Civilian Account of Sherman's March to the Sea

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Civilian Account of Sherman's March to the Sea

Jane Smith
Jane Smith.jpg

After General William T. Sherman's March to the Sea, he advanced his massive army through the Carolinas. Numerous bloody battles and skirmishes were fought as his army advanced and approached the North Carolina capital of Raleigh. The enclosed letter is an eyewitness account of an 18 year-old female civilian, Jane "Janie' Smith, of one such battle and its aftermath.


"Mr. [General William] Sherman, I think is pursuing the wrong policy to accomplish his designs. The Negroes are bitterly prejudiced to his minions. They were treated, if possible, worse than the white folks, all their provisions taken and their clothes destroyed and some carried off." --Civilian witness regarding General William T. Sherman and his March to the Sea


Following the Battle of Averasboro, North Carolina, March 15th & 16th, 1865, eighteen year old Janie Smith (July 26, 1846 - August 15th, 1882) penned on scraps of wallpaper a letter to her friend Janie Robeson in Bladen County. (Janie Wright Robeson married Edwin T. MacKethan, of Fayetteville, NC.) Janie, a daughter of Farquhard and Sarah Slocumb Grady Smith lived at the family plantation house named "Lebanon". She had nine brothers and five sisters who lived to maturity. One sister died a decade before Gettysburg and one brother died in Texas in 1860. Eight of her brothers served with the Confederate forces. Janie attended a female seminary at Charlotte, NC, for a period of time, and later became the second wife of Dr. R. R. Robeson, already her brother-in-law. They lived near what is now Godwin, NC, at a place called Kyle's Landing. Both are buried in Old Bluff Cemetery. This letter, which is featured here at the Averasboro Battlefield Museum, provides a remarkable glimpse into Janie Smith's chaotic world in March & April 1865. The original letter is in the Mrs. Thomas H. Webb Collection at the North Carolina State Department of Archives & History in Raleigh. The Farquhard Smith's wartime home stands today still occupied by Smith descendants. This house was a hospital during the Battle of Averasboro (a delaying action in Sherman’s attack on Bentonville), where mostly Confederate wounded were treated. It is said that amputated arms and legs were piled outside after being tossed out windows by surgeons, and that blood covered the floorboards. After the battle, Union general Henry Slocum made Lebanon his headquarters. The two other Smith plantation houses, "Oak Grove" and "The William T. Smith House", also were used as field hospitals and still stand on the battlefield. Chicora Civil War Cemetery* located on the battlefield is the gravesite of fifty-six Confederate casualties of the battle.

Jane "Janie" Smith and Sherman's March to the Sea
Battle of Averasboro, North Carolina.jpg
Battle of Averasboro, North Carolina

*Chicora Civil War Cemetery. This cemetery, named after an Indian word for Carolina, is the final resting place of 56 Confederate dead from the battle. Chicora Cemetery was dedicated May 10, 1872, by a women’s group called the Smithville Memorial Association, which in 1904 became the Chicora Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The small enclosure includes monuments to North Carolina and South Carolina troops, and McLaw's Division; a Confederate monument; an interpretive marker for Phase 2 of the Battle of Averasboro; the marked graves of Lieutenant Colonel Robert de Treville, 1st South Carolina Infantry, who was killed in the battle, and 18-year-old Alfred Henry Angel, of Charleston, South Carolina, who was mortally wounded and died April 24, 1865; and a reconstructed Civil War era log cabin transplanted from Farquhard Smith's home, "Lebanon."

Civilian Letter Discussing Sherman's March to the Sea

Janie Smith's Letter 

Where Home Used to be.
Apr. 12th, 1865.
Your precious letter, My dear Janie, was received night before last, and the pleasure it afforded me, and indeed the whole family, I leave for you to imagine, for it baffles words to express my thankfulness when I hear that my friends are left with the necessities of life, and unpolluted (sic) by the touch of Sherman's Hell-hounds. My experience since we parted has been indeed sad, but I am so blessed when I think of the other friends in Smithville that I forget my own troubles. Our own army came first and enjoyed the cream of the country and left but little for the enemy. We had a most delightful time while our troops were camped around. They arrived here on the first of March and were camping around and passing for nearly a week. Feeding the hungry and nursing the sick and looking occupied the day, and at night company would come in and wait until bed-time.
I found our officers gallant and gentlemanly and the privates no less so. The former of course, we saw more of, but such an army of patriots fighting for their hearthstones is not to be conquered by such fiends incarnate as fill the ranks of Sherman's army. Our political sky does seem darkened with a fearful cloud, but when compared with the situation of our fore-fathers, I can but take courage. We had then a dissolute and disaffected soldiery to contend with, to say nothing of the poverty of the Colonies during the glorious revolution of '76. Now our resources increase every year and while I confess that the desertion in our army is awful, I am sanguine as to the final issue to the war.
Gen. Wheeler took tea here about two o'clock during the night after the battle closed, and about four o'clock the Yankees came charging, yelling and howling. I stood on the piazza and saw the charge made, but as calm as I am now, though I was all prepared for the rascals, our soldiers having given us a detailed account of their habits. The pailing did not hinder them at all. They just knocked down all such like mad cattle. Right into the house, breaking open bureau drawers of all kinds faster than I could unlock. They cursed us for having hid everything and made bold threats if certain things were not brought to light, but all to no effect. They took Pa's hat and stuck him pretty badly with a bayonet to make him disclose something, but you know they were fooling with the wrong man. One impudent dog came into the dining room where Kate and I were and said "Good morning girls, why aren't you up getting breakfast, it's late?" I told him that servants prepared Southern Ladies breakfast. He went off muttering something about their not waiting on us any more, but not one of the servants went from here, they remained faithful through it all, with one exception, and Pa has driven him off to the Yankees. 
Mr. Sherman, I think is pursuing the wrong policy to accomplish his designs. The Negroes are bitterly prejudiced to his minions. They were treated, if possible, worse than the white folks, all their provisions taken and their clothes destroyed and some carried off.
They left no living thing in Smithville but the people. One old hen played sick and thus saved her neck, but lost all of her children. The Yankees would run all over the yard to catch the little things to squeeze to death. 

Every nook and corner of the premises was searched and the things that they didn't use were burned or torn into strings. No house except the blacksmith shop was burned, but into the flames they threw every tool, plow etc., that was on the place. The house was so crowded all day that we could scarcely move and of all the horrible smelling things in the world the Yankees beat. The battle field does not compare with them in point of stench. I don't believe they have been washed since they were born. I was so sick all the time that I could not have eaten had I had anything. All of Uncle John's family were here and we lived for three days on four quarts of meal which Aunt Eliza begged from a Yank. Didn't pretend to sift it, baked up in our room where fifteen of us had to stay. When and how we slept, I don't know. I was too angry to eat or sleep either and I let the scoundrels know it whenever one had the impudence to speak to me. Gen. Slocum with two other hyenas of his rank, rode up with his body-guard and introduced themselves with great pomp, but I never noticed them at all. Whenever they would poke out their dirty paws to shake my hand, I'd give the haughtiest nod I could put on and ask what they came for. I had heard that the officers would protect ladies, but it is not so. Sis Susan was sick in bed and they searched the very pillows that she was lying on, and keeping such a noise, tearing up and breaking to pieces, that the Generals couldn't hear themselves talk, but not a time did they try to prevent it. They got all of my stockings and some of our collars and handkerchiefs. If I ever see a Yankee woman, I intend to whip her and take the clothes off of her very back. We would have been better prepared for the thieves but had to spend the day before our troops left in a ravine as the battle was fought so near the house, so we lost a whole days hiding. I can't help laughing, though the recollection is so painful when I think of that day. Imagine us all 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. The battle commenced on the 15th of March at Uncle John's. The family were ordered from home, stayed in the trenches all day when late in the evening they came to us, wet, muddy and hungry. Their house was penetrated by a great many shells and balls, but was not burned and the Yankees used it for a hospital, they spared it, but everything was taken and the furniture destroyed. The girls did not have a change of clothing. The Yankees drove us from two lines of fortifications that day, but with heavy loss, while ours was light. That night we fell back to the cross roads, if you remember where that is, about one sixth of a mile from here, there our men became desperate and at day-light on the sixteenth the firing was terrific. The infirmary was here and oh it makes me shudder when I think of the awful sights I witnessed that morning. Ambulance after ambulance drove up with our wounded. 
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 fill 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 impression has seared my very heart. I can never forget it. We were kept busy making and rolling bandages and sending nourishment to the sick and wounded until orders came to leave home. Then was my trial, leaving our poor suffering soldiers when I could have been relieving them some. As we passed the wounded going to the woods they would beseech us not to go. "Ladies, don't leave your home, we won't let the enemy fire upon you." But orders from headquarters must be obeyed and to the woods we went. I never expected to see the dear old homestead again, but thank heaven, I am living comfortably in it again.  
It was about nine o'clock when the courier [sic] came with orders. The firing continued incessantly up and down the lines all day, when about five in the evening the enemy flanked our right, where we were sent for protection, and the firing was right over us. We could hear the commands and groans and shrieks of the wounded.
A line of battle was formed in front of us, and we knew that was certain death to us should we be unsuccessful in repelling the charge. Lou and I started out to do the same thing, when one of the vedetts [sic] saw my white flag (my handkerchief (sic) on a pole) and came to us. I accosted him, "Are you one of our men or a Yankee?" "I am a Reb, Mam." "Can't you go and report to the commanding officer and tell him that the hillside is lined with women and children he sent here for protection, and the line of battle over there will destroy us?" "I'll do all I can for you", was the gallant reply and in a short time we were ordered home.
Well, Janie dear, I am really afraid of wearying you with my long epistle, but if you feel as much interested in Smithville as I do in the welfare of Ashwood, I know you won't complain. You inquired after Cam. I believe the excitement cured her. She is better now than she has been for years.
Their house is ruined with the blood of the Yankee wounded. Only two rooms left, Aunt Mary's and the little one joining, which the family occupied. The others she can't pretend to use. Every piece of bed furniture, etc. is gone. The scamps left our piano, used Aunt Mary's for an amputation table.
The Yanks left fifty of our wounded at Uncle John's whom we have been busy nursing. All that were able have gone to their homes, and the others except four, are dead. The poor things were left there suffering and hungry with only one doctor. I felt my poverty keenly when I went down there and couldn't even give them a piece of bread. But, however, Pa had the scattering corn picked up and ground, which we divided with them, and as soon as the Country around learned their condition, delicacies [sic] of all kinds were sent in. I can dress amputated limbs now and do most anything in the way of nursing the wounded soldiers. We have had nurses and surgeons from Raleigh for a week or two. I am really attached to the patients of the hospital and feel so sad and lonely now that so many have left and died. My favorite, a little black eyed boy with the hitest brow and thick curls falling on it, died last Sunday, but the Lord has taken him to a better land. He was the only son of his widowed mother. I have his ring and a lock of his hair to send her as soon as I can get an opportunity.  It is so sad to receive the dying messages and tokens for the loved ones at home. It grieves me to see them buried without coffins, but it is impossible to get them now. I have two graves in my charge to keep fresh flowers on, the little boy just mentioned and Lieutenant Laborde, the son of Dr. Laborde of Columbia College. The latter had passed through the fight untouched, and while sitting on the fence of our avenue resting and making friends with his captain, whom he had challenged, a stray ball pierced his head. His with three other Confederate graves are the only ones near the house. But the yard and garden at Uncle John's, the cottage and Aunt Mary's are used for Yankee grave yards, and they are buried so shallow that the places are extremely offensive. The Yankees stayed here for only one day, a few for a day or two would come. "We had a romantic time feeding the Confederate captain they brought here, hiding the bread from the rogues". 
We had to walk about three miles going to the hospital at first to avoid the Yankee pickets. Our soldiers were there suffering and we were determined to help them.
Cousin Rice came home yesterday wounded by a pistol shot in the fleshy part of his shoulder. He looks well considering his long walk. We have no way of sending for our wounded brothers now. Bros. Henry and Fark came about a week after the Yanks left. I never was so glad to see folks in my life, but they are so saddened by the dissolution in Smithville that they don't seem like the same boys. Cousin Walter is also at home. Each one of the boys brought their rations and it looked so strange. Cousin Rice was wounded on the 6th inst. at Petersburg. Tom's horse was lost. The others were all safe at that time. It sickens me when I think of the bloody battles they have been in since, and we can't hear from them. I think you ought to be thankful that your brother is captured, though I know how you feel about him. All things are for the best and I feel it is so. Your Uncle David spent the night with us as he passed on a sad mission. I was so glad to see him and hope that he will bring his wounded son here on his way back. I reckon he thought there was no end to my questions. Sloke was in the battle of Bentonville, but escaped unhurt. He had to leave home in spite of our entreaties, volunteered for the emergency, says he and his horse had a funny time dodging behind each other. This is the only "critter" he saved, but our army got them. We plow old bags of bones the Yanks would not trouble to kill, pick them up from the battle field. We are getting on very well in the eating line. As you suppose, we had little corn left at the plantation and a cow or two. I am not afraid of perishing though the prospects for it are very bright. When our army invade the North, I want them to carry the torch in one hand, the sword in the other. ... I know you think this a very unbecoming sentiment, but I believe it is our only policy now.
.... I will wait until tomorrow to finish my volume as Jess can't bear the light in his eyes and it is too dark for me. Sloke is quite sick with measles, took cold and I am staying with him while sister and Louise are out enjoying the lovely spring evening. All nature is gay and beautiful, but every Southern breeze is loaded with a terrible scent from the battle field, which renders my home very disagreeable at times.
End of Letter

(Related reading below.)

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Recommended Reading: Sherman's March Through the Carolinas. Description: In retrospect, General William Tecumseh Sherman considered his march through the Carolinas the greatest of his military feats, greater even than the Georgia campaign. When he set out northward from Savannah with 60,000 veteran soldiers in January 1865, he was more convinced than ever that the bold application of his ideas of total war could speedily end the conflict. Continued below…

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Recommended Reading: On Sherman's Trail: The Civil War's North CarolinaClimax. Description: Join journalist and historian Jim Wise as he followsSherman's last march through the Tar Heel State from Wilson's Store to the surrender at Bennett Place. Retrace the steps of the soldiers at Averasboro and Bentonville. Learn about what the civilians faced as the Northern army approached and view the modern landscape through their eyes. Whether you are on the road or in a comfortable armchair, you will enjoy this memorable, well-researched account of General Sherman's North Carolina campaign and the brave men and women who stood in his path.

Recommended Viewing: The History Channel Presents Sherman's March (2007).Description: “The story of General William Tecumseh Sherman who helped devastate the South's army at the end of the Civil War is told here via vivid reconstructions of his actions.” This is a great reenactment, presentation. It's not dull like some documentaries that just continually talk with the same guy for an hour. This includes several individuals that are extremely knowledgeable in their respective fields--be it civilian or military historian. Continued below...

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