Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Kerosene Billy in Fact and Fiction

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 4, 2013
Great Falls Mill

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This image, posted recently at SHPG, caught my eye, particularly given its description:

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Cotton Mill burnt out shell… the work of Sherman’s troops moving through Richmond County NC, in March 1865.

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It’s a dramatic and potent symbol of the ravages of the war on the South. Or it would be, if it were true.

The ruins in question are those of the Great Falls Cotton Mill in Rockingham, built in 1869, that were destroyed in a fire in October 1972. It’s a well-known local landmark, and is even included in the Historic American Buildings Survey. As near as I can tell, Uncle Billy’s bummers were not suspected in the 1972 conflagration.

Now, there was a large mill on (or near) this site that was reportedly burned by Sherman’s troops, but this one ain’t it, and ninety seconds with “teh Google” would have made that clear. This misattribution is not a huge, hairy deal, but is it too much to ask for folks to expend a little effort — just a little — in getting this stuff right?

__________

GeneralStarsGray

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32 Responses

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  1. Bummer said, on April 4, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Bummer was with Sherman, he burnt it for sure, hope you get your facts straight and soon.

    “Old Guy”

    • Andy Hall said, on April 4, 2013 at 10:34 am

      You’re safe, man — the statute of limitations on arson ran a long time ago!

  2. Bummer said, on April 4, 2013 at 10:44 am

    What a relief!

  3. Rob Baker said, on April 4, 2013 at 11:49 am

    In the “Great Civil War Reenactment of 1972” those yanks in their Union blue uniform, marching in that formidable portrayal of the arson’s army, got so carried away in their rampage that they set fire to the industry of the South.

  4. Cotton Boll Conspiracy said, on April 4, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Common sense would indicate that there would be very little left today of anything Sherman’s troops burned in 1864-65, if for no other reason than what remained of structures would have been pulled down to be used in rebuilding.

    At least, that’s my take on it.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 4, 2013 at 12:32 pm

      Yup. Sherman’s army trashed plenty without having to make stuff up.

  5. jfepperson said, on April 4, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    You are probably aware of this story: In the 1950s, a geography prof at the University of Georgia wanted to document Sherman’s destruction. Using a very detailed map from XIV Corps, he sought to document the destruction of as many buildings as he could that were shown on the map. Lo and behold, most of the structures on the map survived the war, and he could only document a handful destroyed by Sherman.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 4, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      I’ve heard a similar story, that may be separate, or may be conflated with that one. A university professor decided in the 1970s or 1980s to follow along Sherman’s line of march from Atlanta to Savannah. In each little town, he would meet with local historians who would regale him with tales of Sherman’s incendiary proclivities, and assert that his army torched everything for miles around. Then, without missing a beat, they would shift and start bragging about their communities’ unparalleled collection of historic antebellum structures. Maybe apocryphal, but I bet it has happened on a few occasions.

      The fixation on Sherman, and the willingness to ascribe to him bad deeds by default, is remarkable. There was a young man not long ago on a “heritage” group, who inquired about exactly where Sherman’s army went in crossing through Georgia. He’d got it in his mind that his ancestor was a wealthy Georgia planter — the 1860 census says otherwise — who’d got wiped out by Sherman. Was it possible, he wanted to know, that his own family’s current economic hardships be traced directly back to Uncle Billy? I suspect he was very disappointed to learn that Sherman never came anywhere near the place.

      • jfepperson said, on April 4, 2013 at 2:27 pm

        I think both stories come out of Mark Grimsley’s “Hard Hand of War.” I used to have a copy of the paper the geography prof wrote; not sure I could find it, but if I do, I’ll send you the citation.

        • Andy Hall said, on April 4, 2013 at 2:30 pm

          Thanks. I think I have that, but like so many books, I acquire them faster than I can read them.

        • Al Mackey said, on April 4, 2013 at 5:11 pm

          See Kennett’s book on the March and Glathaar’s book on the March. As to the antebellum homes, I believe that comes from Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic.

  6. Jefferson Moon said, on April 4, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    “Was it possible, he wanted to know, that his own family’s current economic hardships be traced directly back to Uncle Billy?”

    If his family hadn’t improved it’s self in 150 years, I would say something is wrong with that family.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 4, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      He’s a kid. But it’s entirely typical of the larger habit of reflexively blaming anything and everything on Sherman.

  7. Al Mackey said, on April 4, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Andy, you obviously hate the south since you’re letting truth get in the way of heritage. 🙂

    • Andy Hall said, on April 4, 2013 at 5:17 pm

      Sorry, Al, but you’re not the first (to tell me that).

  8. Bob Huddleston said, on April 4, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    Check http://people.cohums.ohio-state.edu/grimsley1/myth/myth.htm The professor story is DeLaubenfels, D.J, “When Sherman Passed By” Geographical Review, 47 (July 1957)

  9. Charlie Purvis said, on April 4, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    Just step over the State Line to Chesterfield County, SC. He did burn everything in the county.

  10. carolinaguy1 said, on April 5, 2013 at 11:46 am

    Yes, You have a point, Cheraw did fair better during the War than the town of Chesterfield. Several of these old homes, still remaining, have evidence of the fires set within them that were put out by the owner and/or the field hands.

    • Andy Hall said, on April 5, 2013 at 12:22 pm

      Not to pick on you, Charlie, but this thread is a good example of why simple, sweeping statements need to be challenged by the listener.

  11. Dave Tatum said, on April 6, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    I guess we should be grateful Sherman didn’t have Nukes !

  12. macwhatley said, on April 7, 2013 at 10:52 am

    The Great Falls mill was proposed to house a North Carolina state historic site for the textile industry when it was burned in 1972. The building that burned, however, was only partially an antebellum structure. The 4-story walls that still survive in part were from a late-19th century structure. The Great Falls mill was an isolated mill village community at that time; North Carolina had around two dozen operating mills during the war, all of them contracted to the state Quartermaster to provide fabric for the war effort– primarily cotton sheeting used for shirts and drawers and bagging, as there were only two or three mills that processed wool and could even attempt making uniform fabric.
    There were only three concentrated centers of the textile industry up to 1865- the five mills on the Haw River in Alamance County, the five mills on the Deep River in Randolph County, and the seven mills on tributaries of the Cape Fear around Fayetteville. On his way up from SC, Sherman did in fact burn all of the cotton mills in Fayetteville at the same time he destroyed the CSA arsenal there. At the time of the surrender at Bennettsville Sherman was preparing to take his army west, to destroy the railroad repair facility at Company Shops (now Burlington) and the mills in Alamance; Johnston’s army was then spread out south of Greensboro, screening the mills in Randolph- which ironically had been a hotbed of anti-Confederate guerrilla warfare. All ten of the antebellum mills in Alamance and Randolph survived the war; the ones in Alamance stood until modernized, enlarged and remodeled in the early 20th century, and the Randolph factories stood until neglected to death in the 1990s.
    The primary tragedy about the Great Falls arson is that there still is no state historic site regarding the textile industry in North Carolina.

    • Bob Huddleston said, on April 7, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      It would appear that *had* Uncle Billy and his Boys burned these mills, they were legitimate military targets.

    • Richard said, on April 13, 2013 at 9:07 am

      “The primary tragedy about the Great Falls arson is that there still is no state historic site regarding the textile industry in North Carolina”

      It is indeed tragic when you consider how important these mills were to the people and communities that surrounded them.


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