Prelude to the Battle
Sherman Plans to March Through the Carolinas
Union forces under the command of William T. Sherman captured Savannah, Georgia in December 1864 at the end of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Soon after, Sherman began making plans to proceed through the Carolinas to join George G. Meade and his Army of the Potomac in Virginia.
Three days after the fall of Savannah, Sherman received the following instructions from Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant:
Without waiting further directions, than, 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.
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.
Sherman Moves North
Meanwhile, Sherman had departed from Savannah with nearly 60,000 battle-hardened veterans on February 1, 1865. He divided his forces into two wings. The Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard, was on the right and the Army of Georgia, commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum, was on the left. Their first goal was Columbia, South Carolina.
Inclement weather and flooded tidewater swamps hindered Sherman’s progress more than the few Rebel troops in the area. It took the Federals only a little over two weeks to occupy and neutralize the South Carolina capital. On March 8, Sherman’s soldiers crossed into North Carolina, leaving behind a path of destruction similar to the damage that they had inflicted upon Georgia during the 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.
Johnston in Command
On February 22, Lee 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 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 Monroe’s Crossroads
As Sherman’s army moved north, Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s Confederate cavalry surprised Brigadier-General Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division at Cumberland (now Hoke) County, North Carolina, on March 10. The startled Federals fled in panic, abandoning their supplies and artillery, but a counterattack later in the day forced the Rebels to concede their gains and to withdraw. Kilpatrick’s men won the Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads, and the inexorable march north continued.
Battle of Averasboro
Sherman met stiffer resistance near Averasboro on March 16, when he ordered General Slocum’s wing to attack entrenched Rebels north of town. Slocum’s men flanked the Confederates, forcing them to withdraw to a second defensive line. The Rebels made a brief stand at the second line before falling back to their third and final line of defense. Despite several Union assaults during the Battle of Averasboro, the Confederates held their position until nightfall and then withdrew to Bentonville under the cover of darkness.
Fighting at Bentonville
Outnumbered nearly three-to-one, Johnston determined that his best chance to stop the Federal onslaught was to attack one wing of Sherman’s divided forces before the planned merger at Goldsboro could take place. On March 19, 1865, Johnston entrenched his army on the Goldsboro Road, blocking the path of Major General Henry W. Slocum’s advancing left-wing.
When initial skirmishing erupted that morning, Sherman believed that all that lay between Slocum and Goldsboro was Johnston’s cavalry. Unconcerned, Sherman ordered Slocum to advance up the road while he rode off to check on the progress of his right wing. Later, Slocum confirmed Sherman’s belief, informing the commander that all was going well. As the fighting intensified, however, Slocum realized that he was facing more than a cavalry unit. Consequently, he sent a dispatch to Sherman requesting reinforcements, stating, “Johnston and Hardee are here.”
Bentonville — March 19, 1864
At 2:45 in the afternoon, Johnston confirmed Slocum’s concerns, launching an all-out attack on the Federals, spearheaded by the Army of Tennessee. The initial wave drove the surprised Yankees back down the Goldsboro Road in disarray. Late in the afternoon, reinforcements from Slocum’s 20th Corps began arriving on the scene and stemmed the Rebel assault as darkness brought an end to the fighting.
Bentonville — March 20–21, 1864
During the night, as Johnston withdrew and reestablished his lines, Sherman responded to Slocum’s earlier request with reinforcements from Howard’s 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 confrontation with Johnston until unifying his forces with Schofield at Goldsboro. The showdown never took place. After receiving news of General Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Johnston contacted Sherman on April 16 to discuss capitulation. The generals met the next day near Durham, where Johnston surrendered the 89,270 troops under his command throughout the South, ending the Carolinas Campaign.
Aftermath of the Battle
The Battle of Bentonville was the largest Civil War engagement fought in North Carolina and resulted in a Union victory. Estimated total casualties during the battle range from 4,100 to 4,700 men. Union forces suffered 1,527 casualties (194 killed, 1,112 wounded, and 221 missing/captured) and Confederate forces suffered 2,606 casualties (239 killed, 1,694 wounded, and 673 missing/captured). It was also the only major Confederate attempt to stop Sherman after the Battle of Atlanta in August 1864. In addition, the Battle of Bentonville was the last major Confederate offensive of the Civil War.