After Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union Army devastated Atlanta, he began his infamous march through the South in early January 1865. By March 7, his troops had reached North Carolina and begun their reign of terror on Robeson County.
While Sherman himself passed through the Laurinburg area on his way toward Fayetteville, his troops were spread all across neighboring Robeson County. Some of the county’s residents left detailed accounts of encounters with the troops during what turned out to be the final weeks of the war, including the Rev. Washington S. Chaffin, Annabella McCallum McElyea and Ellen Douglas Bellamy.
The Rev. Chaffin, a circuit-riding Methodist minister, was living in Lumberton at the time of Sherman’s raid. His diary, located in the Special Collections Library at Duke University, gives his viewpoint of the time the Yankees were in town.
He writes on March 9, 1865, of the Yankees’ arrival, which led to robbery and the burning of railroad property:
“Cotton was burning in different heaps,” he wrote. “Great excitement. The Yankees are said to be in two different places near here — I am incredulous, just as I penned the last word in the last line, two couriers came straining their steeds down street from Major Blount’s hollering, ‘The Yankees are coming, the Yankees are coming.’ They were not couriers, but a part of the raiding party. Almost in an instant the streets were swarming with Yankee cavalry charging in every direction. There were some 300 to 500 of them, I suppose. They robbed me of Mrs. Chaffin’s watch — Also stole Kate. They burned the county bridge, R. R. Bridge, and depot. Entered many houses & committed many depredations — They did not come into our house. Whence they came from and whither they went, I know not. My wife was greatly excited. I have owned Kate 5 years, 11 months & 17 days — She has never been sick — I traveled with her on horseback 17,102 miles.”
While Lumberton was still in shock over the loss of personal property, as well as the railroad bridge and depot, Chaffin made the following prayer on March 14 that showed his courage and strong belief in reconciliation:
“In our nation may all malice, & hatred & wrath be laid aside — that there be no more sectional animosity, so that violence shall no more be heard in our land, wasting nor destruction in our borders. May the President of the nation have the piety of Joseph, and his counselors — wisdom — may they be good men & disposed to measures of peace, that there may be peace in all our borders & that all the people may engage in the industrial pursuits of life.”
He noted in the diary after the prayer, “Exception, I learn has been taken to it.”
Annabella McCallum McElyea, known to most everyone as “Aunt Becky,” lived in the southwestern corner of the county in the community known as Fork.
She was a regular correspondent to The Robesonian from 1907 until her death in 1926. While her articles often carried the current news of her community, the bulk of her writings dealt with her recollections of days gone by. On March 18, 1909, soon after the 44th anniversary of Sherman’s march through Robeson, she wrote about her memories of the raiding troops.
She called Sherman’s bummers a “veritable band of thieves and robbers stealing everything from horses to ladies’ jewelry and clothing.” She and her sister had packed their best clothes and jewelry in a trunk and had it put in the loft of their “black mammy’s house,” which was the first place searched by the troops.
The troops that came to her father’s home were led by a man on horseback who attempted to ride into the house. Her mother objected and was told, “Why, Madam, when I’m at home I ride this horse into my parlor.” Aunt Becky commented that “the four-footed beast was by all odds a more fitting occupant than the two-legged one.”
She summed up their time in the community: “They were bent on completely devastating the land and for this reason carried off and destroyed many articles which were of no use to them.”
Floral College, the first North Carolina college to confer degrees to women, was chartered on Jan. 11, 1841, and located about three miles north of Maxton.
Floral College was one of the casualties of the “War Between the States” as surely as any human casualty. Due to economic hardships, the loss of students, and fear of being unable to provide safety to students, the college was forced to close for a time.
Shutting down the school provided opportunity for other use. O.G. Parsley and Dr. John Dillard Bellamy, prominent Wilmington residents, felt that Wilmington would come under Yankee rule early in the war and desired to move their families where they would be safer. They rented the deserted campus and moved their families there.
Ellen Douglas Bellamy was born May 11, 1852, the fourth child of the Bellamys. On April 26, 1937, at the age of almost 85, she began writing her memoirs. Her booklet titled “Back With the Tide” covers the period that the family resided at Floral College and gives insight into lives of well-to-do families in southeastern North Carolina during the Civil War.
This is her story:
“I loved that little village (Floral College community) — life was so sweet and different there. We entered a select private school, just a short walk around my brothers, John and George, and I was taught by Mrs. Maria Nash, widow of Rev. Frederick Nash, a Presbyterian minister. I loved that teacher and feel that I learned a great deal during our few sessions there.
“There were some very pleasant, congenial families living at Floral. Mrs. Eliza McLaughlin, a lovely widow, had moved there a few years earlier from Columbia, South Carolina, with four pretty daughters and six handsome sons. There was, also, the Lilly family; Mr. Edmund Lilly keeping a store with a little of everything. The stock became depleted and could not be replenished, so he soon sold out and closed up. I remember my sister and Miss Lizzie Parsley purchased a box of white pallbearer’s gloves and dyed them in green tea and distributed them among their friends.
“I must not forget the Watsons; old Major Watson was a rare character who kept the Inn, or Tavern; his wife and three old maid daughters made up his family. It was his house the General Francis Blair chose for his headquarters for the two days and nights the Yankee army was there. He was a scamp, although later he was nominated for Vice-President of the United States; he was defeated. That was the only time my father ever scratched a Democratic ticket; he could not vote for a man who talked so insultingly to my mother and other ladies.”
Bellamy remembered the fear and desperation in the community when the Yankees arrived:
“It was this same old Major Watson, the newsmonger of the village that Josie Davis and I with Misses Mary and Callie McLaughlin, taking a walk, approached for news, as it had been reported the Yankees were not far away, heading for us. Major Watson called out: ‘Run girls, the blue jackets are coming!’ There they were like a swarm of bees through the woods and did we run!
“Then they rushed in demanding food and drink. We had only milk and a barrel of scuppernong wine, made the summer before at Grovely; when they tasted it and found it too new and sweet, they pulled out the bung and let every bit run on the ground. My mother was made to taste all food before they would for fear she had poisoned it.
“In the twinkling of an eye, the whole house was ransacked; they appropriated anything they fancied. Some flat silver and the new silver cake baskets were hidden among trash and rubbish under crated furniture in the lumber room, another big square tin cake-box full of silver was buried in the lot, at side of the front steps near the root of a big tree; the ground was thickly covered with leaves; surprisingly, it escaped their bayonet thrusts, which were made every few feet, feeling for buried treasures.
“The silver forks, used at every meal, my mother wore down her stocking legs for several days, the prongs of one inflicting a painful wound on the calf of her leg!
“Mrs. Peter W. McEachern, whose husband had been killed in battle in Virginia, moved to Major Watson’s for protection, bringing with her carriage horses and her husband’s horse that had been sent home from Virginia. Suddenly she saw the Yankee soldiers astride her horses riding away. She rushed to General Blair and implored him to restore her husband’s horse, at least. He said: ‘Kiss me and I will grant your request.’
“She replied, ‘You rascal! I would die first.’ So, she never saw her horses again. Do you wonder that my father refused to vote for him when he ran for Vice-President, with Seymour, on the Democratic ticket?
“The house we occupied then, Steward’s Hall, had a long dining room, in rear; one end we used as a kitchen, and the remainder of that long room was packed from floor to ceiling with corn, peanuts in bags, and other foods, many of them brought from our own commissary department. The Yankees swore it was a Rebel Commissary Department, and in a few minutes every vestige was gone! Our servants, cooks, maids, nurse, and wash maids were completely demoralized, and when the Yankees offered to take them to Wilmington every one of them left us!”
Floral College re-opened in January 1866 and operated until 1872. The old campus was not entirely abandoned. Steward’s Hall became the home of the Rev. H.G. Hill and his family. The main building was used as a public school for years, and another building was purchased by the Purcell family and moved to an adjacent area to serve as their home.
Steward’s Hall was moved in 1950 beside Centre Presbyterian Church, where it serves as an education building for the church, still carrying out its original purpose as an edifice of education.
Sherman’s troops often chose to camp in and around churches during their march through the South. Antioch Presbyterian Church, near Red Springs, and Bethel Presbyterian Church, near Raeford, were campsites of Union troops. Both were left unharmed but this was not the case for the Lumber Bridge Presbyterian Church. The troops camped at Lumber Bridge on the evening of March 10 and began to tear down the church and nearby Temperance Hall for fuel. The next morning they used the remaining lumber to construct a causeway.
The members of Lumber Bridge Presbyterian Church managed to rebuild the church in only three years, which was accomplished by sacrifices of the members. In 1887, a $3,000 claim was filed against the federal government for the loss of the buildings. Every year the claim was defeated until March 3, 1915, when a claims bill was passed by both houses of Congress to pay the trustees of the church $1,800.
This week marks 153 years since Sherman’s troops brought destruction and hardship to Robeson County. Memories remain. There are more stories of that painful time never recorded publicly. Robeson County History Museum is a good place to preserve the memories, photographs and artifacts of our residents.