As Sherman and his men entered North Carolina in early March 1865, many were grateful to leave a staunch secessionist state like South Carolina and to enter a state with supposed Union sentiments. Union Officer Thomas Osborn wrote intensely of his hatred for South Carolina, as he crossed into Richmond County, North Carolina on March 8. Officer Osborn held that he and other soldiers “felt relieved in getting out of the most contemptible state in the Union, as ... it has but one element which it can boast and that is Treason.” (Item 152) The Union soldiers and generals had great reason to be relieved, as they thought they entered a much friendlier state, with pro-Union opinions. General Orders No. 8, released by Union General Henry Slocum on March 7, reiterated the supposed pro-Union support within North Carolina. Slocum told soldiers “that from the commencement of the war there has been . . . a strong Union party” and “It should not be assumed that the inhabitants are enemies to our Government.” (Item 164) Lieutenant Colonel George Nichols of the Union even noticed that the citizens of the “Old North State” seemed to be better people than those in South Carolina. Nichols attributed this change in character to “the strong Union sentiment which has always found utterance here [North Carolina].” (Item 268) Sherman and his Union soldiers had grounds to believe they would face little resistance in North Carolina, particularly compared to South Carolina.
Prior to Sherman’s men entering North Carolina, a peace movement occurred in the last eighteen months of the war, starting in 1863. William W. Holden, owner and editor of the Raleigh North Carolina Standard, led the peace movement in North Carolina. The governor of North Carolina during the war, Zebulon Vance, discussed the advancements of Holden and his allies in a letter to William Graham, the 30th governor of North Carolina from 1845-1849. In the letter that Vance sent on January 2, 1864, he spoke of “a fixed policy of Mr. Holden and others to call a convention in May to take North Carolina back to the United States.” Vance disagreed with Holden’s ideas, as Vance believed the war needed to continue as “liberty and independence can only be gathered of blood and misery.” (Item 270) Nevertheless, the movement to end the war gained traction within North Carolina with over 100 peace meetings taking place during the course of the war. Counties across the state, including the states’ capitol Wake County, held public meetings to discuss the need for peace during 1863. The meetings occurred “to take a position in defense of our [North Carolina’s] liberties” because the treatment by “the administration at Richmond towards North Carolina has been anything but fair.” Holden and his allies founded the movement based on poor treatment from the Confederate government, particularly the high number of North Carolina soldiers in battle. (Item 272) Although the peace movement gained strong support, it eventually proved unsuccessful. The citizens of North Carolina reelected Vance over Holden as governor in 1864. The reelection signaled citizens’ support to maintain white racial superiority over peace. Vance argued in his campaign “that a faulty Confederacy was still better than reunion, because the Union would destroy the racial order,” which led to a successful reelection. (Manning 2008, 118)
Waning support for the war permeated beyond civilians in North Carolina; soldiers also waivered. General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy wrote to Governor Vance to discuss the rate of desertions in February 1864, just prior to Sherman entering North Carolina. Lee declared in his letter, “Desertings are becoming very frequent and there is reason to believe they are occasioned to a considerable extent by letters written to soldiers by their friends at home.” (Item 497) North Carolina soldiers left their posts in Lee’s army to come home, to help aid their families because the fear of Sherman and his men. (Barrett 1956, 118-119) Given the strong support for the peace movement and high rate of desertions, few would have predicted that citizens of North Carolina would increase their support for the Confederacy, especially in the face of Sherman’s army of over 60,000 men.
Sherman’s men, though, had a job to do when they reached North Carolina. Whether they faced friend or foe, Sherman’s army brought war to the North Carolina home front. As Sherman marched through the South, he “destroyed the railroad to his rear” and depended “upon the countryside for supplies.” (Barrett 1956, 24) These tactics demonstrated both “the moral impression of this invasion, and the stoppage of supplies going north to Richmond and Lee’s army, would cause the collapse of the Confederates’ resistance.” (Hart 1960, 151) The destruction of railroads caused Sherman and his men to live off the land as a war policy, as they had no other method to receive supplies. The destruction of essential property, like the railroads, destroyed the South’s ability to transport military supplies to Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, but also brought the realities of war home to the citizens. Sherman noted in Georgia, “If the people raise a howl against my barbarity and cruelty, I will answer that war is war and not popularity seeking. If they want peace, they and their relations must stop war.” (Item 141) Sherman saw his movements as an effective way to end the war. Soldiers carried out such actions as it offered them a chance to save the Union, or as scholar Gary Gallagher stated, to save a “democratic republic invaluable not only to its own citizens but . . . an example of popular self-rule for the rest of the world.” (Gallagher 2011, 162) The actions in North Carolina were part of a bigger picture, to preserve the Union. In effort to do so, Sherman tried to destroy North Carolinians’ ability to fight the war, physically and mentally.