For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the fifth installment of the series.
March 19-21, 1865: Battle of Bentonville
The Battle of Bentonville, from March 19-21, 1865, was the last large-scale engagement of the war for Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the South, a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stop the much larger Union army under William Tecumseh Sherman from advancing north, where he intended to join forces with the Army of the Potomac under Ulysses S. Grant. The Confederates fought valiantly and won some tactical victories but in the end they were simply outnumbered, reflecting the huge imbalance in manpower and materiel that would soon decide the war.
After laying waste to South Carolina, Sherman’s army of around 60,000 men marched northeast into North Carolina, where he ordered his troops not to loot and burn property, since many locals disliked the Confederacy and he hoped to win them over (although they would still have to forage, meaning requisitioning food from inhabitants, generally without payment). Meanwhile another Union force of around 20,000 men under John Schofield captured Wilmington on February 22, 1865 and then headed inland, with orders to join up with Sherman’s army in the eastern part of the state.
With fewer than 20,000 men in the ragged but proud Army of the South, Johnston knew his only chance of defeating Sherman, or even slowing his advance, was to attack before Schofield arrived at the nearby rail hub of Goldsboro, giving Sherman an overwhelming advantage. After concentrating his forces in Smithfield, North Carolina, about 20 miles southeast of Raleigh, Johnston decided to attack Sherman’s left flank, under the command of Henry W. Slocum, which was relatively isolated from the rest of the army as it approached the town of Bentonville; this held out the possibility of defeating the different parts of Sherman’s larger force “in detail,” or one at a time.
At first Johnston’s plan met with great success on the first day of the battle, as the Confederate sprang a trap on Slocum’s forces, which fell back in disorder before finally managing to take up strong defensive positions towards nightfall. The battle raged through one of the state’s famous pine forests, with predictable consequences for the dry, highly flammable trees. One Confederate, A.P. Harcourt, described the battlefield.
The battle… for the most part in a dense pine and turpentine forest. After the first day’s firing this forest got on fire and at night, the scene beggars description, as lurid flames, fed by the rosin on the trees, would shoot up into the sky and suddenly drop back like so many tongues, while underneath the wounded moaned piteously for help or struggle to escape roasting alive.
Indeed Johnston’s initial success came at a considerable price, as his small force suffered 2,462 casualties – dead, wounded and missing – including a fifth of the beleaguered Army of Tennessee. Another Confederate soldier, Arthur Peronneau Ford, recounted the bloody scenes as his unit approached the fighting:
We reached Bentonville at about 3 o'clock p. m., only a short time after the battle had begun, and as we marched hurriedly along the road in the direction of the firing we passed a number of wounded men coming to the rear; and then several operating tables on both sides of the road, some with wounded men stretched on them with the surgeons at work, and all of them with several bloody amputated legs and arms thrown alongside on the grass.
On the other side Union colonel William Hamilton described a virtually identical scene: “A dozen surgeons and attendants in their shirt sleeves stood at rude benches cutting off arms and legs and throwing them out of the windows, where they lay scattered on the grass.”
Although the Confederates had succeeded in driving Slocum’s Union forces back, reinforcements didn’t arrive in time to continue the assault, due in part to communications failures, and Johnston ended up withdrawing his troops to their original starting point, where they took up strong defensive positions in a rough “V” shape facing south. He hoped to provoke Sherman into attacking hastily, allowing the dug-in Confederates to inflict heavy losses – but Sherman didn’t fall for the trap.
There was little fighting the next day, March 20, but the tide of battle nonetheless gradually turned against the Confederates as Sherman ordered his right wing under Oliver Howard forward to threaten Johnston’s flank and take the pressure off Slocum; Sherman also ordered Schofield to hurry his troops to Goldsboro, allowing him to threaten Johnston from the rear. As these forces came into alignment, Johnston found himself threatened with encirclement.
After a rainy night, on the morning of March 21 the Union forces continued digging themselves in, while both sides sent out skirmishing squads to test their foe’s defenses and try to determine their intentions. This continued until the late afternoon, when Union corps commander Francis Preston Blair Jr. authorized a reconnaissance in force by Joseph A. Mower on the extreme right wing; Mower interpreted these orders liberally and led two brigades in a surprise attack on Johnston’s rear, which threatened to cut off Johnston’s only line of retreat, completing the encirclement. However Sherman ordered Mower to break off his impromptu attack, and Johnston was able to withdraw that night; Sherman later admitted this was a mistake, as he might have been able to defeat Johnston and shorten the war considerably. On the other hand the defeat at Bentonville further demoralized the Confederate troops. A Union soldier, Theodore Upson, summed up the situation: “I should think those fool Johnnys would quit. They might as well try to stop a tornado as Uncle Billy [Sherman] and his boys.”
For his part, on March 23 Johnston warned Robert E. Lee that there was nothing he could do to stop Sherman, whose army now numbered over 80,000 with the arrival of Schofield’s troops and other reinforcements. Johnston’s message to the Confederate general-in-chief was fatalistic: “I can do no more than annoy him. I respectfully suggest that it is no longer a question whether you leave present position; you have only to decide where to meet Sherman. I will be near him.”
In short Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, hanging on desperately at the Siege of Petersburg, was now on its own. Lee would have to break out of the siege on his own, before Sherman arrived, or face certain defeat.