In December 1864, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered Major General William T. Sherman to transport his forces by sea from Savannah, Georgia to reinforce the Army of the Potomac outside of Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia. Sherman, however, had other ideas. Rather than traveling by ship, he proposed marching his army north through the Carolinas to reach Virginia. Sherman believed that his plan would cut off supplies and reduce any remaining hopes for reinforcement of General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from the south. At the same time, a march through the Carolinas would further demoralize Southerners, much as the Sherman’s March to the Sea had done. Grant endorsed Sherman’s request, and in a dispatch dated December 27, 1864, he instructed Sherman, “Without waiting further directions, then, you may make your preparations to start on your northern expedition without delay. Break up the railroads in South and North Carolina, and join the armies operating against Richmond as soon as you can.” On February 1, 1865, Sherman led nearly 60,000 battle-hardened veterans out of Savannah in two wings toward Columbia, South Carolina.
Lee Becomes General-in-Chief
The prospect of Sherman marching his armies north from Savannah and punishing the Carolinas as he had Georgia, prompted many Southerners to question the competency of President Jefferson Davis as commander-in-chief of Confederate forces. Opposition to Davis’ leadership reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865, when the Confederation Congress enacted legislation creating the post of General-in-Chief of Confederate forces. The same bill contained a resolution stating “That if the President will assign Gen. JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON to the command of the Army of Tennessee, it will, in the opinion of the Congress of the Confederate States, be hailed with joy by the army and receive the approval of the country.”
With no recourse available, in late January 1865 Davis nominated Lee for the position of General-in-Chief. On February 1, (the same day that Sherman left Savannah) Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General (CSA) informed Lee that the Confederate Senate had confirmed his appointment. On February 6, Cooper issued General Orders, No. 3 announcing that Lee was officially General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies.
Lee Orders Johnston to Stop Sherman
As Sherman moved north nearly unabated, alarmed Southerners called for Lee to stop the Union marauders. Lee redeployed the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, which Federal troops had decimated during the Franklin-Nashville Campaign, to bolster the Confederate forces in the Carolinas. On February 22, 1865, the General-in-Chief ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to “Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.” Lee also ordered Johnston to “Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” On the same day, Johnston advised Lee that “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman. The remnant of the Army of Tennessee is much divided.”
Johnston’s assessment was correct. On March 6, 1865, Confederate officials added the Department of Southern Virginia to Johnston’s command. The general designated the 20,000 to 25,000 men serving under him in North Carolina as the Army of the South. In reality, Johnston’s army was a paper tiger, as he commanded few fit soldiers.
Battle of Averasboro
Johnston began gathering his forces near Smithville, North Carolina in early March 1865. On March 16, 1865, the Union’s Major General Henry W. Slocum and his Army of Georgia, which comprised Sherman’s left-wing, attacked Johnston’s entrenched Rebels north of nearby Averasboro, North Carolina. Slocum’s soldiers flanked the Confederates, forcing them to withdraw to a second defensive line. The Grey Coats made a brief stand at the second line before falling back to their third and final line of defense. Despite several Union assaults, the Confederates held their position until nightfall and then withdrew to Bentonville under the cover of darkness.
Battle of Bentonville
Outnumbered nearly three-to-one, Johnston determined that his best chance to stop Sherman’s advancing juggernaut was to attack Slocum’s army before Sherman’s two wings merged and rendezvoused at Goldsboro with Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio (23rd Army Corps), which was invading from the north. On March 19, 1865, Johnston entrenched his army at Cole’s Plantation, on the Goldsboro Road, blocking the path of Slocum’s advancing left-wing. That afternoon, Johnston launched an assault on the Federals, forcing them to fall back temporarily. By nightfall, Slocum’s men checked the Rebel advance, and the first day of fighting at the Battle of Bentonville ended in a stalemate.
During the night, as Johnston withdrew and reestablished his lines, Sherman bolstered Slocum’s army with reinforcements from his right-wing. Fighting was light on March 20, as Johnston gradually conceded his gains from the previous day. On March 21, the action escalated as Johnston bought time for a full-scale evacuation during the night.
On the following day, Sherman pursued only briefly, preferring instead to delay a major confrontation with Johnston until unifying his forces at Goldsboro. To prepare for Sherman’s advance, Johnston streamlined his command between April 8 and April 10. He merged depleted regiments, brigades, and divisions to form three corps commanded by William J. Hardee, Alexander P. Stewart, and Stephen D. Lee. Johnston also relieved Braxton Bragg, Lafayette McLaws, and William B. Taliaferro of their commands. The reorganized force resumed using the name Army of Tennessee, thus ending the existence of the Army of the South.