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.
Confederacy Consolidates Forces in the Carolinas
The prospect of Sherman marching his armies north from Savannah and punishing the Carolinas as he had Georgia unsettled many Southerners. Their concerns prompted General Robert E. Lee to deploy General Wade Hampton’s cavalry division to South Carolina on January 19, 1865. On February 14, 1865, Confederate officials promoted Hampton to lieutenant general and placed him in command of all cavalry forces in the Department of South Carolina. General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was in charge of the department, instructed Hampton to concentrate his forces to protect the city of Columbia, the capital of South Carolina.
Confederates Lose Confidence in Jefferson Davis
Sherman’s impending campaign also eroded Southern confidence in 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 Confederate 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.
Lee Becomes Commander-in-Chief
With no recourse available, in late January 1865, Davis nominated Robert E. Lee for the position of General-in-Chief. On February 1, Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General (CSA) informed Lee that the Confederate Senate 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 Heads North with Two Armies
Meanwhile, Sherman departed from Savannah with nearly 60,000 battle-hardened veterans on February 1, 1865, headed north toward Columbia. 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.
In just two weeks, Union troops reached the outskirts of the South Carolina capital. Despite Hampton’s efforts to block Sherman’s progress, the Federals occupied the city on February 17. On the same day, faced with the prospect of being isolated, the Confederate garrison at Charleston evacuated their post. That night, much of Columbia went up in flames.
While Sherman’s army ravaged South Carolina, federal forces in North Carolina were in the final stages of completing the Union blockade of the Confederacy’s Atlantic seacoast. On February 12, 1865, troops commanded by Major General John M. Schofield began operations against Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last open port on the Atlantic. Attempts by Confederate General Braxton Bragg’s 6,600 defenders to halt Schofield’s 12,000 soldiers proved fruitless. On the night of February 21–22, Bragg ordered the destruction of Wilmington’s stores, and his troops evacuated the city.
Johnston in Charge of the Army of Tennessee
On the day after Wilmington fell into federal hands, Sherman resumed his march towards the North Carolina border but only after destroying anything in Columbia that might be of use to the Confederacy. On February 22, Lee ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to “Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in the 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.”
Army of the South
Johnston’s assessment was correct. On March 6, 1865, Confederate officials added the Department of Southern Virginia to Johnston’s command. The general designated his combined force 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 Plans to Attack Sherman
Outnumbered nearly three-to-one, Johnston decided that his best chance to stop the federal onslaught was to unite his forces and attack one wing of Sherman’s divided armies before a planned Union merger at Goldsboro. Johnston chose Smithfield, east of the Cape Fear River, as headquarters for his operations.
Designs on the Clarendon Bridge
In early March 1865, Lieutenant General William J. Hardee was pushing his 8,000-man Confederate corps east toward the Clarendon Bridge across the Cape Fear River at Fayetteville, North Carolina. Hardee planned to get his corps across the river and then destroy the bridge, to buy more time for Johnston to merge his forces at Smithfield.
Major General Judson Kilpatrick’s 3rd Cavalry Division, at the vanguard of Sherman’s army, had designs on the same target. Traveling north, Kilpatrick aimed to swing his division east to reach the river first, securing the bridge for Sherman’s main force and preventing Hardee from joining Johnston.
Kilpatrick Moves to Block Morgan’s Crossroads
As Kilpatrick moved east toward Fayetteville on March 9, he made camp to reorganize his scattered brigades at Monroe’s Crossroads, where Morgantown Road intersects Blue’s Rosin Road. To Kilpatrick’s rear, Wade Hampton had merged his cavalry division with Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry corps and Major General Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry division, creating a force of nearly 5,800 mounted troopers. Having learned from captured Rebels that Hampton’s force was bearing down on his rear, Kilpatrick blocked the three roads that provided access to his position from the west.
Although Kilpatrick knew that Hampton’s force was approaching, he deployed only a single company of pickets on the Morganton Road to guard his rear. During the night, lead elements of Wheeler’s cavalry surprised and captured the Yankees guarding the road unbeknownst to Kilpatrick, who was spending the night with an unidentified woman in a nearby farmhouse. With the road now open to Kilpatrick’s camp, Hampton deployed his troops for a surprise attack at daylight.
March 10, 1865 — Rebels Attack
Kilpatrick Narrowly Escapes
At dawn, on March 10, the sound of thundering hooves awakened the Yankee soldiers as Wheeler’s and Butler’s troopers stormed their camp. Initially, the panic-stricken Federals retreated to the edge of a nearby swamp. Kilpatrick was aroused by what he later described as “the most formidable cavalry charge I have ever witnessed.” He narrowly escaped when Confederate soldiers who surrounded the farmhouse in which he had spent the night failed to recognize him. When the Rebels rode off in pursuit of another Yankee who Kilpatrick had falsely identified as himself, the Union general fled and joined his men.
Looting Halts Rebel Pursuit of Fleeing Federals
Had the Rebels continued to pursue their foes, they may have earned a stunning victory, but the allure of the bounty they captured proved too much. When the Confederates broke off their chase to loot the Union camp, Kilpatrick restored order among his soldiers.
Federal Counterattack Drives off Rebels
As pandemonium reigned within the camp, the Union general formed lines and mounted a successful counterattack. The turning point in the battle came when Union artillerists regained possession of one of their canons and began firing canisters into the camp, driving off the Rebels.
Wheeler and Butler organized another charge, but the Federals refused to budge. When Hampton realized the futility of more bloodshed, he ordered Wheeler and Butler to retreat toward Fayetteville.
Aftermath of the Battle
In what began as a Confederate rout, one of the last large cavalry battles in the Western Theater ended as a Union victory in less than one hour. There are few reliable records regarding casualties at the Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads. The best estimates are that the two armies combined lost approximately one hundred soldiers killed and 500 more injured.
In the battle’s aftermath, Union troops occupied Fayetteville later that afternoon. By that time, all the Confederates had crossed the Cape Fear River and torched the Clarendon Bridge behind them.