Twenty-eight year-old Robert F. Hoke rode his horse along the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad tracks south to the trestle over Rockfish Creek, the young officer’s butternut-gray uniform showing the rank of major-general. He passed camping pickets posted along the way; the men came to attention and saluted as he rode by returning their respect.
This early March on the North Carolina coastal plain was unusually wet; creeks and rivers overflowed their banks. As the general approached the Creek he saw mounted horsemen riding across the fields toward him. He recognized Col. Thomas J. Lipscomb and his South Carolina cavalry who had been scouting enemy movements in the 25-mile area from the Northeast Cape Fear River to Rockfish Creek. The young officer reigned in his horse and saluted:
“Sir, the enemy is about three miles behind us.” Hoke saluted, “Thank you, Colonel. We are loading the cars now.”
General Hoke and his Sixty-first and Sixty-sixth regiments were from North Carolina. He was born in Lincoln County in 1837, and the men in these units were from Duplin and surrounding counties. Hoke’s father was a State legislator and trustee of the University of North Carolina. His son Robert was the youngest major-general in the Confederate States Army.
Hoke had been serving with Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. He proved his military skill and courage in North Carolina early in 1864 when Lee sent him to liberate the town of Plymouth from the enemy. He not only accomplished that mission but nearly drove Northern invaders from New Bern.
Again, in late 1864, Hoke was sent by Lee to defend Ft. Fisher soon to be attacked by overwhelming Union forces. The naval artillery assault was so intense that Hoke’s men could not do much to resist it. When the fort was captured Hoke established a defensive position at the Forks Road south of Wilmington and stopped the advancing enemy army (on the site of the current Cameron Museum property).
Here on February 19, 1865 he offered to exchange 2500 prisoners, but the Union commander refused. A few days later Hoke urged again, saying, these men have been “subjected to great suffering and considerable mortality.” Finally, both sides agreed to exchange nearly 10,000 Northern prisoners from camps in Florence, S.C. and Salisbury, N.C. Hoke’s strategic position at Duplin Roads also protected the southern flank of Gen. William J. Hardee’s army, marching 10,000 Southern troops from South Carolina toward Fayetteville, N.C.
When Union forces advancing from across the Cape Fear River from the southwest threatened his position in Wilmington, Gen. Hoke moved north 35 miles to Rockfish Creek at a strong defensive position. He took all the railroad rolling stock—leaving the tracks virtually unusable to the enemy—and “a large number of enemy prisoners” with him. After the prisoner exchange which went through his lines at Duplin Roads (today’s Wallace), he was ordered to Kinston, N. C. on March 5, 1865 to meet another enemy threat.
Almost to the day 150 years later ancestors, local historians and curious visitors met at this site on March 7, 2015. More than a dozen local businesses sponsored the day-long event organized by the North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission, a group of private citizens from across the State formed to preserve North Carolina history and to inform the public about the experience of State citizens in their second quest for political independence since 1775 (www.ncwbts150.com).
At this website readers can find extraordinary quality and quantity of North Carolina history. Here one can “witness the battles, privations and suffering of North Carolinians, men and women, young and old, through many firsthand accounts.”
Attendees at Wallace not only heard detailed accounts about historic events of that time, including North Carolina ancestors and historians telling their stories, but could view and experience first-hand unique living histories: people dressed in period costume; military reenactments; displays of civilian and military artifacts.
Specifically, a surprising amount of detailed North Carolina history was brought together at this special observance by State citizens:
- _ General Hoke’s division artillery and infantry encampment.
- _ Hourly artillery firing and memorial musket firing: Duplin Rifles & Turpentine Boys; Duplin Confederate Grey s & Duplin Stars; Duplin Spartan Band and 9th NC Cavalry.
- _Confederate surgeon (ancestor Jim Metz) and a period field hospital in the railroad station.
- _ Antebellum and wartime currency display.
- _ Women and Children on the Home Front: (historian Kelly Hinson).
- _ Duplin men at war: Kenansville Armory Camp, N. C. Sons of Confederate Veterans.
- _ The 1865 Prisoner Exchange: historian/author J. Keith Jones.
- _ Gen. Hoke and Duplin planter Gabriel Boney: A living history (reenactment).
A unique program featured half-hour hayride tours to the Rockfish historic site with an outstanding narration by Capt. Joseph J. Cox, one of Gen. Hoke’s staff officers portrayed by Ben Eure of Angier, N. C.