battle of bentonville
photograph by David Stanley

Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s massive army streams across the Cape Fear River at Fayetteville on pontoon bridges, and surges in two muscular columns northeast, threatening Raleigh to the north and the Goldsboro railroad nexus to the northeast. Sherman’s force of 4,400 cavalry and nearly 59,000 infantry seems unstoppable.

It falls to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to stop it.

He is 58 years old, of slight stature, his high forehead crowned with thinning gray hair. He favors side whiskers and a wispy goatee. He is naturally reticent, even aloof, but his gray eyes can suddenly light up with humor. He pursues any objective with single-minded intensity. He does not like to lose.

Many of his fellow officers consider him the best fighting soldier of his generation.

But two flaws of character sabotage his career. He is often prickly and irritable, and he is oversensitive about matters of personal honor.

At the outbreak of the war, Johnston resigns his commission as Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army to fight for the Confederacy. At First Manassas, he commands the Confederate forces as the highest-ranking officer in the army. Then President Jefferson Davis reorganizes the high command, demoting Johnston to fourth in rank.

He takes this as the gravest insult to his honor and enters a feud with Davis that comes to a head after he is wounded in the chest by a shell fragment at Seven Pines. When Johnston recuperates, he’s posted to the western outlands of the war, far from Richmond.

But now, with General Lee’s army surrounded in Virginia and so many other generals dead or incapacitated, old feuds matter less than fighting spirit and competence.

Johnston faces the ultimate test of his generalship: to defeat a well-equipped, seasoned army almost three times as large as his own. His only advantage is the cavalry — three divisions under Maj. Gen. “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler and a fourth under Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton — all thoroughly battle-tested and superior in numbers to the U.S. cavalry under Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick.

Johnston’s only chance for victory is to force one of Sherman’s columns into battle separately on prepared ground — and to do this before the other two Union armies in New Bern and Wilmington can link up with Sherman. “I will not give battle with Sherman’s united army,” he advises Lee, “but will if I can find it divided.”

But all of Johnston’s forces aren’t assembled yet. Not knowing whether Sherman is aiming for Raleigh or Goldsboro, he intends to unite his troops at Smithfield, halfway between the two cities: Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division under Gen. Braxton Bragg; the ragged remnants of the Army of Tennessee; Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s mixed column of coastal artillery and garrison units from Charleston, some 6,000 men armed with obsolete muskets; and the horse troopers. Altogether, about 20,000 fighting men.

Attempting to break the Union line

On March 6th, General Bragg’s force of nearly 12,500 is deployed to hold off a Union advance of 13,000 infantry marching from New Bern under Maj. Gen. Jacob D. Cox. At Wyse Fork near Kinston, the Confederates battle doggedly for three days, mounting a series of fierce assaults on the Federals.

But they cannot break the Union line, and Bragg once more retreats.

Now that Sherman knows the enemy lies in wait somewhere ahead, he breaks out four divisions from each wing to march without supply trains, ready for battle at a moment’s notice. But he doesn’t want to fight in North Carolina if he can avoid doing so — his objective is to link the armies and provide Gen. Ulysses S. Grant with overwhelming force in Virginia.

Sherman’s columns continue to move fast, and on March 15th, Kilpatrick’s cavalry catches Hardee’s troops four miles south of Averasboro. Hardee’s orders are to hold up Sherman’s advance long enough for Johnston to unite and position his army.

The first skirmish is inconclusive, and both sides entrench, waiting for dawn. “Hardee is ahead of me and shows fight,” General Sherman records. “I will go at him in the morning with four divisions and push him as far as Averasborough before turning [east] toward Bentonville.”

Hardee’s troops occupy the boggy bottleneck between the Cape Fear and Black rivers, blocking the Raleigh Road, and Sherman wants that road.

On the rainy morning of March 16th, over sodden ground, the blue troops attack. Almost by accident, Col. Henry Case, leading the Union 20th Brigade through dense woods, emerges on the Confederate right flank and turns the tide. One bluecoat writes, “The Johnnies showed their heels as fast as God would let them.”

Only the sudden arrival of General Wheeler’s cavalry stems the Confederate rout, and again the two armies dig in for the night. But as the Union commanders lay their battle plans, Hardee’s troops quietly abandon their line and night-march to link up with the rest of Johnston’s force.

Making a stand

Wrongly believing that Sherman’s two columns are separated by at least a day’s march, Johnston plans to make his stand at Bentonville.

First to arrive at the rendezvous point is the division commanded by General Hoke, a 27-year-old North Carolinian: five brigades, fielding regiments from South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina — including 1,000 teenage Junior Reserves and soldiers who escaped Fort Fisher.

Next on the field is the Army of Tennessee — hardly an army at all, since it numbers only 4,500 men. They are filthy and exhausted, and even their old commander, Lt. Gen. John Bell Hood, believes the fight has gone out of them. But at least one young infantryman holds different. He writes in his diary, “Our army in high spirits and ready to brave the coming storm.”

Hardee’s troops are still a ways off, and the cavalry, meanwhile, is scouting and preparing to screen Johnston’s army as it deploys in an attempt to ambush Sherman’s advancing left wing. Hampton positions his cavalry at the house of Willis Cole, a couple of miles south of Bentonville at the junction of the Averasboro-Goldsboro and Smithfield-Clinton roads.

The cavalry and Hoke’s brigades will block the Union columns, forcing them to form into lines of battle, then goad them to attack a carefully chosen, entrenched position. When that attack fails and the enemy is reeling, the brigades will counterattack hard and drive them off.

The Goldsboro Road, running east to west, defines the battlefield. To the north, the Confederates deploy on elevated ground with down-sloping open fields of fire across the Cole farm. South of the road, the country turns boggy and nearly impassable, a swampy blackjack oak thicket.

Hoke’s division blocking the road east is the anvil. On it will swing the Army of Tennessee, deployed in an arc north and west.

A dawn attack

Having scarcely rested at all, Hardee’s corps begins its six-mile march at 3 a.m. in pitch darkness to be on the scene by dawn — the hour of the attack.

As the Army of Tennessee moves into battle lines at daybreak on Sunday, March 19, Johnston can be spied “sitting on his horse … with head uncovered, bowing to the small remnant of the noble army.” The sky is clear, and it promises to be a beautiful spring day.

The first Union skirmishers advance across the field blindly, squarely into the center of the Confederate line, and at a distance of 40 yards, the 42nd Georgia rises up as one man, and “a sheet of fire blazed,” withering the Yankee line.

General Sherman charges through Johnston County with his Union army and defeats the Confederate 1st Division, 17th Corps, led by General Mower in the Battle of Bentonville, March 20, 1865. Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

General Sherman charges through Johnston County with his Union army and defeats the Confederate 1st Division, 17th Corps, led by General Mower in the Battle of Bentonville, March 20, 1865. Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

Meantime, up the Goldsboro Road, more blue troops feel their way through the swamps and along the cleared northern edge in a series of sustained attacks, each harder than the last. General Bragg, Hoke’s commander in the Department of North Carolina, fears a breakthrough and pleads with Johnston to send reinforcements. Johnston concedes and dispatches Hardee’s strongest division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, to aid Hoke.

Johnston lives to regret taking counsel of Bragg’s fears. He later writes to Hoke, “I believe that Genl Bragg’s nervousness when you were first attacked at Bentonville, was very injurious — by producing urgent applications for help — which not only made delay, but put a large division out of position.”

The anvil has been strengthened, but the hammer is now much weaker — and this is exactly the moment to strike. The Federals are in disarray, caught in the open fields and flung back from the stubborn regiments firing down on them. This is the opportune moment to swing the hammer into their flanks and trap them against Hoke’s division.

But instead, the Confederates stand fast, and the blue troops attack uphill yet again. And a Confederate deserter helps to change the fate of the armies. He is a young soldier from Syracuse, who crosses into Union lines with two fellow Northerners, “galvanized Yankees” who chose to enlist in the Confederate Army after capture to avoid prison.

The soldier demands to see Maj. Gen. William P. Carlin, commander of the 1st Division, which made the attack. He claims that Johnston’s whole army is arrayed on their front, preparing to swoop down and destroy them. In an odd coincidence of war, one of Carlin’s staff officers recognizes his old neighbor from New York and vouches for his character.

The intelligence travels up the line, and now the Federals dig in hard, throwing fresh regiments into the line while Sherman orders reinforcements from Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard’s right wing, only six miles away.

Johnston at last orders a massive counterattack. At 3:15 p.m., the Army of Tennessee steps off in two lines, in a chorus of keening rebel yells. Officers “led the charge on horseback … with colors flying and line of battle in such perfect order … it looked like a picture.”

The attack breaks the line and drives off Brig. Gen. George P. Buell’s 2nd Brigade, along with General Carlin’s command and three additional brigades.

The Federals fall back through the trees in confusion, even as reinforcements try to move through them to the front. One soldier reports that he “saw the rebel regiments in front in full view, stretching through the fields to the left as far as the eye could reach, advancing rapidly, and firing as they came.”

Blue and gray collide

Now the North Carolinians join the attack down the Goldsboro Road, catching the Yankees in a crossfire.

Before long, the Confederates sweep the bluecoats beyond the Goldsboro Road into the blackjack thickets, where reserve troops are building breastworks. One recalls, “Just as we had got a few rails piled up, the whole 14th corps broke pannick stricken, throwing away guns, knapsacks & everything and all running like a flock of sheeps.”

But a stubborn contingent under Brig. Gen. James Dada Morgan, a 54-year-old Boston Yankee, takes the field. He is a deliberate, independent-minded officer, beloved by his men. Morgan deploys his 2nd Division at the crossroads.

One Union officer reports, “Just as we passed the underbrush Morgan’s men were swinging into line with all the precision of a dress parade. Morgan always went into battle in that way.”

Morgan calls up a reserve brigade to strengthen his position, deploys scouts, orders his men to dig in deep. In less than an hour, log and dirt breastworks are thrown up, trees axed into abatis to stop advancing troops.

When the center and left collapse under the furious Confederate onslaught, one of Morgan’s brigades is ordered to plug the gap, leaving him with just two brigades to hold the crossroads. The Confederate attack surges around and past them as they collapse into an elongated square, a rock in the maelstrom.

Six times Hoke’s North Carolinians throw themselves into Morgan’s brigades, whose rifles are so hot they can barely hold them.

One of General Morgan’s brigades, led by Maj. Gen. John Grant Mitchell, is completely surrounded, his troopers repeatedly crossing and recrossing their own breastworks to fire at the enemy. Nearly out of cartridges, they fix bayonets. Pvt. William C. Robinson writes his father, “Some Jump the Works and Hand to Hand Fight with the Rebs. Many of the Rebs are Dressed in Our Blue Clothes which Deceive us … Bloody garments and bloody men strewed the ground.”

But Morgan’s brigades hold fast.

And six batteries of Union guns, hastily emplaced across the Goldsboro Road, pour havoc into the onrushing Confederates as they come out onto the road, at last breaking their momentum.

Meanwhile, a brigade under 26-year-old Col. William Cogswell rushes to the front from his position guarding the supply train. Cogswell’s regiments emerge from the dense woods and take the Confederates by surprise.

The fighting goes on until 8:30 p.m., and the weary survivors plug their ears against the moans and cries of the wounded lying scattered across the field.

The fighting is renewed on Monday, but the only outcome is more slaughter.

On Tuesday, the rain that has dogged Sherman’s march from Savannah returns as a steady downpour. He concentrates his forces and prepares for an all-out battle he does not want.

Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s right wing deploys from the east, nearly behind the lines of Hoke’s division, and the troops dig in, some occupying rifle pits dug by their enemies, in driving rain. Determined attacks push the rebels back half a mile or more. By 4 in the afternoon, the lines have stabilized.

But Sherman’s favorite subordinate general, Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower, strikes out on his own. Leading two brigades, he punches through the thin left line of Johnston’s army, penetrates all the way to his headquarters, and threatens to capture the lone bridge across Mill Creek — Johnston’s single avenue of retreat.

Hardee gathers a force of cavalry and assorted infantry, including the 8th Texas “Rangers.” They counterattack Mower’s brigades and drive them back in a glorious and deadly charge.

All through the night, Johnston’s army retreats across the Mill Creek Bridge — artillery, supply train, infantry, and cavalry in the rearguard.

The battle has ranged over 6,000 acres of farm, woods, and swamp, leaving wreckage, burned-out woods and homes, scores of dead mules and horses, and hundreds of corpses. Some 4,000 men have been killed or wounded or have gone missing in action — in a battle neither general really wanted to fight.

The farmhouse of John and Amy Harper is turned into a field hospital. Col. William Hamilton of the 9th Ohio Cavalry describes the 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. The legs of infantrymen could be distinguished from those of the cavalry by the size of their calves, as the march of 1,000 miles had increased the size of the one and diminished the size of the other.”

Sherman doesn’t pursue Johnston but pushes on toward Goldsboro. Union victory is now inevitable. At Goldsboro, the finish line of his 450-mile final march, he joins Generals Schofield and Terry and now commands an army of nearly 90,000 men.

Just weeks before, in Charlotte, Mary Boykin Chesnut observed Lt. Gen. Stephen D. Lee’s corps heading off to battle with the ragged Army of Tennessee: “There they go, the gay and gallant few, doomed; the last gathering of the flower of Southern pride, to be killed, or worse, to a prison. They continue to prance by, light and jaunty. They march with as airy a tread as if they still believed the world was all on their side, and that there were no Yankee bullets for the unwary. What will Joe Johnston do with them now?”

After Bentonville, what indeed?

Philip Gerard is an author and a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. He is also a commentator on WHQR-FM (91.3). Find his archived stories here. This story appeared in print as “Johnston’s Last Stand.” 

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Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.