Jane Phillips: The lady that stayed behind
When the Reality of the Civil War Came to Kinston
During the American Civil War, the reality of it came to Kinston in December 1862. Federal forces had captured New Bern that spring and were still occupying the town. In Kinston, talk of war had become a part of daily conversation.
It was Friday about noon on Dec. 12, 1862, when Dr. Lewis Miller came home and told Martha Ellen, his wife, there had been fighting at Trenton and six or seven had been killed. Thinking little of it, as Trenton seemed to be a place that one often heard of fighting taking place, Martha continued to go about her daily tasks.
Martha Ellen was from Massachusetts and some years ago when she was a young woman had come to North Carolina as a teacher. She met, fell in love with Dr. Miller and they married.
Early the next day, the word was the soldiers were headed toward Kinston. The people of the town waited and listened for the sounds of battle and had finally decided it was a false alarm when suddenly in the distance boom ... boom ... boom ... fell on the ears of hundreds of listeners.
The firing kept up with an occasional rest, till dark. The battleground was at Woodington about 6 miles away. There was no great manifestation of alarm among the citizens of Kinston but many left the area for a safer place. Martha Ellen stayed and tried to stay clam by doing her week's mending.
About 10 o’clock Sunday morning, the roar of artillery started and the sound came nearer and nearer. About noon, a Confederate soldier came riding up and told Dr. Miller to send the women and children to a place of safety as they could be in danger.
Martha Ellen told her husband she was staying with him to help protect their home when the soldiers came. Dr. Lewis and Martha Ellen packed two trunks of their most valuable clothes, so if the town was burned they would not be destitute. They sent servants to carry the children and trunks to a place of safety in the country.
After the cannonading got perfectly furious, shells flew thick and fast. The smell of powder and smoke and shouts of the men were terrible. About 2 o’clock, a soldier came and gave the Millers a peremptory order to leave.
The Millers did not want to leave their home. The soldier had an order to take their horses. For the first time Martha Ellen cried. Miller was so agitated he could not speak but wept like a child.
They offered up a prayer of protection. After some persuasion by Dr. Miller, the soldier left the horses but insisted they have their harness on the horses to be ready to ride if need be.
The house was now being shaken to the foundation by the artillery, and the musketry rattled like corn in a popper. The fighting was now at the Queen Street Bridge on the edge of town.
At this time there were no women left in town but Martha Ellen and Mrs. B, a very old woman. About 3:30, the rebel forces began retreating from the battlefield and they were pouring through the town to the top of Queen Street hill. The Yankees were close behind coming in by the thousands.
The Millers decided it was time to have a servant take the buggy and horses out to the country and sent a servant to do it. In a few minutes, he came back out of breath saying the Federals had taken the horses away from him at the depot crossing a few blocks away.
Martha started off at a double quick and found her buggy. She climbed aboard the buggy and started home. At Mr. Herring's store, she was halted by two officers and one caught hold of the bridle. They said they wanted the horses and ordered her to get out of the buggy.
Martha yelled, “They are mine and I am taking them home with me."
She was ordered out once again. Martha told them she would not be left in the street and the horses had to take her home.
One of the men pulled out his pistol as if to bring her to terms, but she insisted on being taken home. One of the men got into the buggy and jerked the reins from Martha so hard it caused a sprain to her hand. Martha told him she could not believe that he would treat a northern lady in such a manner. He drove her home and took the horses.
Meanwhile, Dr. Miller was out trying to get protection for his home. After a while, a Union officer, Maj. Morrissey, called. Mrs. Miller told him she was from Massachusetts and was ashamed at the way the soldiers had been behaving. He was very nice to them and said he would place a guard outside the Miller home.
Some soldiers tried to steal a large quantity of meat from their smoke house, but Major Morrissey prevented it. But Martha did let them have 20 pounds of meat. The major sent two soldiers to guard their house but even they had a hard time and two of her servants had to assist the guards at times.
The soldiers were carrying on wholesale robbery. At her neighbor’s house she saw them take every article of bed clothing, knives and forks, sugar, honey, preserves, tablecloths. They were taking everything they could carry.
Martha heard spoons rattles in a man’s pocket and made him give them up and brought them home with her. She would return the spoons to Delia, her neighbor, when she returned home from Vermont. The shells and cannon balls were true warfare, but the plundering of homes was almost more than she could endure.
Martha had a determination not to lose anything that her exertion could save. The results were they only lost one chicken. No one else escaped as lightly as many people of the town were ruined.
Martha, the northern lady from Boston, who once walked the streets of Kinston, had embraced her new home and was sympathetic to her southern neighbors. During this time of trouble, she showed a strength that many came to admire.
This story was based on a letter written by Martha Ellen Miller to her family in Massachusetts regarding the Battle of Kinston. She finished her letter up with these words, “Oh, my dear ones, you know not the horror and ravages of war. I hope you never may. The town is ruined, the people crushed.”
The letter was published in a Boston newspaper in January 1863.
Martha Ellen Miller, “Historical Notes,” North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. V, No. 3, July 1923, p. 454
Lenoir County-Kinston Civil War Battlefields Survey and National Register Project
Annals of Progress – The story of Lenoir County and Kinston, North Carolina by William s. Powell pg 45 -47
200 Years of Progress by Mike Kohler, pg.64-65