HAUNTED BENTONVILLE: Some Facts behind the Folklore
By Mark A. Moore
Author of The Old North State at War: The North Carolina Civil War Atlas
In the late winter of 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman’s 60,000-man Union army blazed through North Carolina, leading to the culmination of the Carolinas Campaign at the Battle of Bentonville, fought March 19-21. Virtually unopposed, the Union juggernaut had covered more than 400 miles on foot between Savannah, Georgia, and Bentonville. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston struggled to assemble a hodgepodge Confederate army from far-flung units, but managed to concentrate a partial force to resist Sherman’s advance between the Cape Fear and Neuse Rivers. Their final clash occurred just 20 miles short of Sherman’s ultimate destination of Goldsboro, North Carolina.
The fight at Bentonville resulted from the Civil War’s last major Confederate tactical offensive, against an unparalleled Union army that could not be stopped. In terms of size and scope, it was one of the largest engagements fought anywhere in 1865, and on par with the battles of the Atlanta Campaign, fought the previous year. The fight raged for three days across 6,000 acres of farmland, woods, creeks, and ravines. The era’s state-of-the-art weapons—smoothbore and rifled artillery, smoothbore and rifled muskets, and new repeating rifles—devastated human flesh in ranks that still deployed using tactics dating from the Napoleonic Era. At close quarters, pistols, swords, bayonets, knives, and fists did the work in bloody hand-to-hand encounters. Casualties at Bentonville totaled roughly 4,500. When added to related engagements fought by the armies that March, casualties for the campaign in North Carolina approached 9,000 men—killed, wounded, and captured or missing.
Bentonville witnessed one of the final human tragedies in a war that killed 620,000 people—a generation of young men—and the horrors of nineteenth-century warfare left lingering stains on the region. Battle deaths, grievous bodily injury, depravity, atrocities, man’s inhumanity to man—all occurred in the fields and woods of southeastern Johnston County. As with all Civil War battles, military horses and mules were cut down in numbers. Farms were trampled, and dwellings destroyed or damaged. Acres of forest burned, and wounded soldiers could not always escape the flames. Bodies were buried where they lay.
The floors of John Harper’s home on the Goldsboro Road were soaked with the blood of more than 500 soldiers of the Union 14th Corps, which used the house as a field hospital. At Harper’s, hundreds of mangled limbs were amputated by military surgeons. Piles of hands, arms, legs, and feet rose from the ground beneath the dwelling’s downstairs windows. The body parts were buried nearby. Other houses and buildings across the battlefield were used for the same purpose by both sides.
It is difficult to imagine the pain and suffering of the combatants, and life for the local population was completely upended.
The opposing armies moved on, but the quiet village of Bentonville and its environs had been burned onto the map of history. Today, the old battlefield remains entirely rural—fields, crops, forests, and animal farms. The wartime roads are still there, dotted with occasional roadside houses or farm buildings. Miles of military trenches still exist in the forests, more than 153 years after being hastily erected during the battle. The earthworks have survived in part due to protection offered by the canopies of towering trees.
Bentonville Battlefield became a state historic site in 1957 and a National Historic Landmark in 1996. Its landholdings and interpretive endeavors have grown steadily over the years—and more is yet to come. Today the battlefield receives thousands of visitors each year—from all walks of life, and from every state in the country and abroad.
And given what happened in 1865, it is not surprising that many believe the battlefield to be haunted by the ghosts of dead soldiers and civilians. In fact, Bentonville has a reputation for being one of the most haunted places in North Carolina, from the Harper House to the swamps of Hannah’s Creek. Over the decades many have described their personal experiences with paranormal activity—from citizens who grew up in the area to psychic mediums, tourists, site employees, living historians, and other visitors.
This series of articles will shed light on a few of the oldest ghostly tales and legends from the battlefield and its environs. If ghosts and restless spirits are real—and they just might be—they roam these hallowed grounds and revisit surviving landmarks. The essays will examine the folklore and some of the documentable history of the battle. In the process, we will learn that what happened at Bentonville was truly horrifying—and quite possibly responsible for unleashing the wandering dead.
PART 1. The Devil’s Racetrack — A Long and Lonely Graveyard
The history of a lonely winding road in Johnston County will introduce the region, and set the stage for a couple of ghost stories forthcoming in Parts 2 and 3.
The Devil’s Racetrack (SR 1009) follows the historic route of the old Smithfield-Bentonville Road. The northernmost portion of the modern highway, however, deviates to the west to connect with U.S. 701, and does not follow the original route. From a point just south of Miry Branch the road follows its historic path down through Bentonville. The distance from the battlefield along the old Goldsboro Road (SR 1008) to the original Neuse River crossing at Turner’s Bridge below Smithfield was about 14 miles.
The road is at least 250 years old, and its colorful name dates back nearly as long. It was a well-established route during the Revolutionary War, when British soldiers traveled the road during their retreat following the Southern Campaign.
In March 1865, General Johnston’s Confederate infantry used the road on their march from Smithfield to Bentonville. Following their defeat at the Battle of Bentonville, the Southern army retreated to Smithfield along the same route. Due to recent rains, it was in bad condition—a “wretched road” with difficult passage for wagons and artillery, observed Gen. William J. Hardee in a dispatch to Johnston on March 22. Leaving his dead on the battlefield, Johnston evacuated most of his wounded men to Smithfield, and many of them died along the way.
In 1873, a mere eight years after the battle, Raleigh’s Daily Era described the road as a Confederate graveyard. “All along the road from Smithfield to Bentonsville1 is many a good fellow lying dead, and their graves are scattered just as they fell on the retreat. Soldiers representing many of the States are buried along there, and their names are carved on the head boards so they can be gotten without any difficulty.” If families could get to the area, they could still claim the remains of fallen Confederates. In the late nineteenth century, the U. S. Government disinterred the remains of Union soldiers killed and buried at Bentonville, and transferred them to national cemeteries.
The many deaths on both sides in the Battle of Bentonville would naturally give rise to tales of ghosts and paranormal activity along the road. However, there is an older legend associated with this rural byway, a cautionary tale about the evils of sin and vice.
The name Devil’s Racetrack originated along a roughly one-mile section of the road, stretching west toward Smithfield from Stewart’s Store (as it stood in the 1950s). Over time the area became a popular gathering point for men engaged in wicked activities. They came from miles around. Rude camps sprung up along the road, often populated for days or weeks on end when the weather was pleasant. The devilry ranged from alcohol consumption to boxing bouts, shooting matches, gambling, cockfighting, gander pulling (a blood sport), and horse racing. Violence and death often went hand in hand with the merriment.
The horse races were common on Sundays. Slower animals and less skilled riders were gradually eliminated until a champion emerged. One day as two riders competed for the crown, a dark interloper appeared out of nowhere and joined the race. The story has been handed down through generations, and is an indelible part of the region’s folklore.
“[A] mysterious stranger in a black flowing cape on a dark horse galloped from behind the crowd and onto the track,” explained historian William S. Powell in 1952. “Although the racing horses were already well ahead he easily overtook them and sped on down the road past the end of the prescribed course and out of sight.”
According to the legend, the shocked riders and spectators understood the phantom horsemen to be the Devil himself. They never again raced in that location on Sunday—or indeed on any other day.
In 1917, C. S. Powell—an elderly Confederate veteran of the Battle of Bentonville, white supremacist, and former Sheriff of Johnston County—told a more fanciful version of the story. The road “won its sobriquet by a stranger mounted on a richly caparisoned2 large fine black horse, coming to the race on an occasion when ‘spirits’ were free and all present in a jolly mood, without an introduction or inquiry as to stakes.” The phantom rider “followed in the wake of the first go, passed all on the half way, his horse’s nostrils blowing smoke like a tar-kiln, going on and on, never looking back and never returning. His identity was never discovered.” And the road “was ever afterward called the Devil’s Race Path.”
Over time, the name “Devil’s Race Path” evolved into its current incarnation as Devil’s Racetrack Road—or simply the Devil’s Racetrack. But who were these carousers and ruffians who camped along the road between Smithfield and Bentonville? According to the legend, as Powell understood it, “the Devil’s Race Path . . . was the meeting place of noted turf lovers, the McDaniels, McDonalds, McDougals, McNatts, McLambs and others of the followers of Charles the Pretender3, and scattered over this and the Cape Fear regions.”
Tales of Satan, or the Devil, have been used to frighten children for centuries, and the Prince of Darkness figures prominently in North Carolina’s rich folklore. In addition to the Devil’s Racetrack, many places and communities in the state bear the Fallen Angel’s name or influence, including Devil’s Courthouse (Transylvania County), the Devil’s Tramping Ground (Chatham County), and the mysterious Hoof-Prints at Bath (Beaufort County), to name a few.
By the early twentieth century, with the advent of the automobile, the sandy road had been clayed but still became muddy and difficult when it rained. It had always been “low and boggy.” Bentonville historian and Clerk of Superior Court Herschell V. Rose remembered an old joke from local citizens: If a buzzard flew across the Devil’s Racetrack, its shadow would get mired in the mud. The hill between Bentonville and Mill Creek was especially slippery and “highly dangerous” in wet weather.
A safer passage was needed for school buses and mail carriers, not to mention farmers hauling crops and folks just wanting an easier path to navigate. In the late 1940s, the community lobbied to get it hard-surfaced. “We ought to have one direct paved road to town,” argued local resident J. E. Creech. “This is a historic road. This leads the people to where Sherman’s army fought.”
By 1950, thanks to Gov. William Kerr Scott’s $2 million road bond, the effort to pave the Devil’s Racetrack was underway. The State dug a drainage canal and ditches, and raised the roadbed. In fact, all of the historic roads on the battlefield were not paved until well after World War II.
Today, the Devil’s Racetrack is a popular destination for motorcycle enthusiasts, and the road remains dangerous. Numerous car accidents have occurred along this rural road over the years, resulting in multiple fatalities and injuries (including tragedies within the past few years). Gunshots have resulted in murder and accidental death. Structure fires have been common, and meth labs have come and gone in recent times.
Are these commonplace events that would happen along any rural highway in the state or nation? Or is there a dark influence along the Devil’s Racetrack?
A word to the wise: Tread lightly in your travels on the backroads of the Old North State.
1“Bentonsville” was a common early spelling and reference for the village of Bentonville. Both spellings occur in nineteenth-century accounts of the battle. The Bentonsville spelling was still common in local news coverage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
2A caparison is a decorative cover spread over a horse’s saddle or harness.
3Charles Edward Stuart (1720-1788). Charles was a grandson of King James II and a Jacobite pretender to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
© 2018 by Mark A. Moore. All rights reserved.