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Averasboro, and a civilian view

by | Jul 17, 2016 | News

They’re making this easy for me. The week ended with distant artillery at Fort Bragg jarring the foundations of this old house. Then, on Sunday, gunners in the reenactment at the Averasboro Battlefield Museum a few hundred yards south let go a couple of rounds with their fieldpieces. With a big boost from the imagination, that made for a rough approximation of war’s advance across the land of my ancestors 150 years ago.

This is where Confederate Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee made his bid to stall half of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s 60,000-man army, which was moving up both sides of the Cape Fear River, and buy the overall southern commander, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, time to consolidate his forces for a last, desperate battle somewhere near Smithfield.

In his “Memoirs,” Sherman complimented Hardee on having chosen his ground well: at a bottleneck between the Cape Fear and the Black River. Neither general could have cared less that the bottleneck was a family plantation called Smithville. On March 15 and 16 of 1865, no one could have cared more about that than the Smiths, their kin, their neighbors and their chattels.

This was not just another instance of the planter class being subjected to the usual indignities of Sherman’s foragers (which is not to make light of threats, rough handling, and destruction that fell both inside and outside of Sherman’s orders). This was, by Sherman’s account and that of Maj. Gen. Alpheus Williams, one of his corps commanders, the first serious resistance the bluecoats had encountered since leaving Savannah.

The Battle of Averasboro, as it is most commonly called, began with skirmishing essentially in the back yard of Mary Campbell Smith’s home beside Taylor’s Hole Creek. It roared to full fury over and around Oak Grove, the 1793 plantation house belonging to John C. Smith, her brother-in-law. And it ended with the quiet withdrawal of the Confederates, the following night, from a no-longer-visible line just south of Lebanon, built in 1824 as a wedding gift to Farquhard C. Smith from his father.

It was a costly engagement — more costly, Sherman admitted, than he had anticipated. All three Smith homes were used as hospitals: Mary Smith’s for the Union wounded, Lebanon for the Confederates, and Oak Grove — briefly — by both, and for about a month thereafter by the no-longer-young cavaliers of the late rebellion.

About a thousand men sacrificed life or limb in a clash that gave Johnston a brief advantage in the Battle of Bentonville but ultimately did nothing to change the outcome of the war, which ended with the surrender of Johnston’s 90,000-man force in late April.

The clinical analyses by the generals is indispensable. But they miss much.

Gen. Joe Wheeler was here the night the Confederates withdrew, and was cordially welcomed. Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum and two corps commanders, Williams and Jefferson C. Davis, were less civilly received while the “bummers” were foraging among the ladies’ personal items upstairs. Farquhard’s youngest son, 15-year-old Jesse, was with Gen. Hardee’s son at the Battle of Bentonville when young Hardee was mortally wounded. But history is — sometimes — more than snippets.

In these parts, the most comprehensive account of the storm that roared through Smithville is that of Farquhard’s teenage daughter Janie. It was written by the light of an oil lamp in one of the rooms a few steps from where this post is being written.

On the evacuation of two of the families from Lebanon into the woods near the river: We would have been better prepared for the thieves, but had to spend the day before our troops left (March 16) in a ravine as the battle was fought so near the house, so we lost a whole day hiding. I can’t help laughing, though the recollection is so painful when I think of that day. Imagine all of us and Uncle John’s family trudging through the rain and mud down to a ravine near the river, each one with a shawl, blanket and basket of provisions.

On Lebanon’s service as a field hospital: One half of the house was prepared for the soldiers, but owing to the close proximity of the enemy, they only sent in the sick, but every barn and out house was filled and under every shed and tree the tables were carried for amputating the limbs. I just felt like my heart would break when I would see our brave men rushing into the battle and then coming back so mangled. The scene beggars description, the blood lay in puddles in the grove, the groans of the dying and the complaints of those undergoing amputation was horrible, the painful impressions has seared my very heart.

On her warrior cousins, and the eight brothers who saw service: It sickens me to think of the bloody battles they have been in since, and we can’t hear from them. All eight brothers survived without injury; none of the houses was torched. And the Smiths learned what unsifted meal and scattering corn tasted like, yet did not “perish.” But these privations of the privileged, sometimes called “America’s royalty,” are useful hints at what befell North Carolina’s second-class citizens, and those who, though native-born, had never even enjoyed full acceptance as human beings.

Beyond the terse dispatches, beyond the memoirs, beyond the dry facts, are stories. What are we to learn from those?

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