When people think of Asheville, North Carolina today, it is commonly seen as a hippie community in the mountains, known for its art scene, tourist appeal, and the Biltmore Mansion. However, few people have explored the city’s underlying historical connections to the American Civil War and the events that took place there during the conflict’s final months. One of the little-known chapters of this history and, indeed, Civil War history more broadly, is the Battle of Asheville, which was fought on April 6, 1865. While lesser known than more famous battles such as Antietam or Gettysburg, this would be one of the last engagements of the Civil War, and its legacy has been manifested in stories of ghost sightings of the combatants at Riverside Cemetery today.
Over the course of the Civil War, Asheville had made vital contributions to the Confederate war effort, hosting Confederate recruitment camps and establishing a rifle factory which turned out armaments for the Confederate Army. In fact, at one point the city had aspired to be the Confederate capital due to its geographic centrality, as it linked western North Carolina to East Tennessee. Although most of the local population gave its support to the Confederacy, a significant minority of Appalachian residents aided the Union cause by fleeing across the mountains to join the Union Army in East Tennessee, avoiding the Confederate draft by hiding in caves, or by committing acts of espionage and subversion. While the mountains were plagued by guerilla warfare between Unionist insurgents, Confederate loyalists, and bands of deserters, Asheville remained largely unscathed for much of the war and was spared from Union raids until April 1865, which would culminate in the battle there.
Movements are Made
On April 3, 1865, the same day that the Confederate government evacuated Richmond, Union troops from the 101st Ohio Infantry, under the command of Col. Isaac M. Kirby, marched into Buncombe County from East Tennessee for “a scout in the direction of Asheville.” During their expedition the Union troops burned bridges, confiscated rations, took horses from the local population, and recruited Confederate deserters to their ranks. On April 6, Buncombe County resident Nicholas Woodfin detected Kirby’s column and alerted Confederate troops in Asheville, under the command of Col. John B. Palmer, who served as an administrator of the state’s Western District. While the Union column numbered some 900 men, Palmer and his subordinate, Col. George Clayton, had approximately 150 to 300 men, which included Home Guard members, Confederate Army troops home on leave, and 175 remaining members of the 62nd North Carolina Infantry, as well as convalescent soldiers, a 14-year-old boy, and a 70-year-old Baptist preacher.
The Battle Begins
The Confederates entrenched on Woodfin’s Ridge, a field that had previously been fortified with trenches and earthworks. At about 3:00 pm, they opened fire on Kirby’s column, bringing about a five-hour skirmish in which both sides exchanged fire, inflicting little damage on each other. Although the Union troops outnumbered the Confederates by about three to one, the fortified position and the intensity of the fire led Kirby to believe that the Confederates had “not less than 1000 men and six guns,” despite an earlier report that they numbered only about 400. Consequently, the Union troops withdrew around 8:00 pm, abandoning weapons and other equipment as they made their way back to East Tennessee. Despite the heavy firing throughout the day, casualties were surprisingly minimal, with no one being killed on either side and only two to four wounded, a stark contrast with the Battle of Sailor’s Creek in which Lee’s army suffered 8,830 casualties in its final major engagement with the Army of the Potomac that same day.
While the Battle of Asheville was truly more of a skirmish in terms of the number of combatants and casualties involved, it was notable for having been one of the last engagements of the Civil War, taking place only three days before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and two weeks before Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender at Bennett Place. Although the battle had ended in a Confederate victory, Asheville would fall to Union occupation on April 24 as Maj. Gen. George H. Stoneman’s cavalry completed its raid through western North Carolina and Virginia. While both sides had reached an agreement that the Union cavalry would march through the town unchallenged on its way back to Tennessee, they returned the next day and engaged in pillage and destruction, burning the local armory, and harassing local civilians. The following day, April 26, General Johnston signed the terms of surrender with William T. Sherman at Bennett Place near Durham, encompassing approximately 90,000 Confederate troops in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. With this surrender agreement, hostilities were effectively ended in these four states, and the people of Asheville would undergo the process of rebuilding their lives as they were reintegrated into the Union during the Reconstruction years.
Little remains today of the Asheville battleground, although surviving earthworks can be found along the walking trail in UNC-Asheville’s Botanical Gardens. In addition, Riverside Cemetery, home to the graves of numerous Confederate and Union soldiers, has been the scene of various reported ghost sightings, as residents have insisted that they have spotted spectral battalions of Civil War soldiers marching in ranks. Furthermore, several landmarks associated with Confederate officers continue to dot the city landscape, including the Smith-McDowell House (home of Captain William W. McDowell, commander of the Buncombe Riflemen) and the estate of Col. John Kerr Connally of the 55th North Carolina Infantry, which now encompasses Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. Since Asheville is widely considered a haven for New Age practitioners, hippies, and retirees, it is highly recommended that locals and visitors explore this underlying history so that they may acquire new insights about this mountain community’s fascinating and multifaceted past.