Monday, August 16, 2010

The Civil War Battle in Gumberry
that Never Took Place

"It was the Spring of 1865 and the closing weeks of the Civil War.

"Northampton County farmers, among them Kindred Howell, once again had put their fields in order for the new crops of cotton and corn. Howell's land stood, as it does today, astride the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad, built to connect the Port of Norfolk with the main line road running south from Richmond into at Weldon.

"One bright morning, excitement rang high through the Seaboard area. A 'runner' from Jackson, the county seat brought word the Union Army was on its way.

"Soon, a “roaring noise came from the southeast audible from enemy troops, many of them mounted and some horses pulling artillery pieces, moved across the countryside and onto the Howell's land. They stopped, some on each side of the railroad tracks. Two pit emplacements for big guns were dug on either side of the railroad, and the rails themselves were ripped up for about half a mile, from Howell westward to the crossroads of Gumberry.

"Today [1976] a long stretch of this 'fort' is still there, probably the best preserved, in the original state, of any Civil War fortification in this region.

"It runs about half a mile on the south side of the railroad, now a part of the Seaboard Air Line. The great mounds still are 12 to 15 feet in height in some places. A pine forest has grown up around them, and few people in this area know of their existence.

"The 'fort' was never used. What could have developed into a major engagement was averted because Union strategists beat the Confederates to the draw, and had an overwhelming force to “cut” the railroad at Howell's farm before the Southerners got there.

"Among those who knew the fortification is still there is the late Mrs. L. W. Bryant (a veteran schoolteacher at Gaston, great-granddaughter of Kindred Howell) who lived on the old home place.

"Recently, [1976] she and a brother, W. J. Stephenson of Richmond stood on the site and told of events of 98 years ago, as related to them by their grandmother, Mrs. Christine Howell Jordan, who died in 1925.

“ 'My great-grandfather (Kindred Howell) put all the cured meat in a big box and buried it behind the barn when word came the Union Army was on its way,' Mrs. Bryant said.

“ 'They stopped in my grandmother's fields. At that time she was living on the place with her father and sister, and a slave named Aunt Rena, who took care of the girls. Aunt Rena was rented from a neighbor for 50 cents a week.

“ 'The Union forces, after throwing up the breastworks and placing the guns beside the railroad, waited for a train from Norfolk. They knew it was carrying Confederate soldiers, who were trying to get to Weldon or Richmond.

“ 'Great-grandfather Howell talked to two of the Union officers while they were waiting. They told him it would not be necessary for him to take his family and slave and leave, because they knew there would be no battle. Both officers said their troops so far outnumbered the Confederates on the train that they were sure there would be no fight.' (It was estimated there were about 8,000 Union Troops, compared to about 2,000 Rebels on the train).

"Howell invited the two officers in for coffee. The room in which they sat is still preserved, a part of the rebuilt homeplace which was moved several hundred yards from its original site.

"For an hour or so, there were a series of 'booms' heard as the Yankees tested their big guns guarding the railroad and got the range on the expected train.

“The train came slowly from Seaboard,” Mrs. Bryant was quoted. “It was flagged and came to a stop within sight of the fort. The crew could see the situation and the train began to back up. Not a shot was fired.

“One of the officers said. ‘Thank God, the war is over as far as we are concerned.’ The train backed out of sight toward the town of Seaboard.”

"There was one Confederate on the train, whose home was nearby, and he jumped off and made a dash for it. He was captured by Union soldiers, the only prisoner taken. Mrs. Bryant's grandfather, Henry Clay Jordan was a soldier on the train also.

"The gun pits as well as about half of the breastworks, have been leveled, but the other half still remains.

"Mrs. Bryant recalled that her grandmother said the fields had been broken up and laid off in that Spring of ‘65 when the Yankees came. The troops, horses, and artillery pieces trampled them so thoroughly that all the work had to be redone after their departure, and a late crop resulted, that year."

Footprints in Northampton: 1741-1776-1976 by Northampton Bicentennial Committee, 1976: p. 38-39.

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