The Carolinas Campaign
The Road To Averasboro
By March 8, 1865, the Federal army had crossed into North Carolina, en
route to its ultimate destination of Goldsboro. At this important rail hub
Sherman planned to unite with two other large Federal forces, under Alfred
H. Terry and John M. Schofield, which would be moving inland from the
coast of North Carolina. Sherman's grand "army group" was traveling as it
had in Georgia, divided into two separate wings numbering nearly 30,000
men each. Having faced the wily Joe Johnston during the Atlanta Campaign,
Sherman worried over his old adversary's return to command in North
Carolina. But the Union commander was bent on occupying Goldsboro above
all else, and he would become less wary as the march progressed.
Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, with a Confederate corps composed of
garrison troops and seasoned combat veterans, had managed to stay one step
ahead of the Federal advance in South Carolina. After evacuating
Charleston and falling back before Sherman, Hardee reached Fayetteville,
North Carolina on March 9. Joe Johnston was also there, but left that
night for Raleigh to oversee the concentration of the Army of Tennessee
which was then moving east by rail from Charlotte.
As the Federals slogged through the Carolina pine country, Judson
Kilpatrick's cavalry division screened the advance of Sherman's Left Wing,
commanded by Gen. Henry W. Slocum. At dawn on March 10, with his command
divided and upon separate roads, Kilpatrick was surprised by a Rebel
cavalry force under Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton. This small engagement at
Monroe's Crossroads was the first organized assault on a portion of the
Federal army in North Carolina. The affair was brief but bloody, and
served to warn the careless Kilpatrick that Hampton's cavalry could not be
trifled with. Confederate resistance would continue to stiffen as the
Union horde pushed deeper into the Old North State.
As Sherman approached Fayetteville that same day, Hardee withdrew to the
northeast on the Raleigh Plank Road, halting at the community of
Smithville a few miles south of Averasboro. Johnston instructed Hardee to
remain as close as possible to the Federal line of march. The Confederate
commander was relying on Hardee and Hampton for information on the enemy's
true destination, so that Johnston might combine other Confederate forces
with them in an effort to stop Sherman.
The Federals reached Fayetteville on March 11, and occupied the town after
a brief skirmish with elements of Hampton's cavalry. The Confederate
troopers burned the bridge over the Cape Fear River and fell back to
monitor the progress of the Union advance. On the following day the old
U.S. arsenal at Fayetteville was destroyed to prevent its further use by
the Confederates. The stopover at Fayetteville also afforded Sherman's
army its first contact with the outside world since leaving Savannah.
After communicating with General Terry, and receiving mail and limited
supplies for the troops from Wilmington via the Cape Fear River, Sherman
was on the move again by March 14. Though he was banking on entering
Goldsboro without a fight, "Uncle Billy" boasted to U. S. Grant that "The
enemy is superior to me in cavalry, but I can beat [Johnston's] infantry
man for man, and I don't think he can bring 40,000 to battle. I will force
him to guard Raleigh till I have interposed between it and Goldsborough."
Sherman was hoping that Johnston would pull back to safeguard North
Carolina's capital city, and thereby leave the way clear to Goldsboro.
Johnston Gathers an Army
"Unity of purpose and harmony of action between [our] two armies, with the
blessing of God, I trust will relieve us from the difficulties that now
beset us." -Robert E. Lee to Joseph E. Johnston, March 15, 1865.
On March 15, Robert E. Lee again expressed to Joe Johnston the critical
military situation facing both commanders. Among other worries, the
Confederate general-in-chief feared that if Sherman were to push Johnston
out of eastern North Carolina--uncovering Raleigh and the important rail
lines to Virginia--the beleaguered Army of Northern Virginia would suffer
for want of supplies. Lee cautioned "Old Joe" to choose his opportunities
wisely, "for a disaster to your army will not improve my condition," he
explained, "[and] I would not recommend you to engage in a general battle
without a reasonable prospect of success." Unable to send reinforcements
to Johnston in North Carolina, Lee relied upon the general's ability to
gather the widely scattered forces at his disposal and block Sherman's
path northward. Placing a high degree of confidence in his old friend and
subordinate, Lee urged that "an opportunity may occur for you and
[Department of North Carolina commander Braxton] Bragg to unite upon one
of [Sherman's] columns and crush it."
Johnston traveled from Raleigh to Smithfield that same day, where he began
assembling the hodgepodge Army of the South from the four separate
commands at his disposal: the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, Hardee's
Corps, Gen. Robert F. Hoke's Division (nominally under Bragg), and Wade
Hampton's cavalry. As Hampton later noted, "it would scarcely have been
possible to disperse a force more effectually":
1) Braxton Bragg, after evacuating Wilmington and resisting Schofield's
advance below Kinston March 8-10, was ordered by Johnston on March 13 to
move from Goldsboro to Smithfield. Bragg arrived with Hoke's Division late
on March 15. This veteran force from the Army of Northern Virginia had
been sent south by Lee in December 1864, to help safeguard Fort Fisher and
the port of Wilmington--the all-important hub of Lee's "lifeline" to
Virginia via the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad.
2) The Army of Tennessee units were slowly trickling in from the west,
having departed Tupelo, Miss., by rail in mid-January. This ill-fated
force--the Confederacy's principal Western army--had been dashed to pieces
three months earlier while under command of Gen. John Bell Hood in
Tennessee. Following the Confederate disasters at Franklin and Nashville
in November and December 1864, the remnants of the Army of Tennessee had
fallen back into Mississippi.
3) Hardee's Corps, after retreating from Fayetteville, was bivouacked near
Averasboro, along the route of march of the Federal Left Wing.
4) Wade Hampton's cavalry consisted of Wheeler's Corps of the Army of
Tennessee, and Butler's Division from the Army of Northern Virginia. This
force was split to monitor the advance of Sherman's divided army, with
Butler shadowing Gen. O. O. Howard's Right Wing and Wheeler falling back
before Gen. H. W. Slocum's Left Wing.
Joe Johnston was gathering an army, but the general knew he could not
match Sherman numerically. Lacking sufficient numbers to oppose the
combined Federal force, "Old Joe" would be forced to tackle one wing of
Sherman's divided army while it was beyond supporting distance of the
other. If Johnston could crush one wing, he might then fall upon the other
with a greater chance of success. But would he be able to assemble a
cohesive force in time to block Sherman's advance? As his scattered units
converged, Johnston anxiously awaited news from Hardee and Hampton
regarding the true destination of Sherman's grand army. General William J.
Hardee would soon begin providing answers.
A Delaying Action at Averasboro
"The lieutenant-general commanding thanks the officers and men of this
command for their courage and conduct of yesterday, and congratulates them
upon giving the enemy the first serious check he has received since
leaving Atlanta. . . .by command of Lieutenant-General Hardee." --Lt. Col.
Thomas B. Roy, AAG, staff of W. J. Hardee; General Orders No. 16, March
On March 15, at the community of Smithville (not to be confused with
Smithfield) below Averasboro, General Hardee--with approximately 6,455
effectives--deployed his command in three lines in a well-chosen defensive
position. Here the Cape Fear and Black Rivers were only about two miles
apart, and Hardee's command spanned the distance between them, blocking
the Federal Left Wing's advance on the Raleigh Plank Road. The first two
lines constituted Gen. William B. Taliaferro's division of untried
garrison troops: A. M. Rhett's Brigade in front, followed by Stephen
Elliott's. Some 600 yards in rear of Elliott's line lay Hardee's more
experienced command: the four brigades of combat veterans and one brigade
of reserves constituting Gen. Lafayette
Behind Hardee's position between the rivers, the plank road continued
north to Raleigh, while another road forked eastward toward Goldsboro. Joe
Johnston was concerned over which route the Federal Left Wing would
follow. Was it heading for Raleigh, or Goldsboro?
About 3 p.m. on March 15 the 9th Michigan Cavalry, followed by the rest of
Smith D. Atkins' Federal horsemen, made contact with Taliaferro's
skirmishers. Finding the road blocked, Atkins deployed astride the Raleigh
Plank Road, and sharp skirmishing occurred throughout the afternoon. As
night fell a heavy rain set in, and the aristocratic Col. Alfred M. Rhett,
having been captured by a party of Federal scouts, was mortified to find
himself a prisoner in the hands of Capt. Theo Northrop. By 12:30 a.m. on
March 16, the first Union infantry reinforcements were arriving in the
vicinity of Smithville. Colonel William Hawley's brigade of the XX Corps,
departing Bluff Church, had marched a dismal five miles in a thunderstorm
to relieve Atkins's troopers at the front.
At 2 a.m. William T. Sherman sent a note to Gen. A. H. Terry, whose
Provisional Corps would soon be leaving Wilmington for the rendezvous at
Goldsboro: "Thank you . . . for the certain knowledge that General
Schofield is in possession of Kinston. That is of great importance, for
thence to Goldsborough there are no bridges. I will, in consequence, move
straight on Goldsborough . . . . Hardee is ahead of me and shows fight. I
will go at him in the morning with four divisions and push him as far as
Averasborough before turning [east] toward Bentonville and Cox's Bridge."
Several miles to the south, Gen. Oliver O. Howard's Right Wing was
crossing South River (a lower extension of the Black), with Butler's
Confederate cavalry closely monitoring its advance. Thus far Sherman was
comfortable with the progress of the campaign, and he wanted nothing to
disrupt his timetable for reaching Goldsboro. Worried that his divided
forces might stray too far from one another, the Union commander warned
Howard: "[A]ll is working well around us and we must not scatter, but aim
to converge about Bentonville, and then Goldsborough." Counting on the
weather to hinder Confederate operations, Sherman added: "The rain is as
bad for our opponents as for us, and I doubt if they have as good supplies
or transportation as we."
By 9 a.m. the Federals were preparing to brush Hardee's Corps out of the
way. The XX Corps divisions of William Ward and Nathaniel Jackson joined
Hawley's brigade at the front, Ward moving to the left while the remainder
of Jackson's division joined on the right of Hawley's line. The Union
battle line soon advanced to within 500 yards of Rhett's Confederate
brigade, which was deployed astride the road just north of the John Smith
house ("Oak Grove").
At 10:30 a.m. the engagement began in earnest when Gen. H. W. Slocum
ordered Col. Henry Case's brigade to flank the Confederate line and clear
the road. Moving well to the left, Case's men crossed a large ravine and
attacked squarely upon the right flank of Rhett's Brigade. At the same
time, Col. Daniel Dustin's brigade advanced in front. Though Rhett's men
had stood well thus far in their first taste of combat, the Union assault
was too great to bear and the Confederate line was sent reeling backward
toward Elliott's position to the north. Three field pieces on Rhett's line
were captured, and two of them were turned and fired at their former
owners as they scampered toward the rear.
Around 1 p.m. the Federals advanced on Elliott's line, while Judson
Kilpatrick's troopers attempted to flank the Confederate left.
Kilpatrick's maneuver was thwarted, however, by the 32nd Georgia and 1st
Georgia Regulars, which had been sent forward from
McLaws line in an
effort to stem the Federal advance. The 2nd South Carolina (Conner's
Brigade) was also sent forward to anchor Elliott's right flank, but the
Union infantry advance was too great to withstand. Taliaferro's second
line crumbled, and retreated toward the relative safety of McLaws's
As Hardee had planned, his inexperienced units had opened the battle and
were falling back toward his main defensive position. "Old Reliable"
lengthened his third line by deploying Elliott in the center, with three
McLaws brigades to his left and one to his right. The timely arrival
of two divisions of Gen. Joseph Wheeler's cavalry prolonged Hardee's line
westward to the bluffs overlooking the Cape Fear River. Having borne the
brunt of the battle thus far, Rhett's Brigade was drawn up in reserve
behind the main line.
As the afternoon wore on Gen. James D. Morgan's Federal XIV Corps division
moved in on the left of the XX Corps. Skirmishing remained sharp, with the
opposing lines in close proximity, but the Federal advance stopped at
Hardee's third line. The day's light rain had given way to a downpour in
the afternoon, worsening the muddy terrain and hampering troop deployment.
Having been delayed by muddy roads rendered nearly impassable by the
recent rains, Carlin's XIV Corps division arrived around dusk and formed
in reserve of the main Federal line. Sherman then postponed any further
attack until the next morning.
Late in the afternoon General Hardee sent word to Joe Johnston that he had
checked Sherman's advance, and that he would retire toward Smithfield
after dark. At nightfall the Confederate artillery pulled out, followed
around 8:00 p.m. by the infantry (which had built campfires to help
disguise the retreat).
The engagement at Averasboro cost Hardee's Corps about 500 casualties.
Slocum's Federal Left Wing lost 682, bringing the total to approximately
1,182. Sherman considered his casualties at Averasboro "a serious loss,"
as the wounded further encumbered the Union wagon trains, which were
toiling over muddy and difficult roads.
The Averasboro Battlefield Museum is
located on NC Highway 82 between Dunn and Godwin, North Carolina.
Directions to locate the museum from Interstate 95 are as follows: From
Exit 71 travel west to NC 82. Turn left onto NC 82 and travel
approximately 2.5 miles. The museum is on your right.
From I-95 take EXIT 65 west, follow NC 82 west through Godwin and turn
right at STOP sign; continue to Averasboro Battlefield Museum (5 miles).
The museum is on your left.