The Battle of Bentonville
"A Bold and Unexpected Attack"
by Mark A. Moore
Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman
s 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 armies.
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.
Gen. Joseph E. Johnston
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.
As 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."
Gen. Robert E. Lee
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
Gen. Braxton Bragg
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
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
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
Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton
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
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."
Gen. Judson Kilpatrick
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
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.
Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum
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.
Brig. Gen. William P. Carlin
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
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."
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
Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee
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
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.
Union artillery in action on the Morris Farm, late afternoon, March 19, 1865 Battle of Bentonville (Harper's Weekly)
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 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 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.
Mower's Union troops attack the Confederate left flank, March 21, 1865 Battle of Bentonville (Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
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.
Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower
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.
From Hallowed Ground
magazine. Vol. 4, No. 3 (Fall 2003). Published by the Civil War Preservation Trust.
Timeline for the Carolinas Campaign
Tour the Battlefield at Bentonville:
Battlefield Driving Tour
Historic Site, Tour Stops, Roadside Exhibits, Civil War Trails Signs, Highway Historical Markers, and Points of Interest. ZOOM FOR DETAIL - 5 MB.(PDF) Key to Highway Historical Markers
Cole's Plantation Tour Stop
Terrain with troop position overlays. Action: main Confederate attack, defeat of Carlin's Union division, and Fearing's Union counterattack. 2:45-3:45 p.m., March 19, 1865. ZOOM FOR DETAIL - 10 MB.(PDF)
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