It’s April 1865, the last month of the Civil War. Richmond has fallen. The Confederate cabinet is fleeing. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. Lee’s soldiers are paroled and dispersed, most heading south (and on foot) into North Carolina and toward home in the rest of the former Confederacy. William Tecumseh Sherman’s army is chasing that of Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston, and the chase is ending near Raleigh and Greensboro. As Johnston meets with Sherman to discuss surrender terms, he learns that President Lincoln has been assassinated in Washington.
The final convulsion of the war and the Confederacy is happening in central and north central North Carolina. And it its path are the people who live there, in cities and towns, and on farms, people who see both armies strip the countryside bare of food and provisions. One army’s soldiers experience sorrow and despair, while those of the other feel jubilation. Soldiers of both, after four long years of war, are experiencing what today we recognize as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It isn’t called that then; it isn’t even recognized.
But citizens and soldiers are experiencing its effects – and the effects of hunger. The hunger was at times so great that soldiers and civilians alike began attacking warehouses and trainloads of provisions meant for the Confederate army.
Horrors and atrocities happened on both sides. Rage, fed by deaths and maiming of friends and fellows and fueled by alcohol, could make otherwise kind men do terrible things. Civilians – men, women, and children, free and slave – bore the brunt of that rage. And it was rage coming from both Union and Confederate soldiers.
The story of that month and that place is told, and told well, by Ernest A. Dollar, Jr. in Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina. It’s a somber, sometimes shocking story that shows a side of war we rarely see in the movies or are taught about in school. But it happened, and it happens. And it doesn’t simply change people; it also changes cultures and societies. The effects of what happened in North Carolina in April 1865 were felt for generations.
Dollar graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with B.A. degree in history and a B.F.A. degree in design, and an M.A. degree in history from North Carolina State University. He’s worked at historic sites in both North Carolina and South Carolina. He’s currently the Executive Director of the City of Raleigh Museum, and he and his family currently live in Raleigh.
Hearts Torn Asunder makes for hard reading. But it’s a story that needs to be told.
Top image: Engraving of the meeting of Gen. Joseph Johnston and Gen. William T. Sherman at the Bennett Homeplace, April 1865.