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FOUR OAKS — If a story passed down over generations is true, a former Johnston County plantation home is standing today because of the compassion of Union soldiers.
Danny Rhodes lives in the Williams House and is a descendant of Nathan Williams, who owned the home and the surrounding plantation before and during the Civil War.
“War was raging within six miles of the Williams plantation and Gen. Sherman’s troops were on the way,” said Rhodes, who has researched the Battle of Bentonville, which recently canceled its 155th anniversary observance because of the coronavirus.
“Sherman showed no mercy,” Rhodes said in a recent interview. “His job was to burn everything along the way from Savannah, Ga., to Virginia, and he had already burned Atlanta to the ground earlier.”
As they marched through Johnston County, Sherman’s troops were fanning out to nearby houses in search of resources, including food, Rhodes said. Eventually, they reached the Williams plantation, he said.
“They had burned the cotton gin, along with numerous bales of cotton on the property,” Rhodes said. Troops had also burned “the slave quarters buildings and had probably taken everything else they needed, including livestock,” he said.
The house was among the little that remained standing.
“They were probably going to burn the house when the nurse mammy was reported to have pleaded with troops not to do that because the mistress of the house was upstairs with a newborn baby,” Rhodes said.
According to documents at the Johnston County Heritage Center in Smithfield, the Williams House, which dates to the 1830s, is perhaps the earliest example of Greek Revival architecture in the county. The house stands just north of the main battlefield site and lies between Devil’s Racetrack Road and U.S. 701, some 14 miles from Smithfield.
Nathan Williams died in 1868, three years after the war’s end. His property went to his children, Nancy Rebecca Granger, Mary Elizabeth Smith and John B. Williams, who sold the house shortly afterward.
Today, the house as a private residence and is not part of the tour package for visitors to the battlefield.
The Battle of Bentonville was among the last major battles fought during the Civil War, and it remains the largest battle ever fought on North Carolina soil.
On March 21, 1865, Union Gen. William Sherman and his 60,000 troops encountered Confederate Gen. Joseph Johnston and his 21,000 soldiers, who were hoping to stop Sherman’s march to Virginia. The Confederates failed, and after two days, the battle ended with 433 dead, 2,806 wounded and 804 missing.