Remembering the Civil War Battle of Morrisville Station; Event set for April 18
Raleigh had fallen, and Union troops were headed this way.
It was North versus South as new freedoms competed with a longstanding way of life – and four years into the conflict, Western Wake was about to land a front-row seat to the end of the Civil War.
“I suspect the people of Morrisville never thought the war would come to their doorsteps,” said historian and Triangle native Ernest Dollar. “Located on the railroad, Morrisville was a crossroads community. Every day they watched the war go by.”
That is, until the surrender of Raleigh.
Dollar, who has spent decades researching the Civil War and is organizing the Town of Morrisville’s sesquicentennial commemoration of its local impact, says Confederate soldiers led by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston believed Union cavalrymen would rest after raising the Stars & Stripes over the statehouse.
Instead, they found themselves yanked into a battle on April 13, 1865, that began at present-day Hillsborough Street, rolled through Cary at 1 p.m., and by 3 p.m. arrived in Morrisville. That fight marked the last time a major conflict was conducted on horseback.
Morrisville citizens were panicked by reports of Union soldiers’ encounters with civilians, and the burning of capitals Atlanta and Columbia, S.C., by Gen. William T. Sherman.
On the Confederate side, the men of Gen. Joseph “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler were frustrated and angry over Sherman’s tactics in South Carolina. To be in the path of the army was dangerous.
Town Under Seige
The Williamson Page family hid in the basement of their Morrisville home as the battle raged, after stashing their valuables in a hollow tree.
“Federal soldiers camped on the Page property, and the home may have been used as a Union headquarters,” Dollar said. “The Pages’ slaves, realizing freedom was near, told the soldiers where the silver was hidden.
“The Battle of Morrisville came after a long strain on the home front for these families, most of them farmers. People are nervous about a possible revolt by the slaves, and they’re lacking basic supplies like sugar, coffee and needles. And remember, one in four white males served, so all of the men ages 17 to 50 were gone to war.”
The target of the fight quickly became a train that was attempting to pull away from Morrisville Station. Its dozens of boxcars were filled with desperately-needed supplies, and soldiers wounded at the Battle of Bentonville two weeks prior.
Union Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s troops shelled Morrisville from nearby heights. Soldiers and citizens scrambled for cover as shells punctured homes and barns.
Wheeler ordered barricades around the station to buy time. His troops held the charging Union horsemen at 100 yards, while inside the train wounded officers urged the engineer, not so gently, to head for Durham’s Station.
Finally Wheeler order the uncoupling of the supply cars, enabling the train to move and the wounded to escape.
When the dust settled, Nancy Jones, wife of Henry, and a slave discovered a wounded Union solider in her barn, and nursed him back to health. Once he had safely returned home, the soldier sent Jones a gold ring in appreciation.
In a midnight surprise after the battle, Confederate courier Capt. Rawlins Lowndes, bearing a white flag, delivered a request for armistice from Johnston. Sherman, West Point-trained like Johnston, agreed to limit his advance to Morrisville, and meet the following day.
Nine tense days of surrender negotiations followed at the farmhouse of James Bennett outside Durham’s Station, while Union soldiers camped in Morrisville and Sherman frequented the area by train. It was in Morrisville that Sherman shared the news of Lincoln’s assassination, stunning soldiers.
Diary entries from the time of the Morrisville encampment reflect emotions from grief to relief, Dollar says, and intents ranging from revenge to survival.
In the end, Johnston’s courier-borne note led to the largest surrender of the war on April 26, 1865, and a turn toward peace.
“From April to September 1865, so little was written about the end of the war,” Dollar said. “It was spring, and soldiers were desperate to get back to their homes to plant crops that would feed their families and generate revenue. Horses to pull plows became the No.1 — and oft-stolen — commodity.”
Soldiers came home to Morrisville, too, many facing post-war life with missing limbs and other injuries. Among them was William G. Clements, who became a minister and superintendent of Wake schools.
Some bore emotional scars that Dollar notes parallel soldiers’ sufferings in America’s more recent wars, today known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Confederate government officials such as Page, who had been in charge of collecting crop taxes to support the Confederacy, were labeled as traitors and forced to seek pardon from President Andrew Johnson to resume their citizenship.
“The greatest step in the civil rights movement was the abolition of slavery. But with a half-million casualties, the Civil War underscores just how far the South would go to defend its way of life,” Dollar said. “Now people were disoriented, and worried. As ‘traitors,’ would they become a new sub-class? Stripped of their resources? War was somewhat of an equalizer, the rich now poor and dignity lost. It was a scramble for survival.”
Interestingly, even prior to the war Morrisville was home to the Shiloh community of free African-Americans, led by the Rev. James H. Dunston. But newly-freed slaves struggled to compete for strained economic resources.
“The slaves got their freedom, and nothing else. It was a bumpy transition, and they had to learn how to provide for their families. Some entered into sharecropping arrangements with their former masters, and others moved away or went seeking relatives,” Dollar said.
The Civil War changed America, and Americans, including those living in Morrisville, which today has a spot on the North Carolina Civil War Trail.
A sesquicentennial commemoration of the Battle for Morrisville Station will be held on Saturday, April 18 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., beginning at Town Hall, where a historic center has been created to display local artifacts and videos including Dollar’s Twilight of Sabers, recounting Morrisville’s role in the war.
The day will include a living history camp with costumed demonstrators, lectures and tours, and a groundbreaking celebration for the Morrisville Historic Walking Trail.
School of the Soldier, says town planner Ben Hitchings, will teach the equipment and tactics of Civil War soldiers, as re-enactors demonstrate 19th century firearms and artillery, and cavalry re-enactors show strategies used in mounted warfare.
The event will close with the opportunity to try 19th-century dances to live period music.
While scars on the chimney of the Page House survive as remnants of the Battle of Morrisville Station, much of the original battlefield has been lost to development.
“Ultimately, our goal is to get people thinking about battlefield preservation,” said Dollar. “Two important pieces of battlefield land are in danger in Morrisville. To have a preserved battlefield park in the Triangle would be a tourist boon, and would make Morrisville a destination.
“We have a unique piece of history, and we’re trying to raise awareness of a great American story.”
For the full schedule of events, visit battleofmorrisville.org or call (919) 463-6200.