The Battle of Bentonville, March 19-21, 1865, shattered the peaceful existence of the John Harper family, a typical upper middle-class family living in southern Johnston County. As if 80,000 Union and Confederate soldiers fighting within a few miles of their residence were not bad enough, the Union Army took over the Harpers' house during the height of the battle, and converted the downstairs rooms into a field hospital. The Harpers were not asked if their home could be used as a hospital. Instead, they were told by Union soldiers that they should either stay upstairs or they could leave. With no other place to go, the Harpers retreated upstairs but some family members later came down to help nurse the approximately 599 wounded soldiers from both sides treated in the house by Federal doctors.
The Harper House was built by the family in 1855. John Harper had moved to North Carolina with his father and mother when he was very young. The Harpers were from an area in western Virginia, now West Virginia, known as Harper's Ferry. John's great-uncle started the ferry for which the town became known. John Harper married Amy Woodard in the late 1830s, and they had the first of their nine children in 1839. By 1855, John Harper may have owned as much as eight hundred acres of land. Most of this property was un-cleared. It was devoted to the naval stores industry, which included the harvesting of tar, pitch, and turpentine from pine trees for ship building. The Harpers cleared perhaps one hundred acres of their property to be used as farmland for their family's needs, and for a homestead area. Corn, beans, and sweet potatoes were the Harpers' primary crops, intended mostly for the family and their animals to eat. Mr. Harper was a militia captain prior to the war, and he also served as a community Justice of the Peace. These characteristics, combined with the size of the Harper House and farm, indicate that the Harpers were moderately prosperous people for their time period.
Before their home was used as a hospital during the battle, the Civil War had already touched the Harper family in a very personal way. Their sixteen-year-old son Martin had joined the Confederate Army and was wounded near Sharpsburg, Maryland in September of 1862. Martin recovered at his father's home until 1864 when he rejoined the army. Shortly before the Battle of Bentonville, Martin was sent to the invalid corps, which was comprised of soldiers too sick, wounded, or old to fight in the regular army. Although the Harpers were faced with the horrible ordeal of their home being taken over by Union soldiers, their son's suffering had already given them a taste of war.
Little is known about the Harpers after the war other than they lost a significant amount of their property as well as their slaves. The Harpers remained in the house until 1897 when, after becoming too old to live in such a large home, they moved into a smaller house in the Dunn area near one of their sons. The Harper House was owned by three other families and then sold to the State of North Carolina in 1957. The house is now open for tours and interpreted as it would have looked on the first day of the battle.