The Triangle’s pivotal but often overlooked role in the end of the Civil War will take center stage during the next month.
For five climactic weeks beginning in late March 1865, the largest battle fought in North Carolina took place in Johnston County. It was followed by the Union occupation of Raleigh and culminated at Bennett Place in Durham with the largest surrender of Confederate soldiers, the effective end of the Civil War.
Tens of thousands of visitors will descend on the Triangle during the next few weeks, including the 50,000 people who are expected Saturday and next Sunday at the sesquicentennial of the Battle of Bentonville near Four Oaks. More than 3,000 re-enactors, some the descendents of men who fought on that farmland 150 years ago, will try to give modern spectators a feel of what the deadly fighting was like.
“We’d like to think that most of the key activities that caused the war to come to a conclusion in the spring of 1865 occurred in North Carolina,” said Keith Hardison, director of the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties.
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These observances take place in the context of a debate about the proper way to commemorate a period of American history that resulted in the deaths of more than 620,000 soldiers. It’s a debate that has evolved with each major anniversary, as Southern loyalists strive to honor their Confederate ancestors while others say the observances need to present all sides of the conflict.
“We can’t forget that the Civil War was the greatest step in the civil rights movement with the abolition of slavery,” said Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh Museum and a Civil War re-enactor who will be at Bentonville.
Old South meets New
Fifty years ago, the civil rights movement was making headlines at the same time Civil War centennial events were marked with celebrations and costume balls. The 1960s commemorations placed the contemporary situation of African-Americans in sharp focus against celebrations of a Confederate army that fought in part to preserve slavery.
In one example, on the same day the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Bentonville was commemorated, 3,200 demonstrators began the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama to push for voting rights.
A month later when Vice President Hubert Humphrey came to speak at Duke University and the Bennett Place centennial, 150 robed Ku Klux Klan members responded by marching through downtown Durham.
Seeking one story
For the 150th anniversary, the state has worked to merge conflicting narratives of the war with a more inclusive commemoration that includes discussing the experiences of Unionists and slaves in North Carolina. Hardison, who is also co-chairman of the state’s Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, said organizers are trying to reflect the complex story in North Carolina.
“While North Carolina was a Confederate state, it wasn’t all Confederate,” Hardison said. “There were people black and white who fought for the Federal army. You had people who didn’t want to be involved on either side.”
The state’s treatment of the sesquicentennial has been called revisionist by critics, who’ve created a website called “The Official Website of the North Carolina War Between The States Sesquicentennial Commission.” Bernhard Thuersam, a re-enactor and architectural historian who heads the commission, declined to comment last week. He also is the director of the Cape Fear Historical Institute in Wilmington.
“Our Confederate forefathers were not monsters, they were largely brave, honourable, and admirable people who endured greater suffering and sacrifice than any other large group of Americans ever have, and in pursuit of the American principle of self-government,” Thuersam’s group says on its website.
But Dollar, the director of the City of Raleigh Museum, said the war is now studied in a more realistic and less romanticized way. He has organized several events in April to mark the anniversary of Raleigh’s surrender, including a symposium and a walking tour.
“The memory of this tragic conflict has been very fluid,” he said. “People have shaped their memory of the war through the generations that followed it. So much of our understanding has become sanctified, sterilized.”
This modern inclusiveness means that visitors to Bentonville will be able to attend lectures on the experiences of civilians and slaves during the war.
Taking on Sherman
But what will draw many history buffs to Bentonville is the battle re-enactments of the last major tactical offensive by a Confederate army.
By March 19, 1865, Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s 60,000-strong army had stormed through Georgia and South Carolina, leaving burned cities and a depleted region. Sherman was heading to Goldsboro to strengthen his hand with new supplies and reinforcements from the Union.
Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston assembled 20,000 troops to attack half of Sherman’s army. The Confederates retreated after the rest of Sherman’s army arrived, but not before more than 4,100 soldiers from both sides died or were wounded.
After the battle, Sherman pursued Johnston. Union forces occupied Raleigh on April 13. On April 26 at Bennett Place, Johnston surrendered his command – 89,270 soldiers scattered across several states.
‘Truly moving experience’
As important as those closing events in North Carolina were, they’ve been overshadowed by the other events of that time. More people have heard about Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Va., on April 9, 1865.
“North Carolina never gets a great deal of emphasis when events are talked about during the war,” said Chris Roberts, commander of the 26th North Carolina Regiment re-enactment unit. “When people think of the war, they think of Gettysburg and Antietam. Rarely do you hear names like Bentonville and Fort Fisher.”
But Roberts and other re-enactors strive to keep the legacy of Bentonville alive. He said it will be a “truly moving experience” to walk the original ground his 19-year-old great-great-grandfather trod as a Confederate solider.
“What we’re experiencing is nowhere remotely close to what they were experiencing, but you get a glimpse of what it was like to be those troops on the ground,” said Roberts, 45, a draftsman from Weaverville in western North Carolina. “Every re-enactor lives for that moment to make that bridge. For a split second, you lose track that it’s the 21st century, and you feel like it’s the 19th century.”
For an added sense of realism, Taylor McCullen, 27, a firefighter from Fayetteville, organized a group who will undertake an 8-mile march Saturday morning into Bentonville. But while McCullen’s ancestors fought for the Confederates during the battle, he’ll be on the Union side for the weekend.
“I’ll have bragging rights,” he said. “I can say my ancestors were on the same ground 150 years ago, and I’m on it now.”
The ground itself hasn’t changed much since 1865. Preservation efforts have saved 2,000 acres of the battlefield site.
“Any battlefield that happens to be near a city or highway is faced with encroachment,” said Dean Harry, president of the Friends of Bentonville Battlefield, the group organizing the re-enactment. “But Bentonville has remained basically agricultural for the last 150 years, so the landscape hasn’t changed very much. We’ve been very fortunate.”
As the crowds make it to Bentonville and the other Civil War sesquicentennial sites, they’ll be doing more than just learning about history. Harry said his group is hoping to net $100,000 to $150,000 in ticket fees and merchandise sales from the anniversary weekend to help operate Bentonville.
The economic downturn of recent years caused the state not to appropriate any additional money for the sesquicentennial committee. It’s also led to tight budgets for historic sites that have increasingly relied more on volunteer groups to provide additional funds. That’s one of the reasons Harry has attended so many events as a re-enactor, he said.
“The big events – the 150th anniversary events – have needed re-enactors so that the public will have something to look at,” Harry said. “These events bring publicity to the sites and money, and money is needed to support them to keep running.”
Director of News Research Teresa Leonard contributed to this report.
Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui
Tips for watching
▪ Paid admission is only required to view the battle re-enactments. All the other events are free, including the lectures, house tours, music and demonstrations. Go to http://bit.ly/1BzBisS for information on ordering tickets.
▪ Large crowds are expected, so double the planned time to drive to Bentonville.
▪ The battle re-enactments start at 3 p.m. Saturday and 1:30 p.m. next Sunday. Seating will begin two hours ahead of time on a first-come, first-serve basis. People who plan to sit on the ground will be seated first. Then comes people who bring their own chairs. Standing-room viewing will be provided at the back of the spectator area.
Civil War sesquicentennial events
Numerous events will be held in the Triangle through April to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.
▪ 150th Battle of Bentonville Re-enactment, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 21-22, 5466 Harper House Road, Four Oaks. Go to http://bit.ly/1B8Lhle for more information.
▪ “War At Your Door,” an original historical musical on the occupation of Raleigh, 7:30 p.m. April 9-10, Garner Performing Arts Center, 742 W. Garner Road, Garner. Call 919-661-4602 for tickets.
▪ “The New Old War: New Perspectives on the Civil War” symposium, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 11, City of Raleigh Museum, 220 Fayetteville St. Go to http://bit.ly/1CajUOD for more information.
▪ 150th Surrender of Raleigh Walking Tour, 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. April 13, City of Raleigh Museum, 220 Fayetteville St. Go to http://bit.ly/1CajUOD for more information,
▪ 150th Anniversary of the Fight For Morrisville Station, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 18, Morrisville Town Hall, 100 Town Hall Drive, Morrisville. Go to http://bit.ly/1BzHMru for more information.
▪ 150th Anniversary of the Surrender at Bennett Place, April 17-26, 4409 Bennett Memorial Road, Durham. Numerous events are scheduled, including a bus tour of area sites and the anniversary April 26. Go to http://bit.ly/18DRqyS for more information.
About the reporter
T. Keung Hui covers the Wake County school system and is a Civil War buff. He has attended more than a dozen re-enactments over the years, and visited nearly all the major civil war sites in the eastern and western theaters – covering at least 15 states. He bought his ticket for Bentonville months ago, and in a few weeks you’ll find him at Appomattox, Va.