalist and educator who lives in southwest Durham.