The Day Raleigh (Almost) Burned Down

April of 1865 was a dangerous month for Raleigh. The end of the Civil War was at hand but armies of the North and South were slowly approaching the capital city, bringing destruction with them. North Carolinians were worried about Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s unstoppable army, which earned a reputation for devastation after the burning of Atlanta and South Carolina’s state capital Columbia. Raleighites wondered if their city would suffer the same fate. Desperate to avoid disaster, state officials risked their lives and rode out to meet the advancing enemy. They surrendered the city with a promise of a quiet occupation, but it was not to be.

The author, COR Museum Director Ernest Dollar (right), and Alamance Battleground Site Directory Jeremiah DeGennaro in Civil War period dress.

The next morning, April 13, blue-clad cavalrymen prepared to enter the capital. They promised to honor the surrender but warned, if they encountered resistance, “There would be hell to pay.” At first, the occupation proceeded quietly, but as Union troops approached the capital, Confederates fired at the column and sped away. One unfortunate Rebel was caught by an enraged Yankee army. Rather than see Raleigh destroyed, the Confederate met his fate at the end of a rope near the site of the Governor’s Mansion. This was the first time the city avoided destruction. 

The most serious threat to Raleigh’s safety came four days later on the evening of April 17. Just as negotiations for peace began, the shocking news of President Lincoln’s assassination reached Union soldiers camped on Dix Hill. The 90,000 men of Sherman’s army were struck with a deep, intense grief, a soul-crushing sadness that boiled into rage as the evening wore on. Men gathered in small groups and the cry arose “to burn the city.”

A mob of roughly 2,000 Union soldiers marched off Dix Hill, bent on putting the city to the torch. Maj. Gen. John “Black Jack” Logan heard about angry soldiers and rode out to confront them. Logan ordered the men to return to their camps, but his plea fell on deaf ears. The General found several pieces of his own artillery and ordered them to turn the guns on the mob, threatening to fire on them if they did not disperse. After a tense moment, the mob melted away. Logan saved the city and earned himself a spot in Raleigh’s Hall of Fame.  

The author will lead the “Between Heaven and Hell” walking tour in costume this month. 

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