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Chapter 16:

  • The battle of Bentonville
  • -- the careless advance of an Army.

The battle of Bentonville affords one of the most marked examples of carelessness in the management of a great army which can be found in the history of the war.

Unlike the march from Atlanta to the sea, that from Savannah northward through the Carolinas originated with General Sherman. And in all respects it was a wonderful movement.

The first instructions of General Grant contemplated an entrenched camp near Savannah, and the transportation of the bulk of Sherman's force by sea to City Point. General Sherman was very anxious, however, to capture Savannah, and then march northward by land. The reasons he gave Grant were such as to induce the latter to accept Sherman's plan as better than his own.

The campaign from Savannah was in every way more difficult and hazardous than the march from Atlanta. In coming down to the sea there had been no veteran enemy in front, nor indeed, any force worthy of mention, nor had there been important garrisons on either flank to threaten or annoy. The roads were in the general direction of the larger streams, and the country was well adapted to the march of an army.

But from the moment of leaving Savannah grave difficulties were to be expected at every step. The country was low and exceedingly swampy, the rains had swollen the streams and [209] flooded the low lands, and the direction of the march was across them all. In front was Hardee with a force which might be formidable in contending the passage of the larger rivers. On the right were the garrisons of Charleston, Georgetown, and Wilmington. There was reason to expect that a portion of Hood's army would arrive on the left and strike from the direction of Augusta. Lastly, Wade Hampton, then popular in South Carolina, had been sent down from Lee's army to rally an opposing force. And, as the result proved, before serious battle was delivered, an army estimated at thirty-seven thousand veteran Confederate troops concentrated at Bentonville, under Sherman's old antagonist Johnston. The Union force at the time was fifty-seven thousand.

In free conversation between General Schofield's officers and the prominent commanders in the Confederate forces, when they were paroled a few weeks later, all expressed great admiration for the campaign northward from Savannah and astonishment at its success. They had confidently expected, when the Union army began to push through the great swamps, that it would lose its artillery and its trains, and never emerge in an organized condition. But the roads, constructed of logs and brush, which sunk to the axles of the artillery under the march of each successive division, were rebuilt by the division which followed, and the resistless columns moved steadily and surely against natural difficulties such as no other army breasted during the war.

Sherman had left smoking South Carolina, with its ruined railroads, behind him; his four corps had converged at Fayetteville, and there crossed the Cape Fear River. Here the right and left wings again separated, but marched in the general direction of Goldsboro. All the Confederate garrisons of points below were piled up in his front, the provisions were running low in his trains, and there was need of unusual care and prudence. How great was the neglect instead, and how narrow the escape of Sherman from serious disaster, the history of the battle of Bentonville will show. [210]

Little became known at the time, of the real character of this battle. The surrender of Lee, which occurred before the facts connected with Bentonville could be disclosed, and the appalling death of Mr. Lincoln, occupied the full attention of the country. By the time it so recovered as to turn its mind toward North Carolina, Johnston had offered to surrender, and so Bentonville passed almost unnoticed.

It is just to General Sherman to say, that in his Memoirs he brings the real facts connected with this action into bolder relief than any other of his mistakes of which he treats. But the official record supplies some important omissions.

Concerning the start from Savannah northward, General Sherman writes:

‘I knew full well at the time that the broken fragments of Hood's army (which had escaped from Tennessee) were being hurried rapidly across Georgia, by Augusta, to make junction in my front, estimating them at the maximum, twenty-five thousand men, and Hardee's, Wheeler's, and Hampton's forces at fifteen thousand, made forty thousand, which, if handled with spirit and energy, would constitute a formidable force, and might make the passage of such rivers as the Santee and Cape Fear a difficult undertaking.’

His whole army reached Fayetteville, North Carolina, and crossed the Cape Fear to move on Goldsboro, where he expected to make a junction with General Schofield, then advancing from Newbern. From this point, in a letter to General Grant, dated March 12, 1865, he said:

Jos. Johnston may try to interpose between me here and Schofield about Newbern, but I think he will not try that, but concentrate his scattered armies at Raleigh, and I will go straight at him as soon as I get our men reclothed and our wagons reloaded.’

And in another letter of the same date to General Terry, he wrote:

‘I can whip Jos. Johnston provided he does not catch one of my corps in flank, and I will see that the army marches hence to Goldsboro in compact form.’


But, in spite of this good resolution, the right and left wings were marched on roads from ten to fifteen miles apart, and each wing was strung out at great length.

Of the start from Fayetteville, General Sherman writes:

I then knew that my special antagonist, General Jos. Johnston, was back, with part of his old army; that he would not be misled by feints and false reports, and would, somehow, compel me to exercise more caution than I had hitherto done. I then overestimated his force at thirty-seven thousand infantry, supposed to be made up of S. D. Lee's corps, four thousand; Cheatham's, five thousand; Hope's, eight thousand; Hardee's, ten thousand; and other detachments, ten thousand; with Hampton's, Wheelers, and Butler's cavalry, about eight thousand. Of these, only Hardee and the cavalry were immediately in our front, while the bulk of Johnston's army was supposed to be collecting at or near Raleigh. * * * *

‘On the 15th of March the whole army was across Cape Fear River, and at once began its march for Goldsboro — the Seventeenth Corps still on the right, the Fifteenth next in order, then the Fourteenth and Twentieth on the extreme left, the cavalry acting in close concert with the left flank. With almost a certainty of being attacked on this flank, I had instructed General Slocum to send his corps trains, under strong escort, by an interior road, holding four divisions ready for immediate battle. General Howard was in like manner ordered to keep his trains well to his right, and to have four divisions, unencumbered, about six miles ahead of General Slocum, within easy support.’ * * * *

On the 16th, about Averysboro, ‘the opposition continued stubborn,’ and General Slocum had quite a brisk fight, losing twelve officers and sixty-five men killed, and four hundred and seventy-seven wounded.

The succeeding events are thus described in the Memoirs:

From Averysboro the left wing turned east toward Goldsboro, the Fourteenth Corps leading. I remained with this wing until the night of the 18th, when we were within twenty-seven miles of Goldsboro, and five from Bentonville; and, supposing that all danger was over, I crossed over to join Howard's column, to the right, so as to be nearer to Generals Schofield and Terry, known to be approaching Goldsboro. I overtook General Howard at Falling Creek Church, and found his column well drawn out, by reason of the bad roads. I had heard some cannonading over about Slocum's head of column, and supposed it to indicate about the same measure of opposition by Hardee's troops and Hampton's cavalry, before experienced. But, during the day, a messenger overtook me, and notified me, that, near Bentonville, General [212] Slocum had run up against Johnston's whole army. I sent back orders for him to fight defensively, to save time, and that I would come up, with reenforcements, from the direction of Cox's Bridge, by the road which we had reached near Falling Creek Church. The country was very obscure, and the maps extremely defective.

By this movement I hoped General Slocum would hold Johnston's army facing west, while I would come on his rear from the east. The Fifteenth Corps, less one division (Hazen's), still well to the rear, was turned at once toward Bentonville; Hazen's division was ordered to Slocum's flank; and orders were also sent for General Blair, with the Seventeenth Corps, to come to the same destination. Meantime the sound of cannon came from the direction of Bentonville.

The night of the 19th caught us near Falling Creek Church; but early the next morning the Fifteenth Corps, General C. R. Wood's division leading, closed down on Bentonville, near which it was brought up by encountering a line of fresh parapet, crossing the road and extending north toward Mill Creek.

After deploying, I ordered General Howard to proceed with due caution, using skirmishers alone, till he had made junction with General Slocum, on his left. These deployments occupied all day, during which two divisions of the Seventeenth Corps also got up. At that time General Johnston's army occupied the form of a V, the angle reaching the road leading from Averysboro to Goldsboro, and the flanks resting on Mill Creek, his lines embracing the village of Bentonville.

General Slocum's wing faced one of these lines, and General Howard's the other; and, in the uncertainty of General Johnston's strength, I did not feel disposed to invite a general battle, for we had been out from Savannah since the latter part of January, and our wagon trains contained but little food. I had also received messages during the day from General Schofield, at Kinston, and General Terry, at Faison's Depot, approaching Goldsboroa; both expected to reach it by March 21. During the 20th we simply held our ground, and started our trains back to Kinston for provisions, which would be needed in the event of being forced to fight a general battle at Bentonville. The next day (21st) it began to rain again, and we remained quiet till about noon, when General Mower, ever rash, broke through the rebel line on his extreme left flank, and was pushing straight for Bentonville and the bridge across Mill Creek. I ordered him back to connect with his own corps, and, lest the enemy should concentrate on him, ordered the whole rebel line to be engaged with a strong skirmish fire.

‘I think I made a mistake there, and should rapidly have followed Mowers' lead with the whole of the right wing, which would have brought on a general battle, and it could not have resulted otherwise than successfully to us, by reason of our vastly superior numbers; but at the moment, for the reasons given, I preferred to make junction with Generals Terry and Schofield, before engaging Johnston's army, the strength of which was utterly unknown. [213] The next day he was gone, and had retreated on Smithfield; and, the roads all being clear, our army moved to Goldsboro. The heaviest fighting at Bentonville was on the first day, viz.: the 19th, when Johnston's army struck the head of Slocum's column, knocking back Carlin's division. But as soon as General Slocum had brought up the rest of the Fourteenth Corps into line, and afterward the Twentieth on his left, he received and repulsed all attacks, and held his ground, as ordered, to await the coming back of the right wing.’

General Sherman's formal report of this battle, dated Goldsboro, April 4, 1865, contains the following very contradictory statements concerning the attack:

‘All the signs induced me to believe that the enemy would make no further opposition to our progress, and would not attempt to strike us in flank while in motion.’

A few paragraphs below, in the same report, he again refers to the matter, as follows:

Johnston had moved, by night, from Smithfield, with great rapidity, and without unnecessary wheels, intending to overwhelm my left flank before it could be relieved by its cooperating columns. But he reckoned without his host. I had expected just such a movement all the way from Fayetteville, and was prepared for it.’

From the above extracts it is quite evident that Johnston attempted to concentrate his forces, fall upon the left wing of Sherman's army, crush it before the others could arrive, and then, in turn, attack the right, and that he came much nearer success than it is pleasant to contemplate. The warnings of such a concentration, as will be seen, were abundant. That they were not heeded seems marvelous and the extreme of carelessness. Some of the telegrams accompanying a former printed report of General Sherman make the situation still clearer.

The advance of the left wing began at seven o'clock on the 19th of March, and was stubbornly contested from the first. About ten o'clock General Slocum became convinced that he had encountered the enemy in force. He therefore concluded to assume the offensive, and communicate with General [214] Sherman. The two wings were so far separated that it was six or seven hours before the commanding general, who was with the right wing, could be reached.

At five P. M., of the 19th, he sent the following dispatch to General Schofield, then approaching Goldsboro:

‘Since making my dispatch to-day (2 P. M.) General Slocum reports the enemy in force between him and Cox's Bridge; thinks it is the main army of the enemy. I can hardly suppose the enemy will attempt to fight us this side of the Neuse, but will direct all my columns on Cox's Bridge to-morrow. You must secure Goldsboro, and fortify.’

At the same hour he dispatched General Kilpatrick:

‘Your report of to-day is received. General Slocum thinks the whole rebel army is in his front. I can not think Johnston would fight us with the Neuse to his rear.’

On the morning of the 20th, at 4 A. M., General Sherman wrote as follows to General Terry:

Johnston, with his concentrated force, made an unsuccessful attack on my left wing yesterday, near Bentonville. I am just starting with my right wing to attack him.’

And again to General Terry at 6 A. M.:

‘Yesterday Johnston, with his force concentrated, struck my left wing, near Bentonville, and they had a severe battle, lasting until night. General Slocum beat them off, but was uneasy. I am now turning the right wing on Bentonville. * * * * By to-night I will know if Jos. Johnston intends to fight me in force, when I will communicate further.’

To General Schofield, at 2 P. M., of the 20th, he wrote:

‘I am now within two miles of Slocum, but Johnston is between us. We are now skirmishing.’

As will be observed, this was twenty-eight hours after the attack in force began on Slocum.

At 8 P. M., of the 20th, he wrote General Slocum:

‘We struck the enemy on his left rear about noon and have pressed him very hard, and have dislodged him from all his barricades except the line [215] constructed as against you, which may be double or inclosed, for our men find parapets from the road well down to Mill Creek. Johnston hoped to overcome your wing before I could come to your relief; having failed in that I can not see why he remains, and still think he will avail himself of night to get back to Smithfield. I would rather avoid a general battle if possible, but if he insists on it we must accommodate him. In that event, if he be in position to-morrow, I want you to make a good road around his flank into this, and to-morrow night pass your trains and dispose your troops so that we have our back toward Faison's and Goldsboro. General Schofield was to leave Kinston for Goldsboro to-day, and General Terry has arrived with nine thousand infantry at Faison's, and I have ordered him to Cox's Bridge to be drawn up here if we need him. I can also draw on General Schofield in a few days for ten thousand men, but I think we have enough.’

At 9 P. M. of the same day the following dispatch was sent General Terry:

‘We struck Johnston on his left rear to-day, and have been skirmishing pretty hard all day. We have opened communication with General Slocum, who had a hard fight yesterday. We are now ready for battle, if Johnston desires it, to-morrow; but as he has failed to overcome one wing he will hardly invite battle with both. I don't want to fight now or here, and therefore won't object to his drawing off to-night toward Smithfield, as he should.’

To General Schofield he wrote, March 21, from Bentonville:

Captain Twining is here, and I send by him an order that you will perceive looks to staying here some days.

‘I thought Johnston, having failed as he attempted to crush one of my wings, finding he had not succeeded, but that I was present with my whole force, would withdraw; but he has not, and I must fight him here. He is twenty (20) miles from Smithfield, and with a bad road to his rear, but his position is in the swamps, difficult of approach, and I don't like to assail his parapets, which are of the old kind.’

In a letter to General Grant dated March 22, quoted in the Memoirs, reviewing the affair of Bentonville at length, the following passage occurs:

I wrote you from Fayetteville, North Carolina, on Tuesday, the 14th instant, that I was all ready to start for Goldsboro, to which point I had also ordered General Schofield from Newbern and General Terry from Wilmington. I knew that General Jos. Johnston was in supreme command against me, and that he would have tried to concentrate a respectable army to oppose [216] the last stage of this march * * * * On Tuesday, the 15th [probably a misprint for Thursday the 16th], General Slocum found Hardee's army from Charleston, which had retreated before us from Cheraw, in position across the narrow swampy neck between Cape Fear and North Rivers where the road branches off to Goldsboro. There a pretty severe fight occurred, in which General Slocum's troops carried handsomely the advanced line, held by a South Carolina brigade commanded by a Colonel Butler. * * * *

We resumed the march toward Goldsboro. I was with the left wing until I supposed all danger had passed, but when General Slocum's head of column was within four miles of Bentonville, after skirmishing as usual with cavalry, he became aware that there was infantry at his front. He deployed a couple of brigades, which, on advancing, sustained a partial repulse, but soon rallied, and he formed a line of the two leading divisions, Morgan's and Carlin's, of Jeff. C. Davis' corps. The enemy attacked these with violence, but was repulsed. This was in the forenoon of Sunday, the 19th. General Slocum brought forward the two divisions of the Twentieth Corps, hastily disposed of them for defense, and General Kilpatrick massed his cavalry on the left.

General Jos. Johnston had the night before marched his whole army (Bragg, Cheatham, S. D. Lee, Hardee, and all the troops he had drawn from every quarter), determined, as he told his men, to crush one of our corps and then defeat us in detail He attacked General Slocum in position from 3 P. M. on the 19th till dark, but was every where repulsed and lost heavily. At the time I was with the Fifteenth Corps marching on a road more to the right, but on hearing of General Slocum's danger directed that corps toward Cox's Bridge, in the night brought Blair's corps over, and on the 20th marched rapidly on Johnston's flank and rear. We struck him about noon and forced him to assume the defensive and to fortify. Yesterday we pushed him hard and came very near crushing him, the right division of the Seventeenth Corps, however, having broken in to within a hundred yards of where Johnston himself was, at the bridge across Mill Creek. Last night he retreated, leaving us in possession of the field, dead, and wounded.’ * * * *

The report of General Hazen, commanding the First Division of the right wing which started to the relief of the left, gives a clear idea of the distance of the left wing from the nearest support. Writing of his march to the relief of General Slocum, he says:

On the 15th the march was resumed in the direction of Goldsboro, which was continued at slow stages till midnight of the 19th, when I received orders to turn back to the assistance of General Slocum, and reported to him with the division near Bentonville at daylight, having marched since sunset twenty miles. [217]

‘At 12 M. of the 20th the division was moved to the rear of the Fourteenth Corps, and two regiments were deployed and connected with the First Division of the Fifteenth Corps on the right and the Fourteenth Corps on the left, engaged the enemy on their lines.’ * * * *

The extent to which the left wing was stretched out on the road is shown by a paragraph in General Slocum's report:

‘On the following morning (20th) Generals Baird and Geary, each with two brigades of their respective divisions, and General Hazen, of the Fifteenth Corps, with his entire division, arrived on the field.’

The first-named generals belonged to the left wing and Hazen to the right. As to the arrival of the left wing in force General Slocum says:

‘On the morning of the 21st the right wing came up and connected with General Hazen.’

The battle began about ten o'clock on the 19th. One division of the right wing, by a long night march, came up the next morning, but the main body of that wing was not ready to strike the enemy until the morning of the 21st.

The situation of affairs around Bentonville, then, was about this: With a full knowledge that Johnston was rapidly concentrating all available forces in his front, the two wings of the Union army, each inferior to Johnston's supposed numbers, were allowed to march in extremely open order, and so far apart that, when an attack in force began on the left wing at ten o'clock on the 19th, it was not until noon of the next day that part of the other wing came within striking distance, and even then it was not able to communicate directly with the left wing because the enemy was interposed in force.

The total strength of the left wing was less than twenty-six thousand, and only a portion of this could be brought up for the first day's fight. General Johnston's force was then estimated at thirty-seven thousand, though he afterward stated that he had only fourteen thousand infantry engaged.

The Union officers and men fought splendidly, and thus [218] neutralized the effect of General Sherman's carelessness and saved their wing of the army. Still, in spite of their gallant fighting against superior numbers, it was probably owing to a mistake on the Confederate side that the left wing was not wholly overpowered.

A general assault had been contemplated by the Confederate generals about an hour before sundown. But by some error in conveying commands, or in obeying them, night came on before their lines were ready for the movement, and so the opportunity for crushing Sherman's left wing passed. Thus narrowly did this magnificent army escape serious disaster in its last battle.

General Sherman speaks repeatedly of Generals Schofield and Terry as if they were independent commanders, and says: ‘Wilmington was captured by General Terry on the 22d of February.’

Accurately, General Terry's forces formed a portion of the command of General Schofield, and advanced on Wilmington upon the left bank of the Cape Fear River, while the Twenty-Third Corps formed the other part of Schofield's army, and advanced on the right bank of the river. General J. D. Cox's troops of this latter corps, with one division of Terry's troops, assisted by the fleet, drove the enemy out of Fort Anderson, and then by secretly passing Casement's brigade in flats over Town Creek near its mouth, General Cox secured the main crossing over that strongly guarded stream, and opened the way to the rear of Wilmington, which, as a consequence, was immediately evacuated. As General Schofield directed all the movements, a careful writer would have said Wilmington was captured by General Schofield.

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