ANOTHER ANNIVERSARY — The Fall of Wilmington
February 22, 1865
[Editor: I’ve always wondered what Wilmington was like as it fell to the Union troops. The following excerpt is the new book; Wilmington’s Lie by David Zucchino, Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020.]
“As the Union forces approached Wilmington that February, General Bragg destroyed several railroad lines leading out of the city and set fire to bridges, wharves, and shipyards. Positions of the main rail line – the Wilmington, Charlotte and Rutherford Railroad – remained intact, though some of the rails on the line would later be ripped up for use as scrap iron by Union troops. Before the Confederate soldiers retreated, some looted shops. When Union soldiers arrived, they looted, too. Food shortages broke out. Whole hams were briefly offered for sale at the preposterous price of $525. Corn sold for $40 a bushel and salt pork for $5 a pound. People begged for food in the streets.
“By the time General Alfred Howe Terry led a column of Union soldiers on bay chargers to city hall to take command of Wilmington on February 22, the city had become a vast refugee camp. Many Union soldiers released from Confederate prisoner of war camps were afflicted with “jail fever” – typhus – a contagion characterized by rash, chills, and fever that killed two doctors who treated them. Carpenters struggled to build enough caskets for the estimated forty to fifty people who died daily. – from jail fever but also from battle wounds, sepsis, and other maladies. Every available house or outbuilding was crammed with people seeking shelter. One visitor claimed that rents in Wilmington were higher than in New York City. Thousands of people lived in camps, tents, and shanties, watched over warily by an occupying force of nearly fifteen thousand Union soldiers, among them blue-suited colored troops.
“The Wilmington Herald reported that despite “a large force of darkies .. cleaning the streets,” the city was an open sewer. “There is not a private residence, kitchen, or business house of any kind that does not have filth enough about and around its doors to make every person in city sick…no person can pass without holding their breaths…cows, pigs, dogs and low negroes are together in this pen.”
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED: Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2020.
The author is a multiple Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and of all the books written on the 1898 Race Riot, this is by far the most broad reaching and readable. His research is impressive; including time at the New Hanover Public Library and the Cape Fear Museum, and even walking the streets of Wilmington with Beverly Tetterton.
He clearly traces the story of race relations in the Lower Cape Fear back to slavery and in the years after the Civil War and how that led to the violence in 1898. Most precisely, he manages to draw the lives of Abraham Galloway, Alfred Moore Waddell, Hugh MacRae, James Sprunt and into a narrative that clearly presents the tensions and stresses that existed in the town of Wilmington in the Fall of 1898. – Rebecca Taylor