Wake County

Gen. Sherman’s stop in Raleigh recalled 150 years later

Actor Ira David Wood III cites North Carolina barbecue as the reason he didn’t burn Raleigh to the ground as he portrays Union General William Tecumseh Sherman at an event at the Governor’s Mansion on Monday commemorating the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the city.
Actor Ira David Wood III cites North Carolina barbecue as the reason he didn’t burn Raleigh to the ground as he portrays Union General William Tecumseh Sherman at an event at the Governor’s Mansion on Monday commemorating the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the city. cseward@newsobserver.com

Union Gen. William T. Sherman stormed back into Raleigh on Monday, 150 years from the day the city was captured at the Civil War’s end, but there were a few differences this time.

Unlike the situation on April 13, 1865, this Sherman had to wait for permission to enter the North Carolina Executive Mansion. But just as he did then, Sherman reassured Raleighites that he had no intention of burning the city, a fate some Confederate cities had suffered during his drive through Georgia and the Carolinas.

“Raleigh, I didn’t burn it,” said Sherman, played by actor Ira David Wood III. “You want to know why? Barbecue.”

While Wood played Sherman for laughs Monday at a reception sponsored by the N.C. Civil War History Center, the event was all part of a commemoration of the deadly serious situation Raleigh experienced at the end of the war.

In spring 1865, Sherman was pursuing Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s army after the March 1865 Battle of Bentonville in Johnston County. By April 13, Confederate hopes of linking Johnston’s army with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces had been shattered by Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Va., on April 9.

On April 26 at Bennett Place in Durham, Johnston surrendered his command – 89,270 soldiers scattered across several states. It was the largest surrender of Confederate soldiers, the effective end of the Civil War.

‘Great fear in Raleigh’

But between the events of Appomattox and Bennett Place, Gov. Zebulon Vance sent a peace delegation to Sherman to save Raleigh. Other Confederate capitals, such as Columbia, S.C., and Milledgeville, Ga., had been heavily damaged.

“One hundred and fifty years ago, there was great fear in Raleigh of what would happen,” Ernest Dollar, director of the City of Raleigh Museum, said as he led a tour of 50 people Monday morning around Fayetteville Street and the State Capitol.

The surrender spared Raleigh, but the city again faced possible destruction a few days later, when angry Union soldiers learned about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It took Union Gen. John Logan’s threat to fire cannons on his own men to disperse the soldiers.

“He saves Raleigh that night,” said Dollar, who led the tour dressed as a Union Army major. “And for his bravery, he ended up in the city’s Hall of Fame.”

While the April 13 surrender was relatively peaceful, it sparked at least one story that lives on in Raleigh’s folklore.

Lt. Walsh, a Confederate cavalryman who may have been looting a jewelry store on Fayetteville Street at the time, fired on Union cavalry advancing into Raleigh, Dollar said. Walsh was captured by Union forces and was hanged on what’s now the grounds of the Executive Mansion for violating the surrender terms.

Every year since 1989, a sash has been placed on Walsh’s grave at Oakwood Cemetery, as some honor him as a brave Confederate defender. But Dollar also related an alternate portrayal, given by a slave who said Walsh was laughing maniacally as he was taken to the gallows.

“Something in his actions doesn’t portray the sanity of a young man, of a soldier,” Dollar said. “It’s easy to see what war had done to him by that time.”

100 counties, 100 stories

It’s stories like Walsh’s that the N.C. Civil War History Center hopes to keep alive through the “100 by 100 – Our State: Our Story” initiative the group launched Monday. The center hopes to collect 100 stories from all 100 counties about life in North Carolina before and during the Civil War and during Reconstruction.

The stories will become a permanent collection at the planned $65 million history center that organizers hope to open in Fayetteville in 2020. As part of the effort Monday, “Cold Mountain” author Charles Frazier spoke at the reception.

The events in North Carolina during the end of the war have been overlooked but deserve to be remembered, Dollar said.

“History is never really boring,” said Bill Dantini, 61, an amateur historian and author in Raleigh, who was at the walking tour.

Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui

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