north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
      During the winter and early spring of 1864-1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army wreaked destruction on Georgia and South Carolina. On March 8, his men entered North Carolina. Concerned with the ability to feed and supply a 60,000-man force, Sherman divided his army into two wings: the left, commanded by Major General Henry Slocum and the right commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. Both wings advanced in the direction of Goldsboro, as Confederate forces from across the region were cobbled together in an attempt to delay their progress.

      On the night of March 18, Sherman camped two miles west of Bentonville with the left wing of his army. The following morning, the left wing advanced east headed for Goldsboro. Sherman himself departed and joined his right wing under Howard, thus missing the first day’s engagement at the Battle of Bentonville.

      On March 19, at Bentonville a 30,000-man Confederate army led by General Joseph E. Johnston attacked the left wing of Sherman’s army. Johnston had been able to raise nearly 30,000 men from South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and eastern North Carolina. Slocum, initially not realizing that he faced an entire army, pushed forward, but was driven back throughout the afternoon. Soon, Confederates led by D. H. Hill were able to flank his men, pouring devastating fire upon Slocum’s troops. Johnston continued his assaults throughout the evening but pulled back upon realizing that the right wing of Sherman’s army soon would be arriving as reinforcements.

      One reason that the Confederate attacks stalled and faltered was the massing of several Union artillery batteries at the Morris farm. Over twenty Union guns, including Battery C, 1st Ohio Artillery and Battery M, 1st New York Artillery, opened a devastating barrage on the Confederate right wing, forcing them to halt their assault. The artillerymen cut their fuses short so that the exploding shells would have their maximum effect upon the advancing Confederates.

      On March 20, Howard’s wing, along with Sherman, arrived on the field. Only light skirmishing took place during the day as Johnston pulled back his left wing to protect his army’s avenue of escape over the Mill Creek bridge. The following day, Union forces under the command of Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower led an unauthorized assault on the Confederate left flank. Mower’s forces almost succeeded in taking the bridge but were called back by Sherman.

      During the night of March 21, Johnston pulled his army across Mill Creek and retreated, burning the bridge behind him. Although he had lost an opportunity to decisively defeat a wing of Sherman’s army, Sherman, by his own admission, had lost the chance to destroy Johnston’s forces by pulling back Mower’s troops. The Union Army, anxious to reach Goldsboro, did not pursue. Sherman’s army lost 304 killed in action, 1,112 wounded, and 221 missing. The Confederates lost 239 killed, 1,694 wounded, and 673 missing.

      The Battle of Bentonville was important because it was: 1) the only major Confederate attempt to stop Sherman after the Battle of Atlanta, August, 1864; 2) the last major Confederate offensive in which the Confederates chose the ground and made the initial attack; and 3) the largest battle ever fought on North Carolina soil.


References:
Mark L. Bradley, Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville (1996)
Mark A. Moore, Moore’s Historical Guide to the Battle of Bentonville (1997)
John G. Barrett, Sherman’s March through the Carolinas (1956)
Wilson Angley, Jerry L. Cross, and Michael Hill, Sherman’s March through North Carolina: A Chronology (1995)
Bentonville Battleground Website: http://www.nchistoricsites.org/Bentonvi/Bentonvi.HTM
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