Major General William T. Sherman's Carolinas Campaign of 1865 was the last major Union offensive in the Western Theater of the American Civil War.
Prelude to the Carolinas Campaign
At the dawn of 1865, the strategy devised by Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant of having all Union forces in the field act in concert was coming to fruition. In the East, despite suffering unprecedented casualties under horrific battlefield conditions during the Overland and the Petersburg campaigns of 1864, Major General George Meade and his Army of the Potomac had General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia under siege at Petersburg, Virginia. In the West, Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland and the Army of the Ohio, had shattered General John Bell Hood and his Army of Tennessee during Hood’s desperate Franklin-Nashville Campaign in late 1864. In the Deep South, Major General William T. Sherman and his combined forces from the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of Georgia had cut a sixty-mile-wide swath of destruction across Georgia during his March to the Sea and captured the port city of Savannah, Georgia on December 21, 1864.
William T. Sherman Proposes Marching through the Carolinas
With a new campaign season about to begin, Grant intended to tighten the noose. In December, he ordered Sherman to transport his forces by sea to Virginia to reinforce the Army of the Potomac outside of Richmond and Petersburg. 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 Lee’s army from the south. Furthermore, a march through the Carolinas would demoralize Southerners, much as the March to the Sea had done. Grant endorsed Sherman’s plan, 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.
Sherman immediately began preparing for his expedition.
Robert E. Lee Supersedes Jefferson Davis
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, 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 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 target was Columbia, South Carolina.
Inclement weather and flooded tidewater swamps hindered Sherman’s progress more than the few Rebel troops in the area. On February 3, 1865, 1,200 Confederate soldiers, commanded by Major General Lafayette McLaws, attempted to prevent Slocum’s wing from crossing the Salkehatchie River at the Battle of Rivers Bridge. The Federals flanked their opponents by crossing downstream, forcing McLaws to concede the crossing. Nearly unopposed for the next two weeks, Sherman’s soldiers constructed bridges and corduroy roads that enabled them to traverse the rugged terrain. As they moved north, they cut railroads and laid hard hands on South Carolinians in their path.
Sherman Occupies Columbia
In just two weeks, Union troops reached the outskirts of Columbia, and the garrison stationed there began evacuating. On February 17, Sherman occupied the city. On the same day, faced with the prospect of being isolated, the Confederate garrison at Charleston evacuated that city also.
That night, much of Columbia went up in flames. The source of the fire remains undetermined. Unionists claimed that Rebel soldiers started the inferno, burning Columbia’s cotton stores to keep them from falling into enemy hands. Some Columbia residents maintained that drunken Union soldiers started the blaze, perhaps in revenge for South Carolina’s role in launching the war. Whatever the source of the fire, it destroyed roughly two-thirds of Columbia.
Braxton Bragg Evacuates Wilmington
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 Schofield began operations against Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy’s last open port on the Atlantic. Attempts by Confederate General Braxton Bragg and his 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. 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.
Joseph E. Johnston Assumes Command of the Army of Tennessee
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 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 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.” 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 Wyse Fork
In early March, Schofield’s referred to his forces as the Army of Ohio (not to be confused with the Union armies with the same name organized in 1861 and 1863). Schofield began marching his army inland to unite with Sherman at Goldsboro, North Carolina. On March 7, Braxton Bragg attempted to thwart Schofield’s plans by attacking the Union army at Kinston, North Carolina. Although the Rebel offensive, known as the Battle of Wyse Fork, delayed Schofield’s progress for three days, the assault failed, and Bragg could not prevent the rendezvous.
Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads
As Sherman’s army moved north, Lieutenant General Wade Hampton and his Confederate cavalry surprised Brigadier-General Judson Kilpatrick and his cavalry division, which was encamped 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.
On the following day, March 11, 1865, Sherman’s forces entered Fayetteville, North Carolina, facing little resistance. Sherman rested his army for one day and then resumed his trek toward Goldsboro. On March 14, his rearguard destroyed the arsenal at Fayetteville along with anything else that might be useful to the Confederacy, including railroad trestles, mills, and factories.
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, the Confederates held their position until nightfall and then withdrew to Bentonville under the cover of darkness.
Battle of Bentonville
On March 19, 1865, Johnston made a stand, entrenching his army at Cole’s Plantation, blocking the road to Goldsboro. Once again, Slocum’s wing was the target. 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.
On the next day, Federal reinforcements arrived, and Slocum gradually pushed Johnston’s men back. Johnston held on until March 21, when he withdrew during the night. Sherman pursued only briefly the next day, preferring instead to confront Johnston on another day, after increasing the size of his army after completing his rendezvous with General Schofield and the Army of Ohio at Goldsboro.
Sherman Meets with General Grant and President Lincoln
With Johnston out of the way, Sherman reached Goldsboro on March 23, 1865. The addition of the Army of Ohio swelled the size of Sherman’s forces to nearly 90,000 soldiers. On March 27, General Grant summoned Sherman to his headquarters at City Point, Virginia to meet with President Abraham Lincoln. Expecting the imminent fall of the Confederacy, the three men discussed procedures and terms of surrender for the Rebel armies remaining in the field.
Sherman Occupies Raleigh
Sherman returned to Goldsboro on April 11, 1865, planning to move against the North Carolina state capital of Raleigh. The next day, he received word that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Sherman moved on and occupied Raleigh on April 13.
Surrender at Bennett Place
With Lee’s army defeated and the Confederate government in exile, Johnston realized the hopelessness of his situation. Isolated and outnumbered three-to-one, Johnston contacted Sherman on April 16 to discuss capitulation. The generals met the next day at a farm known as Bennett Place, near Durham, where Johnston surrendered the 89,270 troops under his command in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. The agreement that the two men signed on April 18, 1865, was the largest surrender of Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War.
Unfortunately, Radical Republicans in Washington, embittered by President Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, rejected the accord because it went beyond strictly military issues. Sherman and Johnston met again at Bennett Place on April 26, 1865, and signed a new surrender document, using the same terms Grant and Lee had agreed to at Appomattox Court House. The signing of the new agreement brought Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign to an end.