Author: William S. McLean; edited and vetted by Cheri Todd Molter and Leisa Greathouse
Before and during the Civil War, Alexander Graham (1800-1865) and Elizabeth Purcell Graham (1806-1888) lived in a Greek Revival cottage on the east side of the Cheraw to Fayetteville Road, now Highway 401, two miles above Gilchrist Bridge on the Lumber River, in what was then the upper reaches of Robeson County. That part of Robeson County—where the Graham’s home was located—later became a part of Hoke County in 1911.
Many of the Graham neighbors were related: Mrs. Graham’s sister lived across the road in a two-story house (still standing); two of Mrs. Graham’s brothers lived not more than two miles distant; and she had an uncle at Mill Prong, three miles distant. All had large families.
The Grahams, like many of their neighbors, were Presbyterian descendants of Highland Scots. Deep tragedy was unknown to them, and while the Grahams had lost two children in infancy, six others had survived to reach their majority. Two sons served in the Confederate army. Their lives were tranquil until the disruption of war and, towards its end, the arrival of General W.T. Sherman and his army.
On March 8, 1865, General Sherman crossed over the North Carolina line, having left a path of destruction in South Carolina, and camped near Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church, ten miles south of the Graham home. According to John G. Barrett, author of The Civil War in North Carolina, some Union soldiers thought the area looked “real northern like [with its] small farms and nice white tidy dwellings” (301).
That same day, March 8, 1865, was also a busy day for Confederates: At 10:30, a dispatch from General Beauregard in Charlotte to General Johnston in Fayetteville stated: “I respectfully suggest that Governor Vance and yourself call on the people residing along Sherman’s supposed line of march to remove temporarily all their supplies and animals at least twenty miles to the right or left of his flank routes.” At 12:15, Major General Wheeler sent a dispatch to Major McClellan giving his opinion that “the main column of the enemy will move on the road from Cheraw to Fayetteville or on roads near to and parallel to that road as it passes through a fruitful country.” General Wheeler continued, stating that Confederates should take possession of the Gilchrist Bridge over Lumber River and the two bridges above it. A dispatch from Lt. Col. Montgomery to Major Taylor disclosed that all three bridges had been lost and that the Confederates had retired to Antioch Church. At 4:00, a dispatch from Asst. Adjutant General Anderson in Fayetteville to General Wade Hampton stated that the detachment at Antioch Church was “the only force known to us between this place and the enemy.” (The War of the Rebellion, a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 1 – Volume XLVII, in three parts, Part II Correspondence, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1895)
The Antioch Presbyterian Church stands today between Red Springs and Raeford on Highway 211, some nine miles east of Gilchrist Bridge and the Graham home. The present church building was constructed after the Civil War but replaced an existing building on the same site.
Sherman’s Army in Robeson County
On March 9, 1865, Union troops crossed the Lumber River at Gilchrist Bridge and entered Robeson County. That night, General Sherman took refuge at Bethel Presbyterian Church, five miles north of Gilchrist Bridge and three miles above the Graham home, during a terrible rainstorm. According to Barrett, Sherman “stretched himself out on one of the wooden pews for the night” and someone left a penciled memo in the church Bible, stating: “Mr. McNeil will please pray for old Abe – By Order -W. T. Sherman – Major General Commanding U.S. Forces” (The Civil War in North Carolina, 301 – 302).
Alexander Graham Moved to “Safety”
In a typed narrative dated May 24, 1932, A. D. Currie recorded his memories of the last days of Alexander Graham’s life. Currie, writing sixty-seven years after Graham’s death, was too young at that time for Confederate service but was old enough to remember what had occurred for the remainder of his life. According to Currie’s recollections, Alexander Graham, several days prior to March 8th, had stored and arranged his corn, wheat, and meat in the barns and cribs at the residence of John C. Currie, A. D. Currie’s father, which was some nine miles from the Graham home, as it was judged to be a place of safety. Graham used two wagons and eight mules to move his goods and valuables. The mules belonged to Graham’s daughter, Ann E. Wall, who was a widow who had returned to her childhood home from Mississippi with an enslaved man named Wash Wall. Wash accompanied Ann to the Graham home. According to Currie, Wash had been “raced and chased” by Union soldiers while agreeing to help her father, and Graham had admonished Wash to take particular care of the mules.
Graham Moved Again
On March 9th, after he decided to leave the Currie residence, Graham had Wash and another servant load his two wagons with meat. Graham armed himself with a pistol and a shotgun and rode a black mare, accompany the two wagons as they traveled another two and a half miles from the Currie house. Currie had loaned Graham his pistol and the sheepskin holder for that pistol, which he had made himself. According to Currie, Graham stated, “Let them find (me) if they can; and if they do, I will mount my black mare and make for Drowning Creek (Lumber River), jump off and swim across.” The Curries also decided to hide away from their home: They did not have a horse and “shanked it off” to hide at the “head of a branch” (Currie 1932).
In the days following, those in hiding returned one by one—all except for Alexander Graham—to the Currie home, which had been reduced to an “ash bed.” One servant woman reported that, while in hiding, she had seen Graham chased by a “number of Yanks and two negro men (who) were right on him” (Currie 1932).
Search Party Finds Graham
There was a lapse of four days from the time Graham was seen by the Curries to the formation of a search party consisting of Dr. Colin Bethune, A.D. Currie, his twin brother Calvin and another. They located a starting point of a two-mile stretch that Currie called a “race for life.” He wrote, “The tracks of the victor and the victim were so well pressed in the soft ground that the rains for quite a while made no signs of blotting out their tracks. They showed just where the race ended and death began—the animal circled around a big pine tree and Mr. Graham’s feet were against the big tree, his head pointing the way they came from.” Calvin was the first to sight Graham’s “white hair glistening in the distance.” The pistol and shotgun were gone, along with the wagons of meat; only Currie’s homemade pistol holder remained. By then, it was late in the evening and without means to carry the body, it was left on an improvised “cooling board” after they “plac[ed] his stylish top hat on his face.”
The next day, A.D Currie was deputized by his father to measure the body for a coffin. Although Currie claims that the thought made his hair “stood on end,” he still managed to complete the assignment, and afterward, he contacted the community coffin maker. The coffin maker performed his function and even provided two oxen for transportation for the 12-mile trek to the Purcell graveyard, according to Currie. Currie stated that the coffin maker did a likewise “job for anyone who might die. He made and furnished everything. If he ever charged one cent for anyone for such work, I would like to see family who says he did.”
It was a time of great devastation and disorganization. The coffin maker dug the grave. According to Currie, the coffin maker and Graham’s widow were the only attendants. Wash, after regularly “changing his camping quarters here and there,” managed to save the eight mules belonging to Ann Graham Wall, and, according to Currie, he had his revenge on certain individual Yankee soldiers, which is another story.
Within ten days of her husband’s death, Elizabeth Purcell Graham faced another tragedy. Her son, Thomas Scott Graham, was mortally wounded on March 19th, at the Battle of Bentonville and died in a hospital in Raleigh on March 23rd. The graves of both the father and son rest in the Robeson County Purcell graveyard, now Hoke County.
Graham Home Moved
Shift forward to 1973. Ella Alderman McLean, the grandniece of Elizabeth Purcell Graham, and Alderman McLean, Ella McLean’s son, contacted this author and urged him to purchase the old Graham house, which had to be moved from its original site or face demolition. The house was purchased and moved four miles to the vicinity of the Riverton community in Scotland County, where it stands today, after renovation. A kitchen annex was constructed using materials from another antebellum structure and today is a separate apartment. The house has several interesting features: an eight-foot-wide center hall paneled with heart pine, ceilings ten and a half feet tall, doors and windows of the same height, and four chimneys, one for each of the four rooms. It sits on brick piers four feet off the ground.
The Graham family, consisting of two adults and eight children, made do with that four-room residence with a separate kitchen, which probably contained a dining room. The house was located on a 430-acre tract belonging to the Grahams resulting from the 1851 division of the lands of John Purcell, the deceased father of Mrs. Graham. In the 1860 census, Graham was listed as a farmer with real estate valued at $3,156 and approximately $10,500-worth of personal property.
Strangely enough, the story of Alexander Graham was not widely known. The Lumber River Scots, the compiled family history for the Grahams, included the birth and death dates for Mrs. Graham and all her children, yet it did not mention the birth and death dates for Alexander Graham nor the circumstances of his death. In addition to Currie’s narrative mentioning Alexander Graham’s story, a letter dated July 12, 1937, written by Dr. William A. McLeod, a Presbyterian minister in Texas, to Dr. A.C. Bethune of Raeford referred to Alexander Graham as having been “killed in 1865 by Sherman’s bums.”
Through the years, the author had noticed Graham’s date of death, engraved on his tombstone as March 9, 1865, as a coincidence—it being the same date that General Sherman’s troops were present in Robeson County. Since Graham was 65 years of age then, the author assumed that the stress of the Union army’s arrival had resulted in a natural death for a man of his age. The research and information provided by John C. Kelly of Rockville, Maryland, descendant of local families and native of Hoke County, and that of Dickson McLean, Jr. uncovered the answer to this mystery for which the author is much indebted.
Editor’s Note: When the term “servant” is being used, the author is referring to an enslaved individual.