Prelude to the Battle
On February 1, 1865, Union Major General William T. Sherman led 60,000 battle-hardened, veteran soldiers out of Savannah, Georgia, into South Carolina, starting his Carolinas Campaign. The previous December, Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant had given Sherman the following orders:
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.
As the march began, Sherman divided his forces into two wings. The Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard, was on the right (east) and the Army of Georgia, commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum, was on the left (west).
Sherman Captures Columbia, South Carolina
For the first six weeks of the march, inclement weather and rain-swollen swamps and rivers offered more obstacles to Sherman’s progress than the Confederacy could muster. It took the Federals only a little over two weeks to occupy and to neutralize the South Carolina capital of Columbia. On March 8, Sherman’s soldiers crossed into North Carolina, leaving behind them a path of destruction similar to the damage that they had inflicted upon Georgia during Sherman’s March to the Sea. Sherman’s next goal was Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he planned to join forces with Major General John M. Schofield’s Army of the Ohio, which was advancing west from Wilmington. The projected rendezvous would swell Sherman’s command to over 90,000 soldiers.
Change in Confederate Leadership
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 the leadership of Davis 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 Robert E. 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.
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 Union forces had decimated during the recent 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.” Further, Lee 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.
Johnston on the Offensive
Often characterized as a defensive general because of his performance during the Peninsula Campaign (1862) and the Atlanta Campaign (1864), Johnston went on the offensive and engaged Slocum’s Army of Georgia near Bentonville, North Carolina. Before he could do so, however, Johnston needed to slow Slocum’s progress long enough to organize his new command. The task of delaying the Northerners fell to Lieutenant General William J. Hardee.
Johnston ordered Hardee to deploy nearly 5,400 Confederate soldiers under his command along the Raleigh Plank Road south of the town of Averasboro. Hardee moved forward and established three sequential defensive lines, each anchored by the Cape Fear River on the west and the Black River to the east. The first two lines were manned by Major General William B. Taliaferro’s division, with A. M. Rhett’s Brigade in front, followed by Stephen Elliott’s Brigade. Major General Lafayette McLaws’ Division occupied the line to the rear.
Fighting at Averasboro
First Yankee Assault
On the afternoon of March 15, 1865, Major General Judson Kilpatrick’s Union cavalry advanced up the road and skirmished with Hardee’s lead elements before withdrawing and requesting infantry support. Just after midnight, Bluecoats began concentrating south of Hardee’s first line. At approximately 9 a.m., soldiers from two Union corps (14th and 20th) began advancing up the road toward Rhett’s brigade. Greatly outnumbered, Rhett’s men could not stem the Yankee assault, and they fell back to Elliot’s line.
Second Yankee Assault
At approximately 1 p.m., the Federals moved against Hardee’s second line. Once more the Yankees overwhelmed their adversaries and forced the Rebels to fall back. Bolstered by their success, the Bluecoats moved forward against the last Rebel line. Unlike the green troops who occupied the first two lines, McLaws’ battle-hardened veterans held their position.
Sherman Postpones Third Yankee Assault
As Sherman and Slocum prepared for a final assault on Hardee’s third line, steady rain that had fallen throughout the day turned into a downpour. The road and surrounding areas turned to mud, hampering troop movements. With nightfall approaching, Sherman postponed the impending attack until the next morning.
Overnight, Hardee abandoned his lines and withdrew to join General Johnston’s main force at Bentonville. Although the contest produced no clear victor, Hardee accomplished his task by hindering Slocum’s advance by nearly two days, thus buying Johnston time to concentrate troops for the Battle of Bentonville.
Aftermath of the Battle
Casualties at the Battle of Averasboro were nearly equal. The Union lost 682 men (killed, wounded or missing), while the Confederacy had approximately five hundred soldiers killed, wounded, or captured/missing. As was normally the case by this point in the Civil War, the losses were more costly for the Confederates due to their nearly perpetual shortage of soldiers.