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 his 60,000 men, 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.
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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 small, 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 by the Confederate main assault.
Thousands of Confederates of both Hardee and Stewart’s Corps slammed into the Union XIV and XX Corps of Sherman’s left wing. The assaults only fell apart as the result of quick thinking Union officers, who massed Federal artillery to provide a barrage into the faces of the oncoming Confederate forces. 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.
The main Confederate line, a hook-shaped line designed to entrap Slocum’s left wing, was established by the early morning of March 19. The sector held by Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s Confederate division, including units from the North Carolina Junior Reserves stood across the Goldsboro Road. Hoke launched several assaults on the XIV and XX Corps throughout the morning, but by the late evening was forced to withdraw from its works. On March 20, the Confederates reestablished a second line of works, parallel with the Goldsboro Road, nearly 500 yards north.
Known as the “seed corn of the Confederacy,” eight battalions of North Carolina Junior Reserves (boys 17 to 18 years old) were created in the summer of 1864. The Junior Reserves saw action at Weldon, Fort Fisher, and Wyse Fork. At Bentonville, three regiments and a battalion of junior reserves served alongside Hoke’s division. Joined by two Confederate artillery batteries, the young men helped blunt the first Union assault led by Brig. Gen. William P. Carlin’s division on March 19. Even though Bentonville was their first real engagement, the youngsters fought well. The Junior Reserves, assigned to Hoke’s Division, numbered nearly 1,000 muskets in the field.
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. After having received constant sniper fire from the Cole Farmhouse, located in the geographical center of the fighting, Confederate forces rushed forward and burned the house to the ground. Its burned shell stood for the remainder of the engagement. The following day, Gen. Mower launched an unauthorized but quite effective assault on the Confederate forces before being ordered to retire.
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.
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