Union troops sack Asheville!

It was April 26, 1865, in Asheville. Seventeen days after Lee surrendered to Grant, 17 days after the beginning of the end of the War Between the States.

The Union troops passing through Asheville had agreed not to harm the town, in exchange for three days’ food and three days’ forage for their horses. The calvary accepted what the war-weary Asheville townspeople could scrape together for them, and then they left — only to return after dark, guns blazing, breaking into every home but one, pulling rings off women’s fingers, ripping mattresses open in search of secret stashes, burning down all the public buildings — the post office, the courthouse, the armory, anything of military value, as well as some other buildings along the way — in direct violation of the truce they signed with Asheville just one day before.

“It was just a crime spree,” recounts Terry Garren, historian and member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “This is all quite well-documented.”

Did you think Asheville was essentially a pro-Union town during the Civil War? Did you think most of Madison County was philosophically opposed to secession?

There are reasons behind some common misconceptions, says Garren. Although Garren reads everything he can lay his hands on about Confederate history, his favorite reference is the Official Record — a collection of military memos and documents from both sides of the Civil War — which he considers to be more accurate than many history books, and less prone to emotional slants.

But why would people think Madison was pro-Union if that wasn’t true? And why would the Union calvary violate its agreement with Asheville?

To help the public learn more about western North Carolina’s role in the Civil War, the Asheville chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Zebulon Vance Camp 15, is sponsoring an exhibit June 3 through 17 at Pack Place. It will include old photos, documents, letters, war uniforms and other mementos, plus an audio-visual presentation, along with a narrative text. (It won’t include firearms, because Pack Place has banned all guns — even historic ones that are loaded with black powder.)

Some of the heirlooms on display will be loaned from private collections of Sons members. Others will be from the F.A. Sondley collection.

As a young boy, Foster Sondley watched from a hill as Asheville was looted and burned on April 26, 1865. Before he died in 1931, he bequeathed his collection of books and artifacts to the Asheville-Buncombe Library System.

Sondley’s collection includes Confederate scrip for such things as a drink at the bar of a hotel in Wilmington, and a pair of shoes.

“This is the Civil War equivalent of pizza coupons,” says Roger McCredie, commander of the Zebulon Vance Camp 15 and organizer of the exhibit. “This is not money, but it’s good for goods and services.”

The people working on the upcoming exhibit have ancestral connections to the Confederate cause. McCredie, a Spartanburg, S.C., native, recently learned that his great-great-grandfather, a second lieutenant, was brought up on military charges for leaving ranks (without his commander’s knowledge) to pick apples — and for inciting other soldiers to join him.

Many Asheville natives also have Confederate ties. According to McCredie, Asheville was considered the seat of Confederate operations in WNC. And, in fact, one of the exhibit pieces is a rarely seen photo of men lining up in the public square (now Pack Square) to enlist in the Confederate army.

Asheville was just as Confederate as Charleston or Mobile, McCredie insists. But other than setting the allegiance record straight, there is no political slant to this exhibit, he says. “It’s the sort of thing that, as pure history, I would hope would be interesting.”

Asheville’s bad luck

In addition to playing for the losing side, Asheville had the misfortune to cross paths with some particularly cranky Union troops.

To understand why Asheville was looted, you have to understand what happened in the days leading up to that April 26, says Garren, who uses old newspaper clippings and personal accounts to help him flesh out the details.

First of all, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia, surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865. But without telegraph service, Asheville didn’t know it. Other Confederate armies continued fighting, and a Confederate government continued to operate on the road.

Because of Lee’s surrender, Union Gen. George Stoneman received orders to free Union prisoners in the prisoner-of-war camp at Salisbury, N.C. Stoneman and his calvary had to fight the Confederate troops in order to get inside, only to discover that the prisoners had been moved. In a rather anti-climactic resolution of his orders, Stoneman had the Confederate supplies destroyed, then he headed west and back toward Tennessee, considering his mission to be completed (and anxious to get out of harm’s way before he was captured).

But Stoneman’s second and third brigades didn’t go with him. “This was very bad luck for the city of Asheville,” Garren says.

The two calvary brigades continued through North Carolina, led by Gen. Alvin C. Gillem, who, Garren says, “was an avid Rebel hater who advocated and espoused a very punitive philosophy of war.” In his military papers, Stoneman referred to Gillem’s men as Cossacks.

The Union troops under Gillem met little resistance as they moved from town to town, putting down any remaining Confederate troops.

But then a Confederate veteran organized resistance in Morganton. The Union calvary became furious when it suffered casualties, Garren says, and the angry troops burned Morganton to the ground.

More bad luck came on April 17, 1865, when Gillem received word that President Lincoln had been shot on April 14 and died the next day.

“Again, there was outrage and anger among the Union troops,” Garren explains. “As they head west, these guys are now in a pretty ill mood.”

The calvary destroyed Rutherfordton, then continued toward Asheville. The city’s Confederate commanding officer, Gen. James G. Martin, tried to head off Gillem’s men by sending all available troops to Swannanoa Gap.

Normally, Martin’s 700 soldiers, armed with single-shot ramrod muskets, would have been defenseless against Gillem’s 2,800 men with seven-shot repeating rifles. However, Martin used the terrain to his advantage, trapping the Union army in a horseshoe cross-fire. On April 20, the Asheville-led troops managed to win the last Confederate victory of the war.

That encounter, Garren says, made Gillem even more furious. He left some men to distract Martin’s troops while he backtracked to Rutherfordton, then he came up through Howard Gap and raided Hendersonville.

Martin was back in Asheville reassembling his troops when a bearded, disheveled man appeared. He was Perry Gaston, the first of Lee’s soldiers to arrive home from Virginia. Gaston informed Martin that Lee had surrendered, and as proof, Gaston produced his pardon papers.

Martin immediately sent couriers out to meet Gillem’s men and arrange a truce conference, Garren says. On April 25, they signed a document in which the Union army agreed to be peaceable in exchange for three days’ worth of rations for the soldiers and forage for their horses. That night, Gen. Martin hosted a dinner at his Asheville home for officers on both sides of the war.

All through the day Monday, April 26, Gillem’s troops passed through Asheville on their way to Tennessee. Then later that night, the calvary returned. Led by Simeon B. Brown, the Union troops looted and burned Asheville; all Confederate officers, judges and town officials were arrested and placed in prison wagons.

But not all Union officers were so interested in punishing the South. On the morning of April 28, couriers arrived with orders promoting one Col. William J. Palmer to brigadier general, which put him in command of the division that included Gillem and his men. Fortunately for Asheville, Palmer detested Gillem and his bully tactics, Garren says. Palmer sent couriers to release the Confederate prisoners and formally apologize for the sacking of Asheville.

Palmer didn’t stop the hard feelings against the Union, Garren says, but he helped a little.

A false sense of Unionism

It wasn’t until 1875 that North Carolina became a state again. During that decade of limbo, the men who had fought for the Confederacy were banned from holding public office or government jobs. “The hard feelings were extreme,” Garren says.

The local leadership positions went to the men who switched allegiance at the end of the war — men receiving as much as $300 in U.S. dollars to fight for the North and end the devastating war that divided families and left them destitute.

The police state helps explain the misconception of widespread Union sympathy, Garren says. “These guys [who switched over to the Union side] ended up in power, and that lasted for a long time.

“You get a disproportionate view of who was who and what was what, unless you really study the records,” Garren says.

He acknowledges that Madison was more Union-sympathetic than most counties in western North Carolina. However, he says the muster rolls document about 1,400 Confederate soldiers from Madison County in 1862, when about 5,700 people lived in that county. By the end of the war, about 300 of the county’s 1,400 troops crossed over to the Union, Garren says, partly because they were desperate for cash and partly because, as wartime conditions grew increasingly desperate, they no longer had much use for either side. Still, most of Madison County’s troops fought only for the Confederacy.

All total, about 20,000 men from western North Carolina went to battle in Confederate uniform, Garren says. About 1,250 men from WNC — or 5.9 percent of the total WNC soldiers — fought for the Union at some point during the war, according to Garren’s research.

But the Confederate soldiers never had a chance. Of the 3 million men who fought in the Civil War, only 29 percent were Confederates. Meanwhile, the Union had more advanced weapons, better uniforms, more money, more food.

In the fall of 1865, a New York Times reporter travelling in the South wrote that he hadn’t seen a single adult woman who wasn’t in mourning clothes.

Keeping stories alive

“I believe the rations were half a pint of beans a day, and maybe some unsanitary water,” Civil War re-enactor David Long told the crowd during this year’s May 9 Confederate Memorial Day program, held at Riverside Cemetery in Asheville. The ceremony was sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Asheville Chapter 104.

Long told the group about his uncle, Ervin Guthrie of Madison County, who signed up with the 29th North Carolina Troops in the Army of Tennessee when he was just 16 years old. Guthrie was wounded twice, but he fought all four years of the war. He served time in a prisoner-of-war camp, then hobbled back to Madison County. When he finally made it to his own home, he had to crawl through the doorway.

Guthrie told his family about how his eyes and ears would bleed from the concussive sounds of weapons on the battlefield. Some men suffered bloody noses from the explosions. Guthrie told his family about how it would sting when his blood mixed with his sweat.

Confederate history buffs and others worry that family stories will be lost as the politically correct culture makes Southerners embarrassed to talk about their ancestors.

“We are Southerners, and we can continue to remember,” McCredie told the Confederate Memorial Day crowd. “We do this for our children.”

“This is the biggest secret of the South,” Garren says. “People nowadays are afraid of being ostracized for revealing their Southern heritage and their Southern sympathies, because of these kook groups that misuse the Southern symbols.”

Civil War historians are quick to point out that few whites owned slaves in WNC, and that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Confederacy, but not in the Union states. They argue that the war was really about states’ rights and the federal cotton tariff, which was enacted to force Southerners to sell cotton to Northern manufacturers at lower rates than they could get by exporting to England or France.

Still, racial division is inextricably linked to Civil War history. And if anything, resentment over the war and Reconstruction may have encouraged people to hang onto their prejudices.

In his will, Sondley left Asheville’s libraries enough books and artifacts to fill a branch library, says library Director Ed Sheary, curator of the collection. But Sondley specified that his collection be used only by “well-conducted white people in proper condition for such use,” and that it be available to “insure the comfort, convenience and profit of all such fit white persons” interested in using it.

In his will, Sondley does not define a “fit white person,” but he clearly forbids tobacco smoking around his collections. At the time of his death, some of Asheville’s Confederate veterans were still alive.

“Dr. Sondley was a child at the time these outrages occurred, and apparently he never got over them,” Garren says. “Some of the [racial] trouble in the South is a result of the bitterness [over the war]. I just don’t think he knew any better.”

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3 thoughts on “Union troops sack Asheville!

  1. Richard Sisson

    This is well-written and spells the facts out without romanticizing anything. Since I am Southern and proud of it, it breaks my heart that Asheville suffered so at the end of the war. I have several ancestors from Buncombe County; they all moved to Alabama and Georgia before 1861. They were Hamilton, Davis, Sisson, Parks, Clayton, Rhodes, and Neill. I do have one recommendation–cavalry throughout needs to have the spelling corrected. It’s CAVALRY, not calvary. Just a thought. Northerners pick on us enough as “uneducated,” which is not true in most cases. Thanks for all you’re doing to preserve and promote our history.

  2. Richard Lee Lyons


    I am the G-G Grandson of Alfred S. Clark of Haywood Co., NC and a Confederate veteran from that area. I would like to know who the Yankees were that formed part of the “Reconstruction” eras troops that covered the areas around Fines Creek in Haywood Co.. I have a story that I wold like to verify.

  3. Richard Lee Lyons

    I would like to know who the Yankee troops were that formed the post war “Reconstruction” army in the area that covered Fines Creek, Waynesville, NC. where my ancestors lived. My Great Grandmother Nancy C. Brown (nee Clark) told me a story of how these folks killed her older brother,Taply as well as the outcome.

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