Living history in Laurinburg

When we read about the so-called American “Civil War”—more accurately Lincoln’s War against Southern Independence—most accounts describe battle strategies, troop movements, general’s tactics and casualties. But what about the civilians caught in the path of enemy armies? Of course, Northern States never experienced that carnage because the Confederate States of America army never invaded the North for evil purposes.

But, what about the Pennsylvania Campaign and Gettysburg when General Robert E. Lee “invaded” that area in 1863?

Actually, it’s true that Lee’s army marched into Pennsylvania just before the battle at Gettysburg. And his troops did scout and forage around the State south and west of Harrisburg for a few days. What they needed they paid for. And, I’ve never read of any widespread mistreatment of civilian residents, theft of property and destruction of their homes and businesses such as occurred when Gen. Sherman ravaged Georgia and the Carolina’s in 1865.

That is history rarely told by the victors; for good reason. That story is more shameful than Sherman’s treatment of the American Indians later in the West. What his marauding thugs (they can’t be dignified with the title “soldiers”) did to Southern civilians will forever tarnish Lincoln’s falsely fabricated legacy and brand Sherman’s despised image in the South.


  Recently, Scotland County, North Carolina tourism and historic commissions; Genealogical Society; Sons of Mars Camp, NC Sons of Confederate Veterans; the Cape Fear Historical Institute and GriffinEstep Benefit Group, Inc. sponsored an all-day event called, “War Comes to Laurinburg- 1865.”

The program included reenactment artillery and infantry skirmishes; period demonstrations; displays and lectures by authors and historians from North and South Carolina on the grounds of the historic post-war John Blue House, now a Scotland County museum. (Link below)

In early March 1865, Sherman’s army of 60,000 crossed into North Carolina headed toward Fayetteville. Fresh from a vengeful assault on South Carolina civilians, including deliberate burning down the capital city of Columbia, they had little military opposition until Gen. W. J. Hardee stopped the enemy force at Averasboro on March 16. Hardee had only 10,000 troops that were not “battle-hardened veterans,” but these men were fighting for their families, friends and homes.

The accounts of atrocities committed by Sherman’s “bummers” are too numerous to describe here. They are, however, found in many historic Southern references and in recent publications.

Author, historian Karen Stokes gave one of the lectures at Laurinburg. Ms. Stokes is an archivist with the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston. Her most recent publication (2015) is, “Confederate South Carolina: True Stories of Civilians, Soldiers and the War.

Stokes spoke about “Civilians in Sherman’s Path.” She described the terrors inflicted on these people by Sherman’s men: thievery of personal property, destruction of animals and food supplies, burning homes and businesses, rape and even murder.

Another speaker, Paul C. Graham, an instructor at Midlands Technical College and a member of the Society of Independent Historians lives in Cayce, South Carolina. Mr. Graham wrote the book, “When the Yankees Come: Former South Carolina Slaves Remember Sherman’s Invasion.” He spoke about former North Carolina slaves who remembered Sherman’s atrocities.

In his book, Amy Perry, age 82, from Charleston recalled:

I remembers when the Yankee come thru, and Wheeler army come after them. Those were dreadful times. The Yankees massacred the people, and burn their houses and stole the meat and everything they could find. The white folks have to live wherever they can, and they didn’t have enough to eat. I know whole families live on one goose a week, cook in greens. Sometimes they have pumpkin and corn, red corn at that. Times was hard, hard. The colored people don’t have nothing to eat neither.

Wilmington, North Carolina historian Bernhard Thuersam also spoke at the Laurinburg event.  He described the military campaign and quoted from recollections by Jane Dickinson DeRosset.

At the time of the Yankee invasion she was the young daughter of Colonel Robert H. Cowan of the 18th North Carolina Regiment. The family lived about 5 miles from Laurinburg.

During the first week in March 1865:

We sat and listened all day to the booming of cannon, with aching hearts and fervent prayers that the enemy might be driven back—the utter desolation when we knew that Johnston’s Army had passed by and we were left alone to face the dreaded foe!

Late that afternoon I sat on the front steps at my father’s feet trying to comfort him and to receive comfort from him, for we were in the deepest distress, our whole country devastated, our dear Southern boys retreating, but contesting every inch of ground, falling by the wayside, gladly giving up their life-blood for the land they loved so well. The brave, noble, remnant struggling on, overpowered by numbers, yet full of faith and trust in their leaders, striving to reach Lee and join forces. Then all would be well.

Jane’s younger sister and brother had been ill for weeks with scarlet fever. The doctor had given up hope of saving them. As day broke she looked out of a window and saw the Yankees coming.

…from every direction the hated blue uniforms were coming. They seemed to spring out of the ground and in a few seconds our house was full of them.

They were everywhere, upstairs and downstairs, rummaging through closets, trunks, bureaus, wardrobes, anywhere, until every piece of silver, jewelry, clothing and everything else, including food, was gone. We spent the whole day without one mouthful to eat. Our servants came crying and saying they tried to bring us something, but the men would snatch it from them.

One of the Yankees grabbed a spoon from her mother who was mixing medicine for the sick children with a baby in her lap, pulled the rings from her fingers and kicked the cradle of one child, saying “That one is dead already.” Jane continued:

They were yelling, cursing, drinking, pitching trunks and boxes from the attic down two flights of stairs to the first floor, breaking them open and putting all that could be carried in that way about their persons, piling up the rest and making bonfires of them.

One of them rushed into the room where we were all gathered together, dressed in the Confederate uniform of my uncle, Captain John Cowan, and going up to my grandmother, slapped her face with Confederate money which he had found somewhere about the house, grabbed her watch guard, which she thought she had hidden, and pulled it with the watch from her neck.

Toward nightfall a deserter guard told Jane’s father that he should take his family from the house before the rest of the army came. They quietly snuck through the enemy camp to an old temperance hall a quarter of a mile from the house, where they remained for a week until the Yankee army left.

Sometimes our servants would steal a chicken or turkey from the soldiers and bring it to us, and we would hold it with our hands over the fire until it was cooked enough for us to eat, and that would be all we would have for a day or two.

When the family finally was able to return home they found the Yankees had tried to burn it down but the servants had saved it.

We had nothing but the clothes we had on and few articles of clothing for the children, and we came to an empty house. The heavy furniture which could not be carried off was there, and Bibles, Prayer-books and pictures, torn, broken and covered with mustard and molasses.

My father told the servants to try to get to Wilmington, where they were known, and could make a living, for he did not know he would get meat and bread for his own family and could not help them, though he would do what he could for those who remained with us.

The Cowan family was fortunate. Many people, both white and black, in South and North Carolina lost their homes, the means of making a living; even their lives at the hands of Sherman’s disgraceful army—that will forever carry the shame of inhumanity and criminality toward its fellow Americans.


About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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