April 16, 1865 – Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston received a message from Federal Major General William T. Sherman that had the potential to end most hostilities east of the Mississippi River.
As April began, Sherman’s Federals remained at Goldsboro reorganizing and preparing for their next major march. On the 5th, Sherman issued Special Orders No. 48, instructing his men that they would soon be moving north of the Roanoke River, poised to reinforce the Federal armies under Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia. The plan changed the next day when Sherman received word that Petersburg and Richmond had fallen.
Sherman now directed his forces to move directly for Raleigh and confront the Confederates under General Joseph E. Johnston before they could be reinforced by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Grant notified Sherman that Lee was headed for Danville, and a Lee-Johnston merger must be prevented at all costs. Grant concluded, “Rebel armies now are the only strategic points to strike at.”
Sherman had nearly 100,000 men to stop Johnston’s force of less than 35,000. The Federals began moving out on the 10th in three columns led by (from left to right) Major Generals Henry W. Slocum, John Schofield, and Oliver O. Howard. In addition, a Federal cavalry force under Major General George Stoneman raided western North Carolina.
As Johnston began pulling back from Smithfield to Raleigh, a portion of Stoneman’s force attacked a Confederate supply train at Salisbury. The Federals charged some 3,000 Confederate defenders at Grant’s Creek, taking about 1,300 prisoners along with 10,000 small arms and 14 cannon. Had the Federals attacked Greensboro instead, they would have captured Jefferson Davis and the remnants of his Confederate government in exile. Nonetheless, the Federal attack deprived Davis of the ability to escape via the railroads.
Meanwhile, Johnston learned that Lee had surrendered to Grant, thereby making his tattered force the last significant Confederate army east of the Mississippi River. When Johnston arrived at the North Carolina capital of Raleigh, he urged Governor Zebulon Vance to negotiate a ceasefire with Sherman while Johnston got instructions from Davis on whether to surrender or fight.
By the time the Federals reached Raleigh’s outskirts, Sherman had learned of Lee’s surrender. He passed the news along to his men in Special Field Orders No. 54:
“The general commanding announces to the army that he has official notice from General Grant that General Lee surrendered to him his entire army, on the 9th inst., at Appomattox Court-House, Virginia.
“Glory to God and our country, and all honor to our comrades in arms, toward whom we are marching!
“A little more labor, a little more toil on our part, the great race is won, and our Government stands regenerated, after four long years of war.”
The men cheered and celebrated as they prepared to destroy Raleigh just like they had destroyed the capitals of South Carolina and Georgia. However, Vance dispatched former Governors William A. Graham and David L. Swain to meet with Sherman. The formally attired emissaries were “dreadfully excited” after passing dangerously close to a cavalry fight on their way to the meeting. They pleaded with Sherman to spare Raleigh from destruction; Sherman appreciated their effort to avoid bloodshed and agreed.
Vance and other state officials fled the capital before the Federals jubilantly entered in pouring rain on the 13th. Raleigh became the 9th of 11 Confederate state capitals to fall; only Austin and Tallahassee remained unconquered. Sherman directed that military police keep a strict guard to prevent looting, and as a result Raleigh did not suffer the same fate as other cities on Sherman’s march such as Atlanta, Savannah, and Columbia. Sherman also allowed civic officials to continue business as usual until he was instructed otherwise by his superiors.
The Federals at Raleigh received news from Commander William H. Macomb, commanding naval forces on the Roanoke River, that–
“–the rebels have evacuated Weldon, burning the bridge, destroying the ram at Edward’s Ferry, and throwing the guns at Rainbow Bluff into the river. Except for torpedoes, the river is therefore clear for navigation. The floating battery, as I informed you in my No. 144, has got adrift from Halifax and been blown up by one of their own torpedoes.”
Federals skirmished in heavy rain around Raleigh and Morrisville as Sherman planned to advance on Johnston’s main force near Greensboro. Johnston had no hope of matching Sherman in open battle, but Sherman now feared that Johnston might disperse his army to wage guerrilla warfare, which could go on indefinitely.
Meanwhile, Johnston conferred with President Davis and obtained permission to talk with Sherman, but only if those talks could result in peace negotiations between the U.S. and Confederate civil authorities. Johnston sent a message through the lines, which Sherman received on the morning of the 14th:
“The results of the recent campaign in Virginia have changed the relative military condition of the belligerents. I am, therefore, induced to address you in this form the inquiry whether, to stop the further effusion of blood and devastation of property, you are willing to make a temporary suspension of active operations, and to communicate to Lieutenant-General Grant, commanding the armies of the United States, the request that he will take like action in regard to other armies, the object being to permit the civil authorities to enter into the needful arrangements to terminate the existing war.”
Despite the political ramifications of such a request (President Abraham Lincoln had directed his generals to only discuss surrender, not peace terms, with Confederate army commanders), Sherman quickly replied:
“I have this moment received your communication of this date. I am fully empowered to arrange with you any terms for the suspension of farther hostilities between the armies commanded by you and those commanded by myself, and will be willing to confer with you to that end. I will limit the advance of my main column, to-morrow, to Morrisville, and the cavalry to the university, and expect that you will also maintain the present position of your forces until each has notice of a failure to agree.
“That a basis of action may be had, I undertake to abide by the same terms and conditions as were made by Generals Grant and Lee at Appomattox Court-House, on the 9th instant, relative to our two armies; and, furthermore, to obtain from General Grant an order to suspend the movements of any troops from the direction of Virginia. General Stoneman is under my command, and my order will suspend any devastation or destruction contemplated by him. I will add that I really desire to save the people of North Carolina the damage they would sustain by the march of this army through the central or western parts of the State.”
Johnston received Sherman’s reply on the 16th, and the two commanders planned to meet between the lines at noon the next day.
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