Walking tour explores ‘unwritten’ chapter of Civil War history

April 5, 2019

Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane recently proclaimed April as the capital city’s History Month. The City of Raleigh Museum, at 220 Fayetteville St. in downtown, is the starting point for several events in April.

This weekend is when museum guides will take visitors on a walking tour to help them learn about how the state’s historic Capitol building survived the last days of the Civil War.

In April 1865, peace was at hand. However, the Union Army still posed a threat to North Carolina’s capital city.

City of Raleigh Museum director Ernest Dollar said most people think the war between the states ended at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

“The war still continued here in North Carolina, and it grinds to a halt right here in Raleigh,” Dollar said, adding that the events of those historic times are short on detail. “It’s a largely unwritten, undiscovered, undiscussed chapter in this great American cataclysm of the 19th century.”

What was well documented was the burning rampage of Gen. William Sherman’s Union Army as it left charred remains in southern capitals including Atlanta, Georgia and Columbia, South Carolina. Soon, Dollar said, 80,000 Union soldiers surrounded Raleigh.

That’s when two former N.C. governors joined together with a plan.

“David L. Swain and William A. Graham got on the train, almost on a secret mission to ride out into the warring armies out near Garner to broker a deal,” Dollar said.

He said it was a peace deal to save the new Capitol. A fire destroyed the old one 35 years earlier.

“So they were very worried that the Capitol that they worked so hard to build and the state university in Chapel Hill would be utterly destroyed,” Dollar said.

Dollar shared a lesser known event occurring around the same time. A Confederate lieutenant named George Round was on top of the Capitol building prepared to set off a rocket as a signal of peace.

“It explodes in his face. He falls back through the skylight, and he’s only saved by a thin layer of chicken wire from falling to his death in the Capitol,” Dollar said.

It didn’t deter Round from a second effort. “But he gets up, lights the last rockets that announces the end of the war, and his signal rockets say, ’Peace and goodwill to all men,” Dollar concluded.

Dollar said the walking tour, entitled “Between Heaven and Hell,” has already attracted a large interest, so they museum may schedule more of the same tours. A long list of other tours and celebrations of the city’s history continue throughout the month of April.

Visiting the museum is free, but donations are accepted.