When my friend J. T. said he’d found a slave narrative involving his family, I had to know more.
A former slave named Parker Pool recalled Yankee soldiers coming through Johnston County in 1865. Pool, J.T. explained, worked his ancestor’s farm in the Smithfield area.
The slave account was part of the Federal Writers’ Project, a collection of narratives compiled by the Works Progress Administration. The WPA employed people to interview former slaves and preserve their stories about life before emancipation. In all, some 2,300 first-person accounts were collected.
Parker Pool worked land adjacent to J.T.’s Pool ancestors in Johnston County. After the Battle of Bentonville in March 1865, Union troops including the Ohio infantry marched to Goldsboro, then northward to Raleigh.
The WPA transcripts were written in the vernacular. Quoting Pool, “I think I seed enough Yankees come through dare to whup anything on God’s earth. De Yankees camped three miles from our plantation at Mrs. Widow Sarah Saunders across White Oak Creek on de Averasboro Road…”
“De Yankees played songs o’ walkin’ de streets of Baltimore an’ walkin’ in Maryland. De really played it. Dey slaughtered cows and sometimes only et de liver. I went to de camp atter day lef’ an’ it wuz de awfulest stink I ever smelt in my life. Day lef’ dem cows part o’ ‘em lying whur ey were in de camp. Dey killed geese an’ chickens an’ skinned ‘em. Sometimes dey skinned de hind quarters uv a cow, cut ‘em off an’ lef’ de res’.”
He continued, “When dey tole me I wuz free I didn’t notice it, I stayed on and worked jest lak I had been doin’, right on wid missus and master. I stayed dere a year atter de surrender.”
“I dunno what ter think o’ Abraham Lincoln. Dey said he wuz all right. I guess he wuz a man God loved, er all right man.”
When I read the former slave’s account of Union soldiers raiding the countryside, I realized that he was offering a slice of my own family story.
My grandmother’s uncle was Lt. John E. Lane of the 17th Ohio Infantry Regiment. He had grown up near Lancaster , OH, hometown of Gen. William T. Sherman and served the entirety of the war. According to records from the National Archives,
Lane saw the Siege of Corinth and the battles of Perryville and Stones River. He was part of engagements at Missionary Ridge, Kennesaw Mountain, Chickamauga, Resaca and Atlanta. Dare I say it? He was part of Sherman’s infamous March to the Sea.
By March 1865, Lane’s company arrived in North Carolina to engage in the Battle of Bentonville on the 19th. It was the last major stand of the Confederacy.
I studied battle maps of Johnston County. The army split—some headed for Goldsboro, others to Raleigh. The shortest route to Raleigh would have been along the Averasboro Road.
Butchering livestock and destroying property wasn’t new to Union troops, who–battle-hardened, hungry and anxious to teach the Rebels a lesson–did what they saw necessary to achieve surrender. I don’t like to think of my relative cruelly participated in wasting livestock, especially when food was scarce for civilians. I don’t want to consider the horrors that John Lane saw in battle any more than J. T. wants to consider his family owning slaves. But truth is truth, and it often isn’t pretty.
Some of the Yankees that Parker Pool saw that day could have been men from John Lane’s unit–maybe even the lieutenant himself. Lt. Lane would have been a striking figure. Records show he was six feet tall with light skin, blue eyes, and auburn hair. Think Prince Harry as a Union officer.
Until now, I had not fully considered how my relative could have passed by J.T.’s ancestor’s property, how our family lines may have intersected one day at the end of the war.
Lane and his company were in Raleigh by April 14. Shortly thereafter they would have received word of the death of their Commander in Chief, Abraham Lincoln, which occurred on the 15th.
By May 24, the regiment was in Washington City as it was known then, to participate in the Grand Review of the Armies. I imagine the long blue lines of Union troops marching through the capital, past the reviewing stand and President Andrew Johnson.
John Lane was mustered out that July in Louisville, KY. He had traveled the full circle in four years—from Ohio south through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia and D.C. He had served throughout the entire war without injury, which was a feat in itself.
That fall he married his sweetheart, Ellen Crist in Ohio, then settled in Shelby County, IL, where he was superintendent of the county poor farm. The couple raised five children.
Uncle John Lane was a larger-than-life figure to my grandmother, in part, because she never knew him. He died in 1893, two years before she was born. He had survived four years of the bloodiest war in American history. Then one day he was walking the tracks near his home and was struck and killed by a train.
Incredibly, his wife Ellen died 36 years later, struck by a train while crossing the very same tracks, which proves again, how truth can be shockingly unbelievable.
Image credit: Battle of Bentonville, Warfare History Network