BATTLE OF BENTONVILLE (North Carolina), March 19-21, 1865. From the records of the National Park Service:
John and Amy Harper were a middle class farm couple who resided near the village of Bentonville prior to and during the Civil War. John's family originated in Virginia, where his great-uncle, Robert Harper, established a ferry and mill that eventually developed into the community known as Harpers Ferry. In addition to serving as a clerk in the county court system, John Harper also farmed approximately 100 of his 825 acres of land, primarily growing corn, peas, beans, and sweet potatoes. An unspecified portion of Harper's forest land was utilized in the production of turpentine, which was distilled from the rosin of pine trees. The family was active in the local Disciples of Christ Church, and so donated some of their land for the site of the Mill Creek Christian Church. Sometime between 1855 and 1859, John Harper constructed a new, two-story frame home for his growing family of nine children.
The Harpers had little time to enjoy their new home before the dark clouds of civil war disrupted the family's peaceful existence. Although eldest son John, Jr., an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, remained near his family during the Civil War, their second-oldest son enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861 at age 16. Martin was wounded in the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland, in September 1862, but remained in the army until the end of the war.
In the spring of 1865, the suffering of war literally came to the Harpers' front door. On March 19, 1865, the Battle of Bentonville erupted barely one mile east of their home. As the battle developed, Confederate attacks overran large portions of Union lines, and forced Union field hospitals to seek safer locations. Surgeons of the Union's Fourteenth Army Corps arrived at the Harper House and commandeered the structure for use as a field hospital. Its location met the standards of the Letterman Plan, for it was located in what was considered a safe distanceone milefrom the front lines.
John and Amy, along with the six children still living at home, were forced to take refuge in the upstairs rooms of the house while surgeons employed the downstairs rooms as makeshift operating theaters. "A dozen surgeons and their attendants in their shirt sleeves stood at rude benches," wrote one Union commander, "cutting off arms and legs and throwing them out of the windows where they lay scattered on the grass. The legs of the infantrymen could be distinguished from those of the cavalry by the size of their calves, as the march of 1,000 miles had increased the size of one and diminished the size of the other."¹ There were at this time no antibiotics to stop infections, and so the only way to prevent gangrene from killing patients was to amputate shattered arms and legs. But despite the screams, the piles of severed limbs, and the smell, the Harper family refused to leave their home.
When the battle was over, the Union surgeons removed their wounded from the home, but left behind in the Harpers' care 45 wounded Confederate soldiers. These men were given the best the family could provide. John Jr. later recalled that his parents had acted as "nurses, surgeons, commissaries, chaplains and undertakers. My mother fed them, washed their wounds, pointed them to the Saviour, closed their eyes when all was over, and helped to bury their uncoffined bodies as tenderly as she could." John Jr. joined his parents at the Harper House, helping them comfort the wounded and dying of both armies. Evidence suggests that 26 of the wounded Confederates were eventually removed from the house by Confederate surgeons, but 19 men succumbed to their wounds and were buried by the family.
After Sherman's army continued its march to Goldsboro, Confederate cavalry units returned to the Bentonville area to picket the roads in the vicinity. Scouts from one of these regiments, the First Kentucky, were the first to discover that wounded Confederate soldiers had been left in the home of John and Amy Harper. One week after the battle, the letter below was directed to Confederate General Johnston's headquarters calling attention to the plight of the wounded at Harper House.
Headquarters, 1st Ky. Cav.
Near Bentonville, Mar. 27, 1865
Lt. Col. Anderson,
COLONEL: My scout sent (in charge of Sergeant Ellis of this regiment) to the battlefield near Bentonville has returned. He reports finding none of the wounded of the enemy left. There are 45 wounded of our army at the house of Mr. Harper (exclusive of those left at Bentonville). They are in a suffering condition for the want of proper supplies, and there is no surgeon to attend them. Mr. Harper and family are doing all their limited means will allow for the sufferers. Their wounds have been dressed and six or eight amputations performed skillfully by the surgeons of the enemy. There were no supplies left either with the wounded or in the country. There are no marks left by which the loss of the enemy can be estimated. Citizens report that they employed all their ambulances and 200 wagons constantly and actively, from Sunday afternoon until Tuesday night, removing their dead and wounded.
Lt. Col., Commanding Outpost
THE BITTER END
More on the Battle of Bentonville
March 19-21, 1865
By the Civil War Trust
The Battle of Bentonville
March 19-21, 1865
Following his March to the Sea, Union Major General William T. Sherman drove northward into the Carolinas, splitting his force into two parts. Major General Henry W. Slocum commanded the left wing, while Major General Oliver O. Howard commanded the right. The plan was to march through the Carolinas, destroying railroads and disrupting supply lines, before joining Ulysses S. Grant’s army near Richmond. On March 19th, as the respective wings approached Goldsboro, North Carolina, Slocum’s wing encountered the entrenched Confederates of Joseph E. Johnston, who had concentrated at Bentonville with the hope of slowing the Union advance.
Convinced that he faced only a small Confederate cavalry force, Slocum launched a probing attack, which was quickly driven back. In the late afternoon, the Confederate trap was sprung, and a division of rebel infantry under Major General Robert Hoke attacked, driving back Slocum’s men and overrunning the Union XIV Corps field hospital. However, James D. Morgan’s Union division held out against the onslaught, and eventually Union reinforcements arrived to support the counterattack. The Confederates reached their high water mark at the Morris Farm, where Union forces formed a defensive line. After several Confederate attacks failed to dislodge the Union defenders, the weary rebels pulled back to their original lines. Nightfall brought the first day’s fighting to a close in a tactical draw.
The next day, the right wing of the Union Army arrived to reinforce Slocum, which put the Confederates at a huge numerical disadvantage. Sherman expected Johnston to retreat and was inclined to let him do so. However, while Johnston did begin evacuating his wounded, he refused to give up his tenuous position, guarding his only route of escape across Mill Creek. His only hope for success in the face of such an overwhelming numerical disadvantage was to entice Sherman into attacking his entrenched position, something Sherman was unlikely to do. A few sporadic skirmishes occurred throughout the day on March 20th, but no major action ensued.
On the 21st, Johnston remained in position and the previous day’s skirmishing resumed. Under a heavy rainfall, Union Major General Joseph A. Mower led a “little reconnaissance” toward the Mill Creek Bridge. When Mower discovered the weakness of the Confederate left flank, that little reconnaissance became a full-scale attack against the small force holding the bridge. A Confederate counterattack, combined with Sherman’s order for Mower to withdraw, ended the advance, allowing Johnston’s army to retain control of their only means of supply and retreat. Had the Federals managed to gain control of this bridge, they might have had the chance to end the campaign earlier or even capture Johnston’s army entirely.
Instead, the Confederates pulled back across the bridge on the night of the 21st, effectively ending the battle. Union forces pursued them at first light but were halted by a severe skirmish at Hannah’s Creek. After regrouping at Goldsboro, Sherman pursued Johnston’s army toward Raleigh. On April 18, Johnston signed an armistice with Sherman at the Bennett House, and on April 26, formally surrendered his army.
The National Park Service does not enter into discussion about paranormal activity at any of its historic sites, but that doesn’t stop the general public via the Internet to discuss ghosts at the Harper House and claim that the house is one of the most haunted sites in the South.
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