Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Occupation of Chapel Hill, April, 1865

14 April 1865

On April 14, 1865, Confederate General Joseph Wheeler's Cavalry arrived near Chapel Hill, fleeing Sherman’s Army which occupied Raleigh the same day. Wheeler had fought a rearguard battle the previous day at Morrisville and a small skirmish occurred at the Atkins farm on New Hope Creek on the evening of the 14th.

Wheeler’s men had a reputation of appropriating property and many in Chapel Hill were worried about their possessions as well as the University’s. Lt. James Coffin (UNC Class of 1859) was among the men who arrived with Wheeler and is credited with helping ensure that the village and University were largely unscathed. Some of the men were sent to meet with UNC President Swain, but Swain was off negotiating the surrender of Raleigh in exchange for the protection of the government buildings. Swain left Math Professor Charles Phillips in charge.

General Wheeler set up his command post across the street from the Chapel of the Cross on Franklin Street. Although no history directly records it, apparently Wheeler ordered his men to dig rifle pits to guard the approach to the village along what is now South Road. Battle obliquely mentions this in describing hikes around Chapel Hill: “to the south of [Gimghoul Castle] . . . a winding, rocky path . . . leads by the rifle pits dug by Wheeler's Cavalry as they retreated . . . ”

15 April 1865

The next day he had charge of the rearguard and cleared the town of all stragglers. Wheeler’s men were in bad shape and word of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House left the Confederates very demoralized. It was raining “in torrents” on the 15th according to Gen. Sherman’s letter of that date to Gen. Grant

Wheeler wrote in The War of the Rebellion: “On the 14th I moved on to Chapel Hill, and on the 15th the enemy approached but after firing a few shots without effect again retired. Pursuant to orders I now moved my command back of Chapel Hill, with orders not to engage the enemy unless attacked.”

16 April 1865

General Wheeler prepared to retreat further on April 16, Easter Sunday. The Confederate Army left, according to Cornelia Phillips Spencer, at 2 PM: “A few hours of absolute and Sabbath stillness and silence ensued. The groves stood thick and solemn, the bright sun shining through the great boles and down the grassy slopes, while a pleasant fragrance was wafted from the purple panicles of the Paulownias.”

Cornelia Phillips Spencer's The Last Ninety Days of the War in North Carolina relates: "We sat in our pleasant piazzas and awaited events with quiet resignation. Our silver had all been buried. There was not much provision to be carried off. The sight of our empty store-rooms and smoke-houses would be likely to move our invaders to laughter. But there was anxiety as to the fate of the University buildings, libraries and portraits.”

Toward the end of the day, the Union Army arrived and a delegation led by President Swain (who had returned on the 15th) went out to meet the first Union officer to discuss the protection of the village and campus. The Union officer reassured them and Pres. Swain told them that all of the Confederate Army had left. The officer retired to the Union camp somewhat east of Chapel Hill.

In his Recollections of a Civil War Cavalryman, Union General William Douglas Hamilton says: “I was ordered to proceed next day to Chapel Hill . . . The next day we moved eight miles into Chapel Hill. I established headquarters in a house on the outskirts of the town, and camped the command in a grove near by.” This was probably near the Gimghoul neighborhood.

17 April 1865

Kemp Plummer Battle's History of the University of North Carolina says: “About eight o'clock the next day, the 17th, General Smith B. Atkins, of Freeport, Illinois, with four thousand cavalry, took possession of the town.” Spencer adds: “General Sherman's orders were obeyed, and all the dwellings in the town, as well as the University property, were well guarded. The soldiers detailed for this purpose from the 9th Michigan Cavalry were especially noted for civility and propriety.”

“The persistency of President Swain in keeping up the exercises of the institution was evident from the fact that when the Federal troops took possession of the village there were about a dozen students, mostly residents of Chapel Hill, on hand to witness the novel spectacle.”

19 April 1865

On April 19, 1865, Pres. Swain wrote to General Sherman to the effect that both the Confederate and Union Armies had taken all the food and horses in the area. Battle tell us: “Many families outside the village had been stripped of the means of subsistence, among them a Baptist preacher, Rev. Dr. [George W.] Purefoy, who had a family, white and colored, of over fifty persons, with no provisions and not a horse or mule. He hoped that the General would relax the severity of his orders, and believed that General Atkins would welcome the change."

22 April 1865

General Sherman replied on the 22nd that as soon as war should cease, "seizure of horses and private property will cease. Some animals for the use of the farmers may then be spared. As soon as peace comes the Federals will be the friends of the farmers and working classes, as well as actual patrons of churches, colleges, asylums and institutions of learning and charity."

Battle asserts: "This correspondence shows that, away from places where guards were posted as an especial favor, plundering of the country people was allowed by the military authorities over ten days after Lee's surrender. There was much robbery, too, by stragglers and other unauthorized men, called "Bummers." Outrages to females were forbidden, and the orders were obeyed. I heard of no burning of houses in this part of the world traceable to the soldiers."

Battle says: "It was during the time that General Atkins was stationed at Chapel Hill that he wooed and won Eleanor, the beautiful daughter of President Swain. The General ingratiated himself with our people by his fairness and courtesy. He was a man of fine appearance and of high character, the editor of an influential paper in Freeport. Still the people living in the line of Sherman's march, who had suffered much by the plundering of his army, could not forget that Atkin's brigade was a part of it, and heard of the match with disapproval. It distinctly weakened the President's popularity, though he never seemed to realize the loss."

29 April 1865

Hamilton writes: “On April 29th, General Kilpatrick came to Chapel Hill from Durham’s Station and reviewed the brigade for the last time. On May 3rd, we bid farewell to Chapel Hill and marched twelve miles to Hillsboro.” Thus ended the 20 days when armies occupied Chapel Hill.


  1. A nice read, Mark, thank you. Well balanced. Mercifully bereft of the usual damnyankee proclamations. You might, though, have noted Lincoln's passing as perhaps having more influence on the behavior of both armies than did Lee's surrender (which had nothing to do with Johnston's army).

  2. Hi Mark!! This is great and I am an Atkins by birth. Which Atkins farm did the skirmish appear on August 14, 1865? My gggrandmother was in this area I believe at that time. Please relate the reference to this farm and evidence of the skirmish. I would so appreciate it! There is mystery attached!!
    Donna Absher

  3. Nice post!

    UNC's RLA conducted an excavation on part of the site of where Atkins and Eleanor Swain met: