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Ordeal of the Harper Family.
John and Amy Harper were a middleclass farm couple who resided near the village of Bentonville prior to and during the Civil War. John's family originated in Virginia, where his great-uncle, Robert Harper, established a ferry and mill that eventually developed into the community known as Harpers Ferry. In addition to serving as a clerk in the county court system, John Harper also farmed approximately 100 of his 825 acres of land, primarily growing corn, peas, beans, and sweet potatoes. An unspecified portion of Harper's forest land was utilized in the production of turpentine, which was distilled from the rosin of pine trees. The family was active in the local Disciples of Christ Church, and so donated some of their land for the site of the Mill Creek Christian Church. Sometime between 1855 and 1859, John Harper constructed a new, two-story frame home for his growing family of nine children.
The Harpers had little time to enjoy their new home before the dark clouds of civil war disrupted the family's peaceful existence. Although eldest son John, Jr., an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, remained near his family during the Civil War, their second-oldest son enlisted in the Confederate army in 1861 at age 16. Martin was wounded in the Battle of South Mountain, Maryland, in September 1862, but remained in the army until the end of the war.
In the spring of 1865, the suffering of war literally came to the Harpers' front door. On March 19, 1865, the Battle of Bentonville erupted barely one mile east of their home. As the battle developed, Confederate attacks overran large portions of Union lines, and forced Union field hospitals to seek safer locations. Surgeons of the Union's Fourteenth Army Corps arrived at the Harper House and commandeered the structure for use as a field hospital. Its location met the standards of the Letterman Plan, for it was located in what was considered a safe distanceone milefrom the front lines.
John and Amy, along with the six children still living at home, were forced to take refuge in the upstairs rooms of the house while surgeons employed the downstairs rooms as makeshift operating theaters. "A dozen surgeons and their attendants in their shirt sleeves stood at rude benches," wrote one Union commander, "cutting off arms and legs and throwing them out of the windows where they lay scattered on the grass. The legs of the infantrymen could be distinguished from those of the cavalry by the size of their calves, as the march of 1,000 miles had increased the size of one and diminished the size of the other."¹ There were at this time no antibiotics to stop infections, and so the only way to prevent gangrene from killing patients was to amputate shattered arms and legs. But despite the screams, the piles of severed limbs, and the smell, the Harper family refused to leave their home.
When the battle was over, the Union surgeons removed their wounded from the home, but left behind in the Harpers' care 45 wounded Confederate soldiers. These men were given the best the family could provide. John Jr. later recalled that his parents had acted as "nurses, surgeons, commissaries, chaplains and undertakers. My mother fed them, washed their wounds, pointed them to the Saviour, closed their eyes when all was over, and helped to bury their uncoffined bodies as tenderly as she could." John Jr. joined his parents at the Harper House, helping them comfort the wounded and dying of both armies. Evidence suggests that 26 of the wounded Confederates were eventually removed from the house by Confederate surgeons, but 19 men succumbed to their wounds and were buried by the family.
After Sherman's army continued its march to Goldsboro, Confederate cavalry units returned to the Bentonville area to picket the roads in the vicinity. Scouts from one of these regiments, the First Kentucky, were the first to discover that wounded Confederate soldiers had been left in the home of John and Amy Harper. One week after the battle, the letter below was directed to Confederate General Johnston's headquarters calling attention to the plight of the wounded at Harper House.
Questions for Reading 4
1. Is there any evidence to suggest that the Harpers had a choice as to whether or not the Union surgeons established a field hospital in their home? Is there evidence to suggest that they were financially compensated for the use of their home?
2. What did the Harper family do during the Battle of Bentonville? Why do you think they made that choice? What experiences or beliefs did the Harpers have that may have guided them in their decision to aid the wounded and abandoned soldiers in their home after the battle?
3. Which soldiers did Union surgeons treat at the Harper House field hospital? Why do you think wounded Confederate soldiers were taken to the Union field hospital for treatment? What type of care do they appear to have received? If you had been a wounded soldier, would you want to have been taken to the enemy's hospital for care? Explain why, or why not.
4. How were the Union and Confederate wounded at the Harper House treated differently after the battle and the departure of the Union army from the area? Why do you think the Confederate wounded were not taken as prisoners? Why do you think Confederate authorities did not respond to this situation sooner?
Compiled from the "Harper House Research Report," Historic Sites Sections, North Carolina Division of Archives and History.
¹Quoted in Jay Luvass, "Johnston's Last Stand--Bentonville," in North Carolina Historical Review XXXIII, No. 3 (July 1956), 332.