Most of the Civil War was a distant thunder for Raleigh, a small village of only around 5,500 people when the war began in 1861.
All that changed in the closing days of April 1865, when the war arrived at the city’s door and Raleigh faced the most momentous days in its history.
There was no battle to defend Raleigh, whose leaders hoped a surrender would spare the city. So only a single Confederate rogue cavalryman greeted Sherman’s army on Thursday, April 13, as the Yankees entered the surrendered capital, firing his revolver at the Northern cavalry as they came up Fayetteville Street. They ran him down and hanged him in what is now the part of the city called Oakwood.
Sherman’s army of 90,000 spread out across the city, pitching their white tents across the lawns of St. Mary’s School, the land where Central Prison now stands and the vast rolling hills of the Insane Asylum on Dix Hill. Generals and officers took over the city’s finest homes, with Gen. William T. Sherman himself moving into the Governor’s Palace.
Slaves rushed out to dance and greet the men in blue. White women sewed valuables into their hoop skirts, buried silver in their yards and watched in terror from upstairs windows as long lines of men in blue arrived.
Sherman, knowing Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox and the end was near, ordered his army not to damage property or disturb the Raleigh citizens. That sense of peace would hold through the Easter weekend, as Good Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday in Raleigh passed without incident.
But unknown to those in Raleigh, stunning events were unfolding in Washington.
On Friday April 14, one day after Sherman’s army arrived in Raleigh, John Wilkes Booth snuck into the presidential box at Ford’s Theater and shot Lincoln. Lincoln died across the street on the morning of Saturday, April 15.
Andrew Johnson, who fled Raleigh as a boy and who had given a drunken and rambling speech at Lincoln’s second inauguration, was suddenly president of the United States.
And the city of his birth was occupied by tens of thousands of Yankee soldiers, men who had slashed through Georgia on the March to the Sea and who had seen Atlanta and Columbia, South Carolina burned.
News of Lincoln’s death reached Raleigh on Monday, news that shocked and infuriated the army. Thousands grabbed torches and headed toward the city – but one Union commander turned cannon on his own men and saved the city.
Thursday, April 13, 1865
Every year on April 13, the grave of Lt. Walsh of the Texas cavalry is decorated with a black sash and candles. Walsh, buried in Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery, was the only casualty when Raleigh fell to Northern forces. When it’s done is always a mystery, even to Oakwood Cemetery executive director Robin Simonton. Even Monday morning, the grave was undecorated, but Simonton often peeps out her office throughout the day on April 13 and, at some point, the black sash is suddenly there.
Early in the morning on Thursday, April 13, 1865, Raleigh leaders surrendered the city to Sherman’s forces. Raleigh was surrounded by dirt walls seven feet high, but Gen. Joseph Johnston’s ragged Confederate army of about 30,000 men was no match for Sherman’s 90,000 troops, and Johnston’s men had already marched out of the city. Raleigh officials were well aware that Columbia and Atlanta had burned, and wanted to avoid a similar fate. They said Raleigh would not resist and asked that the city be spared.
Sherman’s army, led by Gen. Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, rushed toward the city while the last remnants of Wheeler’s Confederate cavalry raided the city’s stores to get what they could. Johnston’s ragged army had left the city earlier, but Mary Bayard Clarke wrote that the Confederate cavalry remained behind and looted stores “on the grounds that if they did not the Yankees would. Occasionally, one would pass loaded with hoopskirts, one of which he would whirl around his head and dash at any lady he chanced to meet.
“Sometimes a package of stockings or pocket handkerchiefs would be tossed into a group by a cavalryman riding at full speed, who would exclaim, ‘Take them, ladies! Take them! The Yankees will get them if we don’t.”
As Kilpatrick’s cavalry rode up Fayetteville Street, the looting Confederates jumped on their horses and dashed away – all but one. One Rebel waited at the Morgan Street intersection. When the Yankees came within 100 yards, he pulled his revolver, began firing and then dash off to the west on Morgan Street.
He struck a dead end and then crashed to the street when his saddle girt broke. He darted toward Hillsborough Street but the Union cavalry snagged him just over the Hillsborough Street bridge.
The Northern soldiers hauled him to the Capitol, where Gen. Kilpatrick was not amused. The soldier identified himself as Robert Walsh of the 11th Texas Cavarly. Kilpatrick asked him if he realized the city had been surrendered, on the grounds there would be no resistance.
Kilpatrick sentenced him to being hanged – without getting five minutes to write his wife – and ordered it done away from the view of ladies.
Milley Henry, a young girl who witnessed what happened, would recall the incident in a 1937 interview.
“When they brought the good-looking Reb up to the redhead General, he says, ‘What is your name, Reb? The boy said, ‘Robert Walsh, sir.’ ‘Why did you go and shoot at my army?’ ‘Because I hate the Yankees and I wish they were all dead in a pile’ the Reb said and laughed. The general got his dander up now and yelled, ‘Carry the Reb somewhere out of site of the ladies and hang him.’
“The Reb laughed and said, ‘Kind of you, sir’ and he waved goodbye to the crowd and they carried him laughing to the kill. … He died brave and kept laughing until his neck broke.”
The Union soldiers took Walsh to Lovejoy’s Grove, a clump of trees in present-day Oakwood. Raymond Beck, the retired State Capitol historian, believes the incident happened near the present-day intersection of Lane and Bloodworth streets.
And Elizabeth Buford, who lives at 321 Lane Street, said when she moved into her house in the 1970s, her great aunt told her, “Oh, that’s where they hanged that poor boy.”
Walsh was buried beneath the tree where he hanged, but his grave was so shallow his feet stuck through the dirt. He was re-buried and then later moved to Oakwood Cemetery when the cemetery opened in 1867.
Every year on April 13, the grave of the only man to die when Raleigh surrendered is secretly decorated with a black sash and Confederate flags. Late Monday afternoon, the grave was quickly decorated with flowers, a black sash, Confederate flags and a picture of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.
David Swain, the president of UNC who helped facilitate the surrender of Raleigh, watched Walsh shoot at the Union cavalry and Swain feared the actions would spark Yankee repercussions against the city. But the first days of the occupation were relatively quiet.
Much of antebellum Raleigh was torn down in the 1950s and 1960s, but some of the echoes of those days remain. Still standing defiantly in the corner of a state government parking lot in downtown Raleigh is the Dr. Richard B. Haywood house. Haywood has been a classmate of Union Maj. Gen. Frank Blair at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Blair made Haywood’s house his headquarters.
Legend has it that shortly after the Union forces arrived in Raleigh, Blair, Haywood and Sherman drank a toast to the end of the war in the home.
Union soldiers camped on the lawn of Montfort Hall in present day Boylan Heights. Union general Henry Slocum, who was derisively called “Slow Come” because of his timid efforts at Gettysburg, made his headquarters at Elmwood, a grand home owned by Romulus Saunders. Saunders was a fiery political leader who had been expelled from UNC for firing a pistol and throwing a stone at a professor. He later rose through the political ranks and was in his 70s when the Union soldiers arrived at his home.
But Union soldiers were everywhere in Raleigh, and one Raleigh woman wrote she knew the war was over by the sharp contrast between the ragged Confederates who had just left and the well-fed, well-armed Yankees who marched through the city.
Many Northern troops set up camp on the southwest part of town. Thousands of Union soldiers were camped on the grounds of the Insane Asylum, known as Dix Hill, and the Yankee soldiers listened at night to the noise from the patients.
Some of those soldiers were from the 15th Corps, some of Sherman’s toughest fighters. And they would play a key role in one of the most dramatic moments in the city’s history.
The Lincoln assassination
On the morning of Monday, April 17, Gen. Sherman was at the train depot in Raleigh getting ready to leave for Durham to meet with Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston to discuss surrender terms.
But an urgent telegram was coming in from Washington, and Sherman held the train to wait for it. In it, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton informed him Lincoln had been assassinated.
Knowing that news would inflame the troops, Sherman told the telegraph operators to tell no one, and he didn’t even tell his staff. On meeting Johnston more than two hours later, he handed Johnston the telegram.
When Sherman returned to Raleigh that afternoon, the news was already out. According to a book on the era, “This Astounding Close” by Mark Bradley, soldiers met Sherman at the Raleigh depot, begging him to not let Johnston surrender. Maj. Charles Wills of the 103rd Illinois wrote in his diary, “The army is crazy for vengeance.”
Sherman penned Special Order 56, announcing Lincoln’s death, which would reach the troops the next day. He strengthened the guards, put pickets on the roads into town and rode through the Union camps, urging calm.
But that night, about 2,000 men from the 15th Corp who were camped on Dix Hill grabbed torches and headed toward the town.
“They were really tough,” said Bradley, author of “This Astounding Close.” “When they were marching on the city with burning torches in hand, it was a dangerous situation.”
A Union general saves Raleigh
The men of the 15th Corp poured down the hill and toward the small bridge across Rocky Branch Creek on what was then called Ram Cat Road and were only blocks away from the center of the town. The area is where Lake Wheeler Road runs into South Saunders Street in present day Raleigh.
Waiting on the other side of the bridge was their commander, Maj. Gen. John Logan. Logan ordered his men to stop, and they refused.
Then Logan, with three or four pieces of cannon behind him, threatened to open fire.
Union soldier Theodor Upson, who was there, wrote “a mob of some 2,000 or more started for the city, saying they would destroy it. General Logan got in their front and ordered them back to their camps. They still went on. Then he told them that if they did not do so he would order the artillery (which they could see) to fire in them with grape canister.
“They gave up and went back to their camp. General Logan saved the city and it owes him a great debt it can never pay.”
Perhaps not. But Raleigh took the remarkable step of naming a Union general to its Centennial Hall of Fame, and a plaque from Raleigh is now in the Logan museum in his hometown of Murphysboro, Ill.
Johnson takes command
The assassination of Lincoln left Raleigh with a stunning irony – it was occupied by Union soldiers whose commander-in-chief, Andrew Johnson, was raised in the city.
But Johnson’s associations with Raleigh were, at best, bittersweet. Johnson was born in a small building on Dec. 29, 1808 to Jacob Johnson and Mary “Polly” McDonough but the family was poor. Then tragedy struck the family three years later. Jacob Johnson, a man of humble means but who was respected among town, was at Walnut Creek in December 1811 when a boat capsized and he jumped in to save two men. Johnson fell ill and died Jan. 4, 1812. One man he had saved was the editor of the Raleigh Star, who wrote that he “owes his life, on a particular occasion, to the boldness and humanity of Johnson.”
Jacob Johnson was buried in the City Cemetery with a small and simple marker, leaving his family destitute. Andrew Johnson, at the age of 10, became an apprentice to tailor James Selby, but Johnson ran away in 1824 at the age of 17. He landed in Greeneville, Tennessee, and rose through the ranks as a fiery politician with a strong distaste for the Southern aristocracy. He joined the U.S. Senate in 1857 and remained in the Senate even when Tennessee seceded.
As president, he visited Raleigh in the summer of 1867, when the city put a finer monument at his father’s grave in the City Cemetery on June 4. Selby was the first to shake his hand at the train depot. Johnson spoke to the crowd from the Yarbrough Hotel on Fayetteville Street, attended the ceremonies for his father at the City Cemetery, and departed to give the commencement address in Chapel Hill.
His visit to Raleigh would bring back memories of the stunning events at the end of the war.
In the course of the most astounding eight days in the city’s history, Lee surrendered, Raleigh fell, Lincoln was assassinated, a Raleigh native became president – and a single Union general saved the city from being torched.
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