Battle of Bentonville

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Battle of Bentonville
North Carolina Civil War History

Battle of Bentonville
Battle of Bentonville.jpg
General Joe Johnston

Battle of Bentonville
General William T. Sherman.jpg
General William T. Sherman

Battle of Bentonville

Other Names: Bentonsville; Battle of Bentonville House, Battle of Bentonville Place

Location: Johnston County

Campaign: Campaign of the Carolinas (February-April 1865)

Date(s): March 19-21, 1865

Principal Commanders: Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum [US]; Gen. Joseph E. Johnston [CS]

Forces Engaged: Sherman’s Right Wing (XX and XIV Corps) [US]; Johnston's Army [CS]

Estimated Casualties: 4,133 total (1,527 US; 2,606 CS)

Result(s): Union victory

Summary: While Slocum’s advance was stalled at Averasborough (aka Averasboro) by Hardee’s troops, the right wing of Sherman’s army under command of Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard marched toward Goldsborough (present-day Goldsboro). On March 19, Slocum encountered the entrenched Confederates of Gen. Joseph E. Johnston who had concentrated to meet his advance at Bentonville. Late afternoon, Johnston attacked, crushing the line of the XIV Corps. Only strong counterattacks and desperate fighting south of the Goldsborough Road blunted the Confederate offensive. Elements of the XX Corps were thrown into the action as they arrived on the field. Five Confederate attacks failed to dislodge the Federal defenders and darkness ended the first day’s fighting. During the night, Johnston contracted his line into a “V” to protect his flanks with Mill Creek to his rear. On March 20, Slocum was heavily reinforced, but fighting was sporadic. Sherman was inclined to let Johnston retreat. On the 21st, however, Johnston remained in position while he removed his wounded. Skirmishing heated up along the entire front. In the afternoon, Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower led his Union division along a narrow trace that carried it across Mill Creek into Johnston’s rear. Confederate counterattacks stopped Mower’s advance, saving the army’s only line of communication and retreat. Mower withdrew, ending fighting for the day. During the night, Johnston retreated across the bridge at Bentonville. Union forces pursued at first light, driving back Wheeler’s rearguard and saving the bridge. Federal pursuit was halted at Hannah’s Creek after a severe skirmish. Sherman, after regrouping at Goldsborough, pursued Johnston toward Raleigh. On April 18, Johnston signed an armistice with Sherman at the Bennett House, and on April 26, formally surrendered his army.

Civil War Battle of Bentonville Map
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(Map) Battle of Bentonville Overview

Introduction: The Battle of Bentonville (March 19–21, 1865) was fought in Bentonville, North Carolina, near the town of Four Oaks, as part of the Carolinas Campaign of the American Civil War. It was the last battle to occur between the armies of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.

On the first day of the battle, the Confederate States Army attacked one Union Army flank and was able to rout two divisions, however did not manage to rout the rest of the army off the field. The next day, the other Federal flank arrived and for the next two days, the armies skirmished with each other before Johnston's army. As a result of the overwhelming enemy strength and the heavy casualties his army suffered in the battle, Johnston surrendered to Sherman little more than a month later at Bennett Place, near Durham Station. Coupled with Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender earlier in April, Johnston's surrender represented the effective end of the war.

Background: After the fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, during Sherman's March to the Sea, 60,000 Union soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched more than 1,000 miles through the South. By March 1865, they were in the middle of North Carolina, heading north with the intention of joining forces with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Grant's men, now besieging the Confederate capital of Richmond, were just 75 miles away. As part of his attempt to defend Richmond and nearby Petersburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee assigned Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to stop Sherman's forces from entering Virginia. In central North Carolina Johnston managed to piece together an army of 20,000 men. He maneuvered to take advantage of Sherman's decision to divide his army into two columns to increase its mobility.  

Following his March to the Sea, Sherman, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, turned his army northward through the Carolinas. The Union general in chief, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, had ordered Sherman to move his troops north to Virginia in order to battle the Army of Northern Virginia. However, Sherman argued that it would take too long to transport his troops there, and that his army could destroy Confederate supply lines to Petersburg and defeat Confederate forces by marching through the Carolinas. During the late winter and early spring of 1865, Sherman's army cut a swath of destruction through South Carolina. On March 8, Union soldiers crossed into North Carolina as Confederate units attempted to concentrate their forces to defeat the enemy during the march. Sherman divided his command into two parts, a Left Wing (the Army of Georgia) commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum and a Right Wing (the Army of the Tennessee) commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. The two wings marched separately toward Goldsboro beginning on March 13, with no one in the Union command expecting major resistance from Johnston.

On February 23, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee had ordered Johnston to take command of the Army of Tennessee and other Confederate units in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, and to "concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman." Johnston managed to concentrate in North Carolina the Army of Tennessee commanded by Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart, Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke's division from the Army of Northern Virginia, troops from the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida commanded by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, and cavalry under the command of Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, calling the united force the Army of the South. Confederate maps erroneously showed that the two Union wings were twelve miles apart, which meant each would take a day to reach the other. Johnston planned to concentrate his entire army to defeat Slocum's wing and to destroy its trains before it reunited with the rest of the Union column; the attack was planned for "as soon after dawn tomorrow [March 19] as possible".

Bentonville Battlefield Map
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Battle of Bentonville, Day 2

Civil War Bentonville Map
Civil War Bentonville Map.jpg
Battle of Bentonville, Day 1

Battle: The Confederate attack commenced on March 19, as Slocum's men marched on the Goldsboro Road, one mile south of Bentonville. Hoke's division under Bragg's command deployed on the Confederate left facing west, while Stewart's army deployed on the Confederate right facing south. Slocum was convinced he faced only enemy cavalry and artillery, not an entire army. In addition, Sherman did not believe that Johnston would fight with the Neuse River to his rear. Therefore, Slocum initially notified Sherman that he was facing only cursory resistance near Bentonville and did not require aid.
Believing he faced only cavalry, Slocum attempted to brush aside the Confederates by attacking with the 1st Division of Brig. Gen. William P. Carlin with support from the 3rd Division of Brig. Gen. Absalom Baird, both from the XIV Corps but this attack was driven back. Slocum then deployed his divisions in a defensive line, with Carlin's division on the left, Baird's division in the center, Brig. Gen. James D. Morgan's 2nd Division on the right, and a XX Corps division in support, in order to delay the Confederates long enough to allow the rest of his wing to arrive. None of the divisions, except for Morgan's, constructed strong breastworks, which were further compromised by a gap in the center of the Union line. Lafayette McLaws' division from Hardee's command was approaching the Confederate positions at the time of the Union attacks; due to Bragg's concern about a flanking attack on Hoke's left, McLaws was ordered to deploy on the Confederate left flank. About noon, Hardee arrived with the division of William B. Taliaferro, which was deployed behind the Army of Tennessee. Hardee was then placed in charge of the Confederate right wing.
At 3 p.m., Confederate infantry from the Army of Tennessee launched an attack and drove the Union left flank back in confusion, nearly capturing Carlin in the process and overrunning the XIV Corps field hospital. Confederates under Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill filled the vacuum left by the retreating Federals and began enfilading the Union troops remaining along the front. Morgan's division was nearly surrounded and was being attacked from three sides, but the Confederate attacks were uncoordinated and therefore unsuccessful in driving them from the position. Hardee, using Taliaferro's division and Bate's corps from the Army of Tennessee, attacked the Union positions near the Harper house but were repulsed after multiple assaults. McLaws arrived after Taliaferro and Bate were repulsed and attacked but was repulsed as well. After a heated engagement, Union reinforcements arrived and checked Hill's assault. Fighting continued after nightfall as the Confederates tried without success to drive back the Union line. About midnight, the Confederates withdrew to their original positions and started entrenching.
Slocum had called for aid from Sherman during the afternoon attacks, and Howard's wing arrived on the field late on the afternoon of March 20, deploying on Slocum's right flank and extending the Union line towards Mill Creek. Johnston responded to Howard's arrival by pulling back Hoke's division so it ran at a right angle to Stewart's left flank, and deploying one of Hardee's divisions on Hoke's left. Confederate cavalry protected the Confederate flank to Mill Creek in a weak skirmish line. Only light skirmishing occurred on this day. Johnston remained on the field, claiming that he stayed to remove his wounded, but perhaps also in hope of enticing Sherman to attack again, as had happened at Kennesaw Mountain.
On March 21, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower, commanding the division on the Union right flank, requested permission from his corps commander to launch a "little reconnaissance" to his front, which was granted. Mower instead launched an attack with two brigades on the Confederate left flank, which was defending Mill Creek Bridge. Mower's men managed to come within one mile of the crossing before Sherman peremptorily ordered them to pull back. In his memoirs, Sherman admitted that this was a mistake and that he missed an opportunity to end the campaign then and there, perhaps capturing Johnston's army entirely. Among the Confederate casualties was Hardee's 16-year-old son, Willie. Hardee had reluctantly allowed his son to attach himself to the 8th Texas Cavalry just hours before Mower's attack.

Civil War Battle of Bentonville Map
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Battle of Bentonville, day 3

Aftermath: During the night of March 21 until the following dawn, Johnston withdrew his army across Mill Creek and burned the bridge behind him, leaving behind a cavalry detachment as a rearguard. The Union army failed to detect the Confederate retreat until it was over. Sherman took little notice and did not pursue the Confederates, but continued his march to Goldsboro, where he joined the Union forces under Terry and Schofield. The Confederate army had failed in its last chance to achieve a decisive victory over the Union army in North Carolina.

Casualties: The three day Battle of Bentonville produced a total of 4,133 casualties. Union losses were 1,527, with 194 killed, 1,112 wounded, and 221 missing and captured. Confederate casualties totaled 2,606, with 239 killed, 1,694 wounded, and 673 missing and captured. Many of the wounded found themselves in a field hospital set up by Sherman's Fourteenth Army Corps. Its surgeons, searching for a safe location, chose the modest two-story farm home of John and Amy Harper, and wounded began streaming to this makeshift medical facility within minutes of its establishment a mile from the chaotic front lines. Throughout March 19 and 20, Federal surgeons at the Harper House treated a total of 554 men, both Union and Confederate. Without the benefit of antibiotics to stop infection, doctors amputated shattered arms and legs to prevent gangrene from claiming their patients' lives. Despite the screams of the wounded, the piles of severed limbs, and the stench of blood and chloroform (an anesthetic used by Union surgeons) that pervaded the Harper House, the family refused to leave their home during this time.

Analysis: Sherman was criticized after the war for not attacking and capturing most, if not all, of Johnston's army when he had the chance. According to his critics, this might have shortened the war by several weeks. Others (such as Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr.) suggest that he knew that the war was rapidly drawing to a close, and that any further bloodshed at that point was pointless. Once he joined with the Union forces at Goldsboro, he would vastly outnumber Johnston and would be able to "lever Johnston easily from any position he chose. North Carolina, indeed Virginia, would be his."

On the morning of March 19, just south of the town of Bentonville, Johnston attacked Sherman's Left Wing, which had fallen half a day behind the Right. Although this offensive made considerable progress, Union troops staged a resolute defense that afternoon to prevent a Confederate breakthrough. The other half of Sherman's army arrived the next afternoon, and the battle continued until Johnston withdrew from the field on the night of March 21. The three days of fighting involved more than 90,000 men and ranged across nearly 6,000 acres of land. General Johnston's attack, which took place just three weeks before General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, was the only major attempt to stop Sherman's army after Atlanta and the last Confederate offensive. See also Battle of Bentonville Homepage.

Sources: Civil War Preservation Trust (; National Park Service; Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies;  Barrett, John G. "Bentonville, North Carolina (NC020), Johnston County, March 19–21, 1865." In The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., edited by Francis Kennedy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998. ISBN 0-395-74012-6;  Bradley, Mark L. Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville. Campbell, California: Savas Publishing Co., 1995. ISBN 1-882810-02-3; Broadwater, Robert P. Battle of Despair: Bentonville and the North Carolina Campaign. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-86554-821-3; Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs, Jr. Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8078-2281-7; Luvaas, Jay. "Johnston's Last Stand — Bentonville." Undated pamphlet. Republished from North Carolina Historical Review 33, no. 3 (July 1956), 332–58.


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