April 15, 1865: Sherman to Louisburg, NC – “I can promise you that events are in progress that will soon give peace”

Sometime, probably mid-day, on April 15, 1865, this message arrived at Major-General William T. Sherman’s headquarters in Raleigh:

Louisburg, N. C., April 15, 1865.
To the Officer in Command of the U.S. Forces at Raleigh, N. C.:

Sir: In accordance with a resolution passed by the Board of Commissioners of the town of Louisburg, N. C., I hereby formally surrender this place to the authorities of the United States, and in behalf of our citizens desire and request that you will be pleased to send us a guard under a proper officer, to be stationed here, so as to preserve order and afford us that protection which under existing circumstances we feel authorized to claim under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Should you be good enough to comply with our wishes in this respect you may be well assured of our united co-operation. Messrs. J. Fuller and Dr. E. Malone are deputed as the bearers of this communication.

Most obediently, yours,
W. H. Pleasants,
Mayor of Louisburg.

Rumors persist that, upon receiving this note, Sherman charged off in search of a map, inquiring “where the heck is Louisburg, and do I want to march on it now?”

Given Sherman’s faculties with map reading and ability to maintain such important operational information at the top of his head, I doubt Sherman would be caught off guard as to Louisburg’s location.  He might have needed a quick “map check” to see if the city fit within his changing operational stance.  Sherman had suspended major movements planned starting on April 14.  Aside from pushing the cavalry division out to Chapel Hill, the Fourteenth Corps marched to Jones Crossroads, southwest of Raleigh.   Louisburg lay to the northeast of Raleigh, on the Tar River. Had Sherman marched towards Petersburg as originally intended, Louisburg would have been an important waypoint (which is why I feel Sherman would have known where the place was when the message arrived on April 15).

At any rate, Sherman composed a response to Mayor Pleasants that afternoon:

Dear Sir: Your communication of this date is received. It is not my present intention to move any part of this army through Louisburg, and I do not think you will be molested in any manner; nor can I send a small detachment, because it would be exposed to danger from Hampton’s cavalry. But I think I can promise you that events are in progress that will soon give peace to all the good people of North Carolina. Mr. William A. Graham, of Hillsborough, has gone to Governor Vance to assure him that he has my full promise of assistance and protection if he will return and maintain good order in the State. I am also now in correspondence with General Johnston, which I hope will result in an universal peace. The gentlemen who bear this letter can explain many things that will, I hope, tend to allay any fears occasioned by the falsehoods circulated by the rebel cavalry.

I am, with respect, your obedient servant,
W. T. Sherman, Major-General, Commanding

Was Pleasants the outside the chain of command – Confederate or Federal – to receive indication of the Johnston-Sherman talks?  Perhaps.  Though certainly there were reporters with Sherman who were working the “scoop” at that time.  But Pleasants would receive his personal briefing from the bearer of Sherman’s response.  And that response held as much uncertainty as promise.  With no Federal troops to secure Louisburg, did the mayor have to fear, as other places in the south had, the lapse of good order?  What is telling, both from Pleasant and Sherman, is the realization that the war was driving to a close.  Parties on both sides were looking to smooth the transition… quickly.

On the same day, President Jefferson F. Davis departed Greensboro on horseback.  He and members of the Confederate government, with a cavalry escort, rode south.  They had to leave the railroad behind, as Major-General George Stoneman’s raiders had cut it in too many places to be of use.  Turning back to the premise of “Johnston’s Confederacy,” it is with that flight that the weight of continuing the war in any capacity fell upon Johnston’s shoulders.  As Davis rode out of Greensboro, he broke contact with Johnston.  The last card held by the Confederacy was thrown on the table.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part III, Serial 100, page 225.)

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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