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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

The Battle of Bentonville

On December 21, 1864, the port city of Savannah, Georgia, unconditionally surrendered to Major General William Tecumseh Sherman and his Military Division of the Mississippi. It was the coup de grace of Sherman’s “March to the Sea”—an attritional campaign that carved a swath of destruction through Georgia’s economic heartland. Sixty thousand Federal troops employed a scorched-earth policy, as described in Special Field Order No. 120, that crippled Confederate industrial capacity, destroyed infrastructure, and damaged civilian resources. These punitive measures weakened Southern morale and ensured material superiority for the Union.



On February 1, 1865, after several weeks of convalescence, Sherman reinvigorated his total war strategy with the Carolinas Campaign, seeking to disrupt crucial transportation networks that supplied General Robert E. Lee’s besieged Confederate army in Petersburg, Virginia. By contemporary accounts, the Carolinas Campaign was more devastating than Sherman’s March through Georgia; synonymous with incendiary violence and indiscriminate vandalism. “The whole army is burning with an insatiable desire to wreak vengeance upon South Carolina,” Sherman remarked, alluding to the Palmetto State’s significance as the cradle of secession. “I almost tremble at her fate, but feel that she deserves all that seems to be in store for her.”


Sherman’s army stormed through South Carolina—brushing away Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division at the Battle of Rivers’ Bridge (February 3) and General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry brigade at the Battle of Aiken (February 11)—and descended upon Columbia after two weeks of tenacious campaigning. Lieutenant General Wade Hampton—the chief Confederate cavalry officer who commanded the state capital’s five thousand defenders—realized the futility of confronting Sherman’s fervid forces and abandoned Columbia on February 17, allowing the Union army to capture (and subsequently burn) the city virtually unopposed. Columbia’s capitulation consequently compromised Lieutenant General William Hardee’s defense of Charleston. On February 18, under the mounting risk of encirclement, Hardee hastily withdrew his command (fourteen thousand troops under the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) north towards Wilmington, North Carolina—the Confederacy’s last major Atlantic seaport.


General Braxton Bragg’s Department of North Carolina and Major General Robert Hoke’s division from the Army of Northern Virginia manned the coastal defenses of Wilmington. Between February 11 – 22, the combined Southern forces lost a series of engagements to Major General John M. Schofield’s XXIII Corps and Major General Alfred Terry’s Fort Fisher Expeditionary Corps, culminating in Bragg’s untimely evacuation of Wilmington on February 22.


With the Southern war effort collapsing on all fronts, Confederate leadership scrambled to consolidate their scattered field commands and arrange a staunch defense against Sherman. The Departments of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, along with Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s Army of Tennessee—whose ranks were decimated during General John Bell Hood’s failed Franklin-Nashville Campaign of 1864—reorganized as the “Army of the South.” This ragtag rebel force, scarcely numbered at twenty thousand men, was placed under the direction of Lieutenant General Joseph Eggleston Johnston, who was reluctantly reinstated to active duty by Confederate President Jefferson Davis at the behest of General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee—Davis had removed Johnston from the Army of Tennessee’s command in July 1864 due to his cautious tendencies (and political interfering from Bragg). While Johnston concentrated his Southern field forces around Smithfield, Generals Hardee and Hampton maneuvered west to delay the Union advance and obtain intelligence regarding Sherman’s strategy.


On March 8, as the Union army crossed into North Carolina, Sherman’s fast-paced campaigning was encumbered by inclement weather. Days of steady rains had swelled waterways to impassable depths and transformed country roads into muddy quagmires. To dilute these logistical deterrents, Sherman divided his command into two columns: the Left Wing (Army of Georgia) under Major General Henry Slocum and the Right Wing (Army of the Tennessee) under Major General Oliver Otis Howard. Each contingent carried thirty thousand men and marched separately along parallel routes towards Goldsboro—a strategic railroad town where Sherman planned to rendezvous with the armies of Schofield and Terry.


Sherman’s cavalry commander, Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, led the advance guard for Slocum’s Left Wing. Having learned that Hampton’s scouts were surveilling his movements, an overconfident Kilpatrick sought to neutralize the rebel nuisance. On the evening of March 9, nearly two thousand Union cavalrymen bivouacked around Monroe’s Crossroads, directly blocking the Confederates’ route to Fayetteville; however, Federal patrols inaccurately estimated the strength of Hampton’s approaching force. Throughout the rainy night, Hampton and his counterpart, General Joseph Wheeler, stealthily deployed their units around Kilpatrick’s unsuspecting camp.


At daybreak on March 10, the bugle call of “charge” echoed through the pine barrens. Hampton’s cavalry plowed into Kilpatrick’s camp, capturing military supplies and scattering startled Federal soldiers. Aroused by the sudden crescendo of small arms fire, Kilpatrick—allegedly preoccupied with his mistress—fled into a nearby swamp wearing only his undergarments, narrowly evading capture.


After regaining his composure, Kilpatrick organized a counterattack. The once-precise rebel onslaught had descended into chaotic looting, and Kilpatrick’s men made easy work reclaiming their campground. The Confederates reformed several charges, but ultimately withdrew to avoid approaching Union infantry. Kilpatrick lost 183 men in combat while Hampton sustained only 86 casualties. Though brief, the Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads was one of the largest all-cavalry engagements of the Civil War and the first organized assault against Sherman’s men in North Carolina. 



The Confederates launched another determined stand against Slocum’s Left Wing at the Battle of Averasboro. On the morning of March 16, two XX Corps divisions under Brigadier General Alpheus Williams engaged General Hardee’s array of Confederate defenses along the Raleigh Plank Road—three lines of infantry (approximately six thousand men) commanded by Brigadier Generals William Taliaferro and Lafayette McLaws and Wheeler’s cavalry division. The Union army methodically overwhelmed the first two rows of inexperienced rebel recruits, but encountered unwavering resistance against Hardee’s final defensive line. Reinforcements from Major General Jefferson C. Davis’s XIV Corps were fed into the fight, participating in several ill-conceived frontal assaults that yielded costly casualties. Facing an increasing numeric disadvantage, Hardee conducted a tactical overnight withdrawal towards Smithfield. The Battle of Averasboro resulted in “between 400 and 500” Confederate losses, according to Hardee, while the Union army sustained 682 casualties—a “serious loss” that further delayed Sherman’s wagon trains.


After Averasboro, Johnston received confirmation that Goldsboro was Sherman’s prime objective. Armed with this critical information, Johnston tasked Hampton to reconnoiter the landscape and identify areas advantageous for a general engagement. Hampton designated Willis Cole’s Plantation—situated in the village of Bentonville, twenty miles south of Smithfield—as a preferred location to block the Union advance. The columns of Slocum and Howard were sufficiently separated by a day’s march, effectively bisecting their available manpower. Encouraged, Johnston expeditiously mobilized his command around Cole’s Plantation, erecting strong fieldworks in a hook-shaped formation. Bragg’s Department of North Carolina and Hoke’s Division protected the Confederate left, south of Goldsboro Road, while Generals Stewart and Hardee anchored the rebel right.


Like many pre-war North Carolina communities, Bentonville developed from the naval stores industry—the processing of longleaf pines to create hydrophobic lubricants and watertight seals for shipping implements. Many inhabitants were “turpentine laborers” while others were coopers, building barrels to store raw sap, tar, and pitch. This industry is what influenced North Carolina’s nickname “The Tar Heel State.”


THE BATTLE OF BENTONVILLE – MARCH 19, 1865


“The vast field was soon covered with men, horses, artillery, caissons, etc., which brought back vividly to

our minds a similar scene at the Battle of Chancellorsville.”

 – Samuel Toombs, 13th New Jersey


The Battle of Bentonville opened at dawn when Union foragers from the XIV Corps encountered Confederate pickets commanded by Colonel George Dibrell. Sharp skirmishing ensued with increasing rebel resistance as the Federals pressed down Goldsboro Road. The rattle of musketry captured the attention of XIV Corps commander Jefferson C. Davis, who was conferring with his superiors, Slocum and Sherman, several miles west of the unfolding action. Davis immediately expressed concern—these clamorous sounds suggested more than the typical morning harassment—but Sherman demurred, confident the main Confederate force resided near Raleigh, the state capital. “Brush them out of the way,” Sherman replied as he rode off to join Howard’s Right Wing. Slocum obliged and mobilized General William Carlin’s First Division at 7:00 am, imprudently underestimating his enemy’s strength.


Carlin steadily advanced along Goldsboro Road, driving Dibrell’s defenders back with relative ease. By 10:00 am, General Harrison C. Hobart’s infantry had captured rebel earthworks at Reddick Morris’s Farm; however, as Hobart progressed towards Cole’s Plantation, his brigade was greeted by a withering barrage of small arms and artillery fire from Hoke’s entrenched Confederate division. The Federals fled into a wooded ravine where Carlin deployed the rest of his command and prepared to suppress the stubborn rebel threat. General James D. Morgan’s Second Division arrived to reinforce Carlin’s right flank within the hour.


Around noon, Carlin launched a tepid, large-scale reconnaissance effort to probe for weaknesses in the Confederate line. Nearly all XIV Corps brigades engaged were immediately repulsed with heavy losses. Following the disjointed and ineffectual Union assault, General Bragg, whose forces manned the entrenchments south of Goldsboro Road, pleaded for reinforcements as Morgan’s division gradually amassed at his front. Johnston directed McLaws’s division to assist; however, this maneuver—which depleted Johnston’s main attacking force at Cole’s Plantation by nearly twenty-five percent—proved to be a costly tactical error.


At 2:00 pm, General Slocum received a sobering revelation from several Confederate prisoners. “Johnston and Hardee are here,” the Left Wing commander dispatched to General Sherman. “I think a portion of the Right Wing should be brought forward at once.” While Slocum awaited his superior’s reply, he hastily ordered Davis’s XIV Corps to establish forward defensive positions and motioned Williams’s XX Corps to Morris Farm.


As Davis’s men entrenched, a gap was discovered in the Union center, just north of Goldsboro Road. The vanguard of Williams’s XX Corps, General James S. Robinson’s brigade, was tasked to plug this vulnerability. Robinson deployed his men along a shallow ravine, but was unable to connect with Carlin’s division, who had positioned themselves too far forward. When Slocum’s Chief of Engineers, Lieutenant William Ludlow, implored Carlin to redeploy south on Robinson’s left, the XIV Corps commander, fatuously confident in his situation, dismissed the recommendation.



At 2:45 pm, the “Last Grand Charge” of the Confederate army fell upon Slocum’s scrambling Left Wing. General Hardee personally led the Army of Tennessee and Taliaferro’s division into battle from Cole’s Plantation, crashing into Carlin’s flimsy frontline with irrepressible force. The bewildered brigades of Generals Hobart and George P. Buell, which formed Carlin’s left flank, broke almost immediately against the grey tide. The remainder of Carlin’s division promptly disintegrated, resulting in a chaotic retreat toward Morris Farm; Carlin himself was almost captured in the melee. This inglorious opening engagement was later lamented as the “Battle of Acorn Run”—a reference mocking the XIV Corps’ insignia.


With Carlin’s division pitched from battle, Major General Daniel Harvey Hill’s Confederate Corps stormed the resulting vacuum, violently clashing with General Benjamin Fearing’s brigade along Goldsboro Road. Much like Carlin, Fearing’s line crumbled under intense pressure, resulting in a disorderly retreat.


Around 4:00 pm, the Confederates converged upon Morgan’s tenuous salient. Hoke’s division advanced from their entrenchments south of Goldsboro Road while Hill’s men—disorganized and exhausted from their fight with Fearing—maneuvered towards the Union rear. Despite being subjected to enfilading fire, Morgan’s division stood resilient behind their crude breastworks; the faltering Confederate onslaught piecemeal in their pursuit. The timely arrival of General William Cogswell’s brigade (XX Corps) provided Morgan with the necessary reinforcements to launch a determined counterattack. Federal troops bravely confronted Hill’s command in “The Bullpen”—a wooded swampland where intense hand-to-hand combat ensued—stemming the rebel offensive.


While Cogswell supported Morgan in the Bullpen, the rest of the XX Corps strengthened their positions around Morris Farm—the Confederate divisions of Taliaferro and Major General William Bate mustering within the pinewood forest before them. At 4:30 pm, the anxious Southern army emerged en masse. The collective guns of General James Robinson’s brigade and concentrated Union artillery (twenty-one cannons from six batteries) accosted the enemy with punishing consequences. Explosive shells and canister shot punctured rebel formations. The inexperienced soldiers of General Stephen Elliot’s brigade turned tail while Rhett’s Brigade (under Colonel William Butler) and Bate’s veterans from the Army of Tennessee relentlessly assail Robinson’s position seven separate times—each attempt yielding costly casualties. Nightfall saved the destruction of Slocum’s Left Wing and brought the engagement to a tactical draw. Unable to decisively dislodge the Union army, Johnston withdrew his command to their original defensive positions.


Despite the incessant rumbling of artillery throughout the afternoon, General Sherman adamantly maintained that Slocum was engaged with a few “ stubborn skirmishing parties.” However, his attitude changed later that evening, as Slocum’s pleas for reinforcements began to mount with increasing acuity: “[The] commands of Hardee, Stewart, [Stephen D.] Lee, Cheatham, Hill, and Hoke are here…I feel confident in holding my position, but I deem it of the greatest importance that [Howard’s] Right Wing come up during the night to my assistance.” Sherman reassured Slocum, “[We] will move at moonrise toward Bentonville. All the army is coming toward you as fast as possible.”

 

THE BATTLE OF BENTONVILLE – MARCH 20, 1865


The impending arrival of Howard’s Right Wing imperiled Johnston’s overextended Army of the South. The Confederate commander directed Hampton’s cavalry to delay Sherman’s approach while transportation details evacuated the wounded to Smithfield—a “maddeningly slow” effort due to lack of ambulances.


Lead elements of General John A. Logan’s XV Corps (totaling fifteen thousand troops) arrived on the battlefield around noon; their ranks deployed opposite Hoke’s division along Sam Howell Branch. An additional eleven thousand men, General Francis P. Blair’s XVII Corps, followed closely behind, bolstering the Union right flank to the northeast. Johnston desperately rearranged his field units around Mill Creek Bridge—the only viable route of retreat—to address the growing Federal presence. Opportunistic Union commands, namely Lieutenant Colonel George W. Grummond’s 14th Michigan Infantry Regiment, aggressively seized abandoned Confederate earthworks during Johnston’s tactical withdrawal, notwithstanding Sherman’s direct order to avoid a full-scale assault. Grummond prodded down Goldsboro Road, encountering D.H. Hill’s reformed defenses in the early afternoon. Heavy skirmishing followed for several hours. Union casualties rapidly accumulated under concentrated artillery, forcing Grummond to abandon his impulsive operation.


By evening, nearly sixty thousand Union soldiers were present against Johnston’s eighteen thousand effectives. Though heavily outnumbered, the Confederates were well-entrenched. Johnston hoped Sherman would be reckless enough to hazard a frontal assault—one that would surely result in tremendous Union casualties—but no such encounter materialized. Given the disparity in manpower, Sherman was convinced that Johnston would simply retreat overnight and avoid any further bloodshed.


THE BATTLE OF BENTONVILLE – MARCH 21, 1865


“My men buried 26 dead rebels in our front…Found a dead boy laying close by a dead officer, supposed it

was his father. We could only dig the depth of a spade and water would fill up the ditch…[We] covered

them as best we could.”

 – Lieutenant Colonel Allen L. Fahnestock, 86th Illinois Infantry


Much to Sherman’s chagrin, Johnston’s stubborn Confederate army remained firmly entrenched the following morning. Sporadic skirmishing resumed as a driving rain soaked the battlefield. That afternoon, Major General Joseph A. Mower, whose XVII Corps division anchored the far Union right flank, requested permission from General Blair to launch “a little reconnaissance” north of his position. Mower received approval and swiftly maneuvered two brigades around the Confederate left, discovering sparse defenses near Mill Creek Bridge. Sensing an advantageous opportunity, Mower escalated his scouting mission to a full-scale attack. At 4:00 pm, Federal troops assailed the weak rebel flank with overwhelming force, scattering Johnston and his staff from their nearby headquarters. While the surprise attack was initially successful, Mower’s maneuver left him dangerously isolated, nearly a mile from any support.


With his only evacuation route in jeopardy, Johnston hastened Hardee’s command to strengthen the left flank. At the same time, Confederate reinforcements arrived from Smithfield —one thousand soldiers under General Frank Cheatham—and delivered stiff resistance against Mower’s audacious assault. With daylight waning, Hardee personally directed a violent counterattack that stymied Mower’s offensive and saved Mill Creek Bridge from capture; however, this decisive action came at a great personal cost to the general, whose only son, sixteen-year-old Willie, was mortally wounded while charging with the Eight Texas Cavalry.


Sherman was furious over Mower’s improvisational belligerence. Fearing a renewed general engagement, the Union commander ordered portions of the XVII and XV Corps across Sam Howell Branch to engage Confederate lines and take pressure off of Mower’s recalled division. Fierce firefights developed, inflicting heavy casualties on both sides, but the determined rebels maintained their positions against overwhelming odds through the battle’s end.



Although Johnston’s Southerners had achieved early success at Bentonville, they were unable to capitalize against the full weight of Sherman’s Military Division. Surrounded on three sides and lacking the advantage of surprise, the Confederates conducted an overnight retreat to Smithfield, destroying Mill Creek Bridge in the process. The Union army failed to detect the Confederate withdrawal until it was over. The Battle of Bentonville resulted in 4,133 combined casualties—Confederates losses numbered 239 killed, 1,694 wounded, and 673 missing while the Federals sustained 194 killed, 1,112 wounded, and 221 missing.


On March 23, after having reorganized his shattered army, Johnston delivered a despondent telegram to General Robert E. Lee: “Sherman’s course cannot be hindered by the small force I have. I can do no more than annoy him. I respectfully suggest that it is no longer a question whether you leave your present position; you have only to decide where to meet Sherman. I will be near him.” On April 9, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, leaving Johnston’s command susceptible to a combined Union offensive. Seeing the futility of further resistance, Johnston surrendered to Sherman on April 26, 1865, at Bennett Place near Durham.  


In 1867, the Union dead around Bentonville Battlefield were reinterred at Raleigh National Cemetery while Confederate soldiers remained buried beneath inconspicuous gravesites. In 1894, the Goldsboro Rifles, a former Confederate militia group, erected an obelisk-style monument to commemorate their fallen comrades. The memorial—which identifies a mass grave containing 360 unknown rebel soldiers—was officially dedicated on March 20, 1895, by former Confederate general and South Carolina governor Wade Hampton.


BENTONVILLE BATTLEFIELD STATE HISTORIC SITE


Today, more than two thousand acres of Bentonville’s battleground have been preserved by the American Battlefield Trust and North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. This often overlooked State Historic Site and National Historic Landmark features original fieldworks, eight miles of hiking trails, and a ten-mile driving tour.


The Bentonville Driving Tour begins at Harper Farm (c. 1855)—commandeered as a XIV Corps field hospital during the battle. More than five hundred Union and several dozen Confederate soldiers were treated here while nine members of the Harper family remained sequestered on the second floor. After the battle, the Federals transported their wounded to Goldsboro and paroled rebel convalescents left in the Harpers’ care. At least twenty wounded Confederates subsequently died and were buried in the family cemetery.


The driving tour continues down Mill Creek Church Road to the Michigan Engineer Trenches. On March 19, 1865, members of the 1st Michigan Engineers established these fieldworks for Major General Alpheaus William’s XX Corps—an extraordinary assignment considering engineers were rarely utilized for frontline defense strategy. Circling back to Harper House Road, the tour route proceeds to Morris Farm. This is the area where Taliaferro’s division clashed with Robinson’s XX Corps Brigade and massed Union artillery, resulting in considerable Confederate casualties.



The next several stops revolve around Cole’s Plantation—the staging ground for the “Last Grand Charge” of the Confederacy. The Battle of Acorn Run (Stop D) marks the dissolution of Carlin’s division, senselessly shattered during the Army of Tennessee’s initial advance. Further to the east lies “The Bullpen”—a swampy terrain where General James D. Morgan’s division tangled with Hoke’s command in bloody close-quarters combat. Behind feeble fieldworks, Morgan’s men miraculously maintained their positions before being relieved by Cogswell’s XX Corps brigade.


At the intersection of Bass and Harper House Roads stands a monument dedicated to the North Carolina Junior Reserves—a corps command composed entirely of Southern juveniles ages sixteen to eighteen years. Assigned to Hoke’s division, the Junior Reserves held the Confederate center along Sam Howell Branch and valiantly repulsed Union skirmishers during the waning hours of battle. The tour continues towards Flowers’ Crossroads—the approximate area where the Wings of Slocum and Howard combined on March 20, 1865. As Union forces extended their lines to the northeast, General Sherman established his field headquarters at Stevens’ Farm (Stop I).


The final two tour stops—“Union Breakthrough” and  “Confederate Counterattack”—are located at the northern end of the battlefield. This is the location where General Mower’s division clashed with the Confederate rearguard, pressing Johnston from his headquarters and threatening Mill Creek Bridge. Only a timely counterattack from General Hardee saved Johnston’s avenue of retreat.


The Battle of Bentonville was the largest engagement ever fought in North Carolina and last major Confederate offensive of the Civil War; however, its significance remains largely unrecognized—often obscured by Lee’s surrender and Lincoln’s assassination the following month. The inability of Johnston’s army to decisively defeat Sherman all but ensured the imminent destruction of the Confederacy.



For more information on the Battle of Bentonville, visit North Carolina Historic Sites and American Battlefield Trust

Click THIS LINK for the Bentonville Battlefield Driving Tour

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