Battle of Bentonville
North Carolina Civil War History
Other Names: Battle of Bentonville House, Battle of Bentonville
Location: Johnston County
Campaign: Campaign of the Carolinas (February-April 1865)
Date(s): March 19-21, 1865
Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Maj. Gen.
Henry Slocum [US]; Gen. Joseph E. Johnston [CS]
Forces Engaged: Sherman’s Right Wing (XX and XIV Corps)
[US]; Johnston's Army [CS]
Estimated Casualties: 4,133 total (1,527 US; 2,606 CS)
Result(s): Union victory
|Battle of Bentonville
|Battle of Bentonville Historical Marker
Summary: While Slocum’s advance was stalled
at Averasborough by Hardee’s troops, the right wing of Sherman’s army under command of Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard marched
toward Goldsboro. On March 19, Slocum encountered the entrenched Confederates of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston who had concentrated
to meet his advance at Bentonville. Late afternoon, Johnston attacked, crushing the line of the XIV Corps. Only strong counterattacks
and desperate fighting south of the Goldsboro Road blunted the Confederate offensive. Elements of the XX Corps were thrown
into the action as they arrived on the field. Five Confederate attacks failed to dislodge the Federal defenders and darkness
ended the first day’s fighting. During the night, Johnston contracted his line into a “V” to protect his
flanks with Mill Creek to his rear. On March 20, Slocum was heavily reinforced, but fighting was sporadic. Sherman was inclined
to let Johnston retreat. On the 21st, however, Johnston remained in position while he removed his wounded. Skirmishing heated
up along the entire front. In the afternoon, Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower led his Union division along a narrow trace that carried
it across Mill Creek into Johnston’s rear. Confederate counterattacks stopped Mower’s advance, saving the army’s
only line of communication and retreat. Mower withdrew, ending fighting for the day. During the night, Johnston retreated
across the bridge at Bentonville. Union forces pursued at first light, driving back Wheeler’s rearguard and saving the
bridge. Federal pursuit was halted at Hannah’s Creek after a severe skirmish. Sherman, after regrouping at Goldsboro,
pursued Johnston toward Raleigh. On April 18, Johnston signed an armistice with Sherman at the Bennett House, and on April
26, formally surrendered his army. Bentonville was the last major battle of the American Civil War.
|Battle of Bentonville
|Battle of Bentonville
Background: As the momentous year 1864 drew to a
close, the Armies of the Union stood poised to deal their final blows to the Confederate war effort. Atlanta had fallen, President
Abraham Lincoln had been reelected, and the Confederate Army of Tennessee had been soundly crushed. The western armies seemed
unstoppable, as Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman presented Savannah, Georgia to Lincoln as a Christmas offering. Georgia howled,
and the tide of war shifted permanently in favor of the North.
In Virginia, the Union general-in-chief, Ulysses S. Grant, was making plans.
Having relentlessly pursued the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant was stalled against his old nemesis in the trenches around
Richmond and Petersburg. Robert E. Lee's vaunted Confederate army, on its last legs after more than three years of brilliant
campaigning, stood defiantly between Grant and the Southern capital.
Grant now wanted Sherman's men ferried by sea to Virginia, where
their combined armies might administer the coup de grace to the South's principal army. Sherman, however, had been making
plans of his own. On Christmas Eve, he coolly laid them out for his superior — an overland strike into the heart of
the Confederacy with 60,000 men. It was vintage Sherman, and a proud Grant replied: "Your confidence in being able to march
up and join this army pleases me . . . The effect of such a campaign will be to disorganize the South, and prevent the organization
of new armies from their broken fragments . . . [M]ake your preparations . . . without delay. Break up the railroads in South
and North Carolina, and join the armies operating against Richmond as soon as you can."
In mid-January 1865, as Sherman moved into South Carolina, the Confederacy
received another irreversible blow when Fort Fisher — guarding access to Wilmington, N.C. — fell to the largest
Union combined operation of the war. The amphibious attack sealed Wilmington's doom and closed the last major blockade-running
seaport open to the South, choking Lee's supply line.
Against poorly arrayed Confederates under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, Sherman's
minions blazed northward virtually unopposed. By February 22, Columbia was ruined and Wilmington was in the control of Federal
forces under Maj. Gen. John Schofield and Maj. Gen. Alfred Terry. With the beaten remnants of the Army of Tennessee and other
Rebel units widely scattered across the South, only North Carolina lay between fast-moving Sherman and a junction with Grant's
Schofield had direct orders from Grant to act in cooperation with Sherman's
march. Their joint objective in North Carolina, as outlined by Grant, was the rail hub of Goldsboro. There, the combined armies
(under Sherman) would secure a supply base to rest and refit before continuing the campaign.
General Lee, newly appointed commander-in-chief of all Southern armies,
lost faith in Beauregard and took his case to the Confederate War Department. Lee's choice for a replacement offered one of
the sad ironies of the war for Jefferson Davis. With few options as the noose tightened on his dying nation, the Confederate
president reluctantly approved Lee's candidate — a personal enemy Davis had sacked in Georgia seven months earlier.
Thus, on the day Wilmington fell, Lee wired Gen. Joseph E. Johnston at Lincolnton,
N.C.: "Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida . . .
Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman."
Johnston knew it was too late to stop Sherman, and he told Lee as much.
Even slowing the Union advance seemed a stretch at this point, given the far-flung units at Johnston's disposal. Reluctantly,
the veteran commander assumed his final responsibility. Time was short, and "Old Joe" faced a daunting task.
|Battle of Bentonville Map
|Bentonville Battlefield Map
|Battle of Bentonville
|Bentonville and Campaign of the Carolinas
(Above) Campaign of the Carolinas, February-April 1865, and (Right) Battle
of Bentonville, March 19-21, 1865.
|Battle of Bentonville
|(L) Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman; (R) Gen. Joseph E. Johnston
(Right) Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman (February 8, 1820-February 14,
1891) and Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston (February 3, 1807-March 21, 1891) were opposing commanding generals during the
Campaign of the Carolinas. Having attended Sherman's funeral on a cold, rainy day in 1891, Johnston would become ill
with pneumonia and die the following month.
the Union army crossed into North Carolina on March 7-8, it was traveling in familiar fashion — two separate wings of
roughly 30,000 men each, living off the land as they went. The march was a marvel of military engineering and logistics. Sherman
knew that his "special antagonist" from the Atlanta Campaign had been restored to command. That first week of March, Sherman
urged his top commanders to keep a sharp watch for enemy activity, and to prepare to fight Johnston if necessary.
The Confederate commander was waiting at Fayetteville, where he informed
Lee on the eighth that he would endeavor to strike a portion of the enemy's divided army. Evacuating Charleston and falling
back through South Carolina, Confederate Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee's corps of seasoned veterans and raw garrison troops reached
Fayetteville just one step ahead of Sherman. As the Federals approached town on March 10, the first indication of organized
resistance came when opportunistic Rebel troopers under Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton mauled a portion of Maj. Gen. H. Judson Kilpatrick's
cavalry division. Hardee then withdrew northeast along the banks of the Cape Fear River and took position several miles south
of Averasboro. Having left Fayetteville for Raleigh, Johnston directed Hardee to stay "as near the enemy's line of march as
possible, which will enable us to unite [our] other troops with yours."
The Federals occupied Fayetteville on March 11, opening communication with
Union forces at Wilmington. On the same day, Lee pushed Johnston: "You must judge what the probabilities will be of arresting
Sherman by battle . . . A bold and unexpected attack might relieve us." At this point Sherman could practically taste his
objective: Goldsboro. He wanted a clear road, and hoped Johnston would fall back to guard the capital city of Raleigh. "I
can whip Joe Johnston," Sherman boasted to General Terry, "provided he don't catch one of my corps in flank, and I will see
that my army marches hence to Goldsborough in compact form." As the army crossed the Cape Fear on March 14, Sherman reassured
Grant: "The enemy is superior to me in cavalry, but I can beat his infantry man for man, and I don't think he can bring 40,000
men to battle."
On March 15, Lee again reminded Johnston of the dire situation facing both
commanders. Laying a heavy load on his old friend and subordinate, Lee warned: "If you are forced back . . . and we be deprived
of the supplies from East North Carolina, I do not know how [my] army can be supported . . . [Do not] engage in a general
battle without a reasonable prospect of success . . . I shall maintain my position as long as it appears advisable . . . Unity
of purpose and harmony of action between [our] two armies, with the blessing of God, I trust will relieve us from the difficulties
that now beset us."
That day — as four Rebel commands gathered in North Carolina —
Johnston traveled to Smithfield to form the hodgepodge Army of the South. After evacuating Wilmington in February and resisting
Schofield at Kinston on March 8-10, Gen. Braxton Bragg finally had arrived at Smithfield with Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke's Division
(Army of Northern Virginia). Hardee's Corps was hovering near Averasboro, gauging the advance of the Federal Left Wing. Hampton's
cavalry was split to monitor both wings of Sherman's army. The proud remnants of the Army of Tennessee were slowly trickling
into Smithfield from the west, having departed Tupelo, Mississippi, by rail in mid-January. Elements of these ragtag veteran
units had arrived in time to fall back before Sherman in South Carolina, and to help against Schofield at Kinston. Others
were still on the way.
|Battle of Averasboro
As his motley units converged, Johnston waited anxiously for news. Was the
enemy moving on Raleigh or Goldsboro? From his position at Smithfield, Johnston could swing west or southeast to block the
way to either destination. Lacking sufficient numbers for a decisive engagement, however, Johnston needed favorable ground
from which to tackle one wing of the Union army while the other was beyond supporting distance. The clock was ticking.
On March 16, Hardee's Corps fought a crucial delaying action with Sherman's
Left Wing near Averasboro, buying a precious day's time for Johnston's gathering forces. The crisis of the campaign emerged
when the aftermath of Hardee's engagement revealed Sherman's intentions. As the Left Wing turned east toward Goldsboro, Hampton
fell back with Col. George Dibrell's cavalry division to Willis Cole's plantation, two miles south of Bentonville on the Goldsboro
Road. Desperate for news, Johnston fired off inquiries to his subordinates. "Something must be done tomorrow morning," he
pushed Hardee on March 17, "and yet I have no satisfactory information." He then queried Hampton for specifics on the enemy's
position, strength, and relative distance. "[G]ive me your opinion," urged Johnston, "whether it is practicable to reach them
from Smithfield on the south side of the [Neuse] river before they reach Goldsborough."
In the small hours of March 18, Hampton replied that Cole's Plantation
— 20 miles south of Smithfield — would be the ideal location to block the Federal advance. The enemy was still
a day's march away, and sufficiently separated from the Right Wing. Hampton was sure his cavalry could hold the ground long
enough for Confederate forces to gather near Bentonville. The decisive moment had come, and Hampton's dispatch triggered Johnston's
deployment. "[P]ut your command in motion for Bentonville by the shortest route," he ordered Hardee. Johnston then notified
Hampton: "We will go to the place at which your dispatch was written."
Ever vigilant, Sherman worried about his situation that day. "I think it
probable that Joe Johnston will try to prevent our getting Goldsborough," he cautioned the commander of the Right Wing, Maj.
Gen. Oliver Howard. The Left Wing trains might be vulnerable, he explained, warning Howard not to stray too far "until this
flank is better covered by the Neuse."
At the doorstep of the campaign's objective, however, it took little to
sway the Union commander's thinking. Judson Kilpatrick promptly reported what Sherman wanted to hear. The enemy was retiring
on Smithfield, Kilpatrick explained, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Wheeler's Confederates had burned the bridge over Mill Creek. On
Sherman's faulty maps, the Smithfield-Clinton Road — where the bridge was destroyed — appeared to be Johnston's
only southern approach from the Smithfield area. It suddenly looked as though Johnston would fall back to cover Raleigh. Sherman's
impatience was about to play directly into his old adversary's hands. From this point forward, "Uncle Billy" would hear nothing
of the grave threat from the enemy.
|Battle of Bentonville
|Battle of Bentonville, March 19, 1865
By dusk, Sherman's army was within 25 miles of Goldsboro, and he was certain
the Left Wing would reach Cox's Bridge on the Neuse the next day — a scant twelve miles from pay dirt. That evening,
Hampton's troopers and artillery repelled a bold Union foraging party at the Morris Farm, just west of Cole's. The chosen
ground was theirs. Unknown to the Federals, Johnston's infantry was fast bearing southward on a road that met the Goldsboro
Road south of Bentonville — at Cole's Plantation. Despite Sherman's unshakable confidence, the Federal Left Wing was
ripe for disaster.
On the bright Sunday morning of March 19, the Left Wing— commanded
by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum — pushed ahead on the Goldsboro Road. As the familiar rattle of musketry rolled up from
the east, the commander of the Union Fourteenth Corps, Maj. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis, expressed concern over enemy opposition.
Sherman quickly dismissed the notion, and reassured Davis there was nothing in his front but Rebel cavalry. The Union commander
then rode away to join the Right Wing, which was traveling on a parallel course to the south.
Hampton's horsemen fell back before the Federal advance, drawing the Fourteenth
Corps into the Confederate trap just as it was being set. Hoke's Division was waiting astride the Goldsboro Road and the Army
of Tennessee filed into position to the north. As Brig. Gen. William Carlin's division deployed to clear the road, Hoke's
Confederates unleashed a withering fire of musketry and artillery. The left half of Carlin's line scrambled for cover in a
deep ravine, and Brig. Gen. James Morgan's Federal division soon joined on Carlin's right.
With Hoke blocking the road, Johnston deployed Lt. Gen. A. P. Stewart's
Army of Tennessee as a striking force. The rugged veterans of disaster in Tennessee were eager for redemption. A soldier in
Brig. Gen. Joseph Palmer's brigade recalled words of encouragement as a Rebel colonel rode down the lines: "Boys, you remember
the 19th and 20th of September, 1863, at Chickamauga? Well, this is the 19th of March, and you may look out for some work
to-day as hot as it was there."
Around noon, Carlin launched a probing attack to discover the strength of
the enemy. This reconnaissance-in-force was mauled severely as it blundered into the entrenched lines of Bragg and Stewart.
General Slocum had initially sent word to Sherman that all was well. By early afternoon, however, Slocum had received enough
bad news to realize he was in trouble. "I am convinced the enemy are in strong force in my front," he notified Sherman, requesting
immediate assistance from the Right Wing. "Johnston and Hardee are here."
|Battle of Bentonville
|Battle of Bentonville, March 20, 1865
Hardee's Confederates had been delayed in reaching the field, but the greenhorns
of Brig. Gen. William B. Taliaferro's Division soon added their weight to the Rebel striking force. At 2:45, Johnston dropped
the hammer on Slocum. With Hardee leading the charge in person, the Army of Tennessee launched its final assault. Shouting
in defiance, "they came down on us like an avalanche," recalled a Union officer. Carlin's poorly deployed line broke almost
instantly. Fleeing their breastworks, the ranks of Federal soldiers were cut to pieces as the men scrambled out of the ravine.
The left half of Carlin's division went reeling backward toward the Morris Farm while the right half caved in on Morgan's
division. The 19th Indiana Battery lost three of its four guns.
Following up their advantage, the screaming Rebels bore down on the Goldsboro
Road and slammed into Brig. Gen. Benjamin Fearing's Union brigade, which had been hastened to the left to stem the tide. Fearing's
line promptly crumbled under the onslaught and fell back to the west.
Around 4 p.m., Bragg's line attacked Morgan's division, and a furious, often
hand-to-hand struggle erupted in the pines below the road. The remnants of Carlin's right flank were sent reeling into the
swamps to the south. "It seemed as though all was lost," recalled a Union private, "and the rebellious hosts came pressing
on." Fighting behind stout breastworks, the brigades of Brig. Gen. John Mitchell and Brig. Gen. William Vandever struggled
to hold on. They repulsed Hoke's Division, only to find elements of the Army of Tennessee (having knocked Fearing out of the
way) moving on them from the rear. A determined counterattack helped secure their position, as Brig. Gen. William Cogswell's
Twentieth Corps brigade lumbered through the swamps to Morgan's assistance. "Our loss here was heavy," noted a Rebel private.
"They gave us credit for fighting them as hard as they were ever fought." An extended engagement ensued as Cogswell's men
moved into position, and the surrounding woods caught fire. "It was a hot old time," recalled a solider in the 2nd South Carolina,
"and things were lively if they were not lovely."
Late in the afternoon, the Confederates reached their high water mark as
portions of the Army of Tennessee and Taliaferro's Division hurled themselves against the Union Twentieth Corps at the Morris
Farm. Brig. Gen. James Robinson's brigade and massed Federal artillery repelled wave after wave of attacking Confederates.
"Smoke settled down over the guns as it grew dark," observed a war correspondent, "and the flashes seen through it seemed
like a steady, burning fire." Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws' Division (Hardee's Corps) arrived too late to be of real assistance,
having spent much of its time out of action on Bragg's left. Early in the fight, in a tactical blunder that robbed the Confederate
striking force of much-needed weight, Johnston had sent McLaws to Bragg's assistance where he sat idle for much of the day.
Nevertheless, Johnston had given the Federals a serious drubbing — leaving a scar on Carlin's psyche the man would carry
for the rest of his life. Having failed to completely crush the Union lines, the exhausted Southerners pulled back to their
original positions. On the Morris Farm, General Slocum sent a final plea to Sherman for assistance.
All day long, the troops of Howard's column had heard the ominous rumble
of battle in the distance, but Sherman had remained skeptical. As late as 5 p.m., he confided to General Kilpatrick: "Slocum
thinks the whole rebel army is in his front. I cannot think Johnston would fight us with the Neuse to his rear." Yet the truth
was undeniable. Sherman finally yielded to the reality of Slocum's predicament, and reassured his wing commander that help
was on the way.
The Right Wing swung northward and westward via Cox's Crossroads early on
March 20. Sparring with elements of Hampton's cavalry in a running fight, Howard's column began arriving on the battlefield
by midday. Sharp skirmishing prevailed, as the Confederates changed position to deal with Howard's arrival. Johnston had managed
to field only about 16,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry; despite receiving limited reinforcements, the Confederates were now
woefully disadvantaged. Johnston clung to a tenuous bridgehead guarding his army's sole escape route over rain-swollen Mill
Creek, and began evacuating his wounded to Smithfield.
|Battle of Bentonville
|Battle of Bentonville, March 21, 1865
To Sherman's great irritation, the Confederate army was still in position
on March 21. Johnston — outnumbered and no longer holding the advantage of surprise — could only hope the Federals
might be lured into a costly frontal attack on his small but well-entrenched army. That afternoon, in the midst of a soaking
downpour, a "little reconnaissance" by Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower's Seventeenth Corps division escalated into a full-scale push
toward Mill Creek Bridge on the weak Confederate left flank. Mower's advance overran Johnston's headquarters, forcing the
general and his entourage to beat a hasty retreat. A last-ditch counterstroke led by General Hardee enveloped Mower's two
brigades and forced them back. Sherman was furious over Mower's action, fearing it would bring on the general engagement he
desperately wanted to avoid. The Union commander called Mower off, but not before his men had been roughly handled by the
Confederates. Johnston gambled in stripping his right flank to protect his left, and Hardee's bold action saved the bridge.
With no further advantage in remaining at Bentonville, the weary Confederates abandoned their works during the night and withdrew
toward Smithfield. On March 22, Federal forces pursued the enemy as far as Hannah's Creek before giving up the chase.
The battle claimed roughly 4,500 casualties on both sides. Indeed, the
human cost in North Carolina was high. When combined with other major engagements fought that bloody March — Monroe's
Crossroads, Averasboro, and Wyse Fork — the number of combat casualties of all types approached 9,000 men (not counting
losses suffered in various skirmishes along the way).
From Savannah to Goldsboro, Sherman's juggernaut had covered 425 miles of
hostile territory. Joe Johnston marveled that "there had been no such army in existence since the days of Julius Caesar."
Sherman himself viewed the storied March to the Sea as mere "child's play" compared to his Campaign of the Carolinas.
Jefferson Davis had smugly predicted that Johnston would retreat before
Sherman all the way to Virginia. Given his well-known penchant for inaction, why did Johnston fight at Bentonville? The general
later claimed he hoped to achieve fair terms of peace. But as much as anything, Johnston had thumbed his nose at Davis and
embraced the confidence held in him by Lee. Despite inherent obstacles and tactical blunders, Johnston's eleventh-hour troop
concentration and the resulting battle at Bentonville were the most decisive actions undertaken by "Old Joe" during the war.
In a losing effort, Johnston ably reminded Sherman that the Confederates were still to be reckoned with in the spring of 1865.
Indeed, Sherman was fortunate that Johnston could effect only a partial concentration of his forces before giving battle.
The whole affair greatly bothered "Uncle Billy." His passion for occupying
Goldsboro had clouded his cautionary judgment. Stung by the damage inflicted on the Left Wing, Sherman attempted to pass Bentonville
off as a mere skirmish — much to the irritation of many a Union veteran who lost comrades in a full-scale action so
near the war's end. Having been drawn into battle, and massing superior numbers, Sherman failed to finish the job. He erred
in not bagging Johnston's army on March 20-21. With the godlike knowledge of hindsight, it is all too tempting for historians
to anoint Sherman as a lofty "angel of peace" for allowing Johnston to escape. Militarily, however, it was an unsound decision.
The Confederate army slipped away intact, enabling it to join with other Confederate forces in the field. Sherman was all
too happy to oblige, preferring to deal with Johnston only after refitting his battered army at Goldsboro. Thus a Confederate
threat still loomed to the west, and Sherman fully believed that he or Grant would have to engage in "one more desperate and
bloody battle" with the enemy — perhaps against Lee and Johnston combined. "I rather supposed [such a battle] would
fall on me," the general noted, "somewhere near Raleigh."
Sherman could have closed the lid decisively on Johnston at Bentonville
— almost certainly with far less bloodshed than he might have faced in his predicted final showdown. As events unfolded,
however, Sherman's war ended under far more favorable circumstances.
The three day fight at Bentonville produced a total of 4,133 casualties. Union losses were 1,527,
with 194 killed, 1,112 wounded, and 221 missing and captured. Confederate casualties totaled 2,606, with 239 killed, 1,694 wounded, and 673 missing and captured. Many of the wounded found themselves in a field hospital set up by Sherman's
Fourteenth Army Corps. Its surgeons, searching for a safe location, chose the modest two-story farm home of John and Amy Harper,
and wounded began streaming to this makeshift medical facility within minutes of its establishment a mile from the chaotic
front lines. Throughout March 19 and 20, Federal surgeons at the Harper House treated a total of 554 men, both Union and Confederate.
Without the benefit of antibiotics to stop infection, doctors amputated shattered arms and legs to prevent gangrene from claiming
their patients' lives. Despite the screams of the wounded, the piles of severed limbs, and the stench of blood and chloroform
(an anesthetic used by Union surgeons) that pervaded the Harper House, the family refused to leave their home during this
(Sources and related reading listed below.)
Sources: Civil War Trust, civilwar.org; North Carolina Office of Archives and
History; National Park Service: American Civil War; North Carolina Office of Archives and History; Official Records of the
Union and Confederate Armies; Library of Congress; National Archives; Bradley, Mark L. Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle
of Bentonville (1996); Moore, Mark A. Hallowed Ground Magazine, Fall 2003; Moore, Mark A. Moore's Historical Guide to the
Battle of Bentonville. Campbell, Cal.: Savas Publishing Company (1995); John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963);
Barrett, Sherman's March through the Carolinas (1956); Mark L. Bradley, Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville