A Brief Synopsis of the Battle of Bentonville
March 19-21, 1865

Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site

The XX Corps artillery in action on the Morris Farm, March 19, 1965
From a sketch by Harper's Weekly artist William Waud

On March 19, 1865, Joseph E. Johnston organized his forces into a hook-shaped line at Cole's Plantation, blocking the Goldsboro Road. That morning William T. Sherman's Federal Left Wing stumbled into the Confederate trap, just as it was being set. After a Union probing attack failed, the Confederates launched a massive assault which drove Gen. William P. Carlin's XIV Corps division from the field. Morgan's division managed to hold on despite being surrounded on three sides by Confederate adversaries. Late that afternoon a strong Federal defense of the Morris Farm by the Left Wing's XX Corps managed to squelch the Confederate advance. The first day's fighting ended in a tactical draw.

Another view of the XX Corps artillery.
From Story of the Great March,
from the Diary of a Staff Officer

by Bvt. Maj. George Ward Nichols

Failing to completely crush the Union lines, Johnston's Confederates pulled back to positions held earlier in the day, and Sherman's Right Wing began arriving on the battlefield by midday on March 20. Sharp skirmishing prevailed, as the Confederates changed position to deal with the arrival of the Federal Right Wing. The junction of Sherman's divided army at Bentonville placed nearly 60,000 Union troops (including reserves) against Joe Johnston, who had brought to the field approximately 16,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry with which to oppose Sherman. Despite receiving limited reinforcements, the Confederates were no match numerically for the powerful Union army.

A portion of the Federal XV Corps
skirmish line, March 20, 1865.
From a sketch by Harper's Weekly
artist William Waud

Johnston clung to a tenuous position guarding his army's sole escape route over rain-swollen Mill Creek, and began evacuating his wounded to Smithfield, 20 miles to the north.

To Sherman's great irritation, he found the Confederate army still in position on March 21. The Union commander was anxious to reach Goldsboro, and was impatient for the Confederates to retreat. Johnston, outnumbered and no longer holding the advantage of surprise, could only hope that the Federals might be lured into a costly frontal attack on his small but well-entrenched army.

For two days following the main battle of March 19, the opposing forces squared off in a severe and continuous skirmish fight. On March 21 Sherman's Right Wing moved to within a few hundred yards of the left half of Johnston's army. That afternoon, a "little reconnaissance" by Gen. Joseph A. Mower's XVII Corps division escalated into a full-scale push toward Mill Creek Bridge on the Confederate left flank.

Mower's Attack on the Confederate Left, East of Bentonville, March 21, 1865.
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper

Mower's charge overran Joe Johnston's headquarters, forcing the general and his entourage to beat a hasty retreat. At this critical juncture a well-orchestrated Confederate counterattack, led by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, quickly descended upon Mower's two brigades and forced them back. Sherman was furious with Mower's advance, fearing it would bring on the general engagement he wanted to avoid. The Union commander called a halt to the operation, but not before Mower's men were roughly handled by a combination of Confederate cavalry and infantry. Hardee's bold action assured Johnston the use of Mill Creek Bridge, his only means of egress from the battlefield. But the triumph of forcing the Federals back came at a personal cost to General Hardee. His only son, a youth of sixteen in the 8th Texas Cavalry, was mortally wounded in the charge against Mower. With no further advantage to be gained by holding a position at Bentonville, Johnston's weary troops abandoned their works during the night and withdrew toward Smithfield.

On March 22 Federal forces pursued the retreating Confederates as far as Hannah's Creek before giving up the chase. Sherman was content to let Johnston escape, fully expecting to have to deal with him again at a later date. But the Confederate withdrawal cleared the way for Sherman to occupy Goldsboro, which was foremost in the general's mind. His army needed rest and provisions, and Sherman also wanted to have the additional forces of J. M. Schofield and A. H. Terry before tangling with Johnston again.

The armies of Sherman, Schofield, and Terry converged on Goldsboro and occupied the town for two and one-half weeks in preparation for the final leg of the campaign.

On April 26, 1865, Johnston laid down Confederate arms on Sherman's terms at the Bennett Place near Durham, in the largest troop surrender of the American Civil War.


North Carolina Historic Sites - Bentonville

The battle which took place at Bentonville, North Carolina from the 19th through the 21st of March 1865 was the largest land battle ever fought in North Carolina. It was fought over an area of about six thousand acres of pine woods and fields. By the end of the fighting five hundred forty-three men were killed, over twenty-eight hundred were wounded and the missing numbered nearly nine hundred. Bentonville was the only significant attempt to stop Sherman on his march northward from Atlanta, and the last major Confederate offensive of the War Between the States.

In March of 1865 Union General William T. Sherman and 60,000 Federal troops under his command were in North Carolina. Sherman was marching his troops north from Fayetteville. His ultimate goal was to march to Virginia and join forces with General Ulysses S. Grant. The Union men were divided into two wings of 30,000 men each.

Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had assumed command of all Confederate forces from Florida to North Carolina on 23 February. In March Johnston's forces numbered about twenty thousand men and he hoped to stop the Federals and prevent them from linking forces with General Grant.

Early on 18 March General Johnston received a message from Lieutenant General Wade Hampton, the Confederate cavalry commander who later served as the first Governor of South Carolina after Reconstruction. The message told of making contact with one wing of Sherman's army. It was now clear Sherman was heading for Goldsboro where there were an additional 40,000 Union soldiers. Johnston began to move his troops south towards Bentonville and most of the Confederate troops were in place in the early morning of 19 March.

Johnston's troops charged the Federals left wing but they failed to overrun the Union line. Nightfall stopped the attack and the rest of Sherman's army, the right wing, arrived on March 20. There was a great deal of heavy skirmishing that day and that night both armies were drenched by a heavy rain which lasted until the morning of 21 March. Later that afternoon Union General J. A. Mower came close to cutting off Johnston's only line of retreat across Mill Creek, but Mower was so anxious to get to Mill Creek and moved so quickly that his troops found themselves exposed about three-quarters of a mile ahead of the other Union troops which were supporting them. Mower was forced to retreat to his original position.

During the rainy night of 21/22 March Johnston learned that Union troops under the command of Major General John Schofield had reached Goldsboro. There was no chance of success now for the Confederates and Johnston began to withdraw his men towards Smithfield. By the morning of 22 March Johnston's men had left Bentonville. The Federals crossed Mill Creek and followed after Johnston for a few miles, but Sherman wanted to get to Goldsboro so there was no serious pursuit of the Confederates.

The Confederates had failed to halt the Union advance. The War in the Carolinas lasted for about another month, but on April 26 near Durham at the home of James and Nancy Bennitt, known today as Bennett Place, General Johnston agreed to surrender his army and the War was over in the Carolinas, Florida and Georgia.

Today the Bentonville Battleground is a North Carolina Historic Site administered by North Carolina's Division of Archives and History which is part of the State's Department of Cultural Resources. The Harper House, which was the home of John and Amy Harper and served as a field hospital during the battle, is still standing. The house has been set up as a field hospital of the period and is part of the Site. Most of the wounded cared for at Harper House were Federals, but some Confederate wounded were taken there after the battle as well. The Harper House is well preserved and furnished circa 1865. There is a also a Visitor Center, a Confederate cemetery and a section of Union trenches. Bentonville Battleground is open year-round and admission is free. Further information can be obtained at (910) 594 0789.

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