The Battle of Bentonville was fought March 19–21, 1865, in Bentonville, North Carolina, near the current town of Four Oaks, as part of the Carolinas Campaign of the American Civil War. It was the last major battle to occur between the armies of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston.
On the first day of the battle, the Confederate army attacked one Federal wing and was able to rout two Union divisions, but was unable to drive the rest of the wing off the field. The next day, the other Federal wing arrived and for the next two days, the armies skirmished with each other before Johnston retreated. In light of overwhelming enemy strength and the relatively heavy casualties his army suffered in the battle, Johnston surrendered to Sherman little more than a month later at Bennett Place, near Durham Station. Coupled with Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender earlier in April, Johnston's surrender represented the effective end of the war.
During the late winter and early spring of 1865, Sherman's Union army cut a swath of destruction through South Carolina, a logical continuation of the previous fall's March to the Sea. Sherman intended to cut Confederate supply lines to Petersburg and damage Confederate morale. On March 8, Union soldiers crossed into North Carolina as a collection of Confederate units attempted to concentrate and block their path. Sherman divided his command into two parts, a Left Wing commanded by Maj. Gen.Henry W. Slocum and a Right Wing commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard. The two wings marched separately toward Goldsboro beginning on March 13, with no one in the Union officer command expecting major resistance from Johnston.
On February 23, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee ordered Johnston to take command of the Army of Tennessee and units in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, and to "concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman." Johnston managed to concentrate in North Carolina the Army of Tennessee commanded by Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart, Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke's division from the Army of Northern Virginia, troops from the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida commanded by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, and cavalry under the command of Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, calling the united force the Army of the South. Confederate maps erroneously showed that the two Union wings were twelve miles apart, which meant each would take a day to reach the other. Johnston attempted to concentrate his entire army on Slocum's wing to defeat it and to destroy its trains before it reunited with the rest of the Union column. The Confederate attack commenced on March 19, as Slocum's men marched on the Goldsboro Road, one mile (1.6 km) south of Bentonville.
Slocum was convinced he faced only enemy cavalry and artillery, not an entire army. In addition, Sherman did not believe that Johnston would fight with the Neuse River to his rear. Therefore, Slocum initially notified Sherman that he was facing only cursory resistance near Bentonville and did not require aid. Believing he faced only cavalry, Slocum attempted to brush aside the Confederates by attacking with the division of William P. Carlin with support from the division of Absalom Baird, both from the XIV Corps but this attack was driven back. Slocum then deployed these division in a defensive line, with James D. Morgan's division on the right and a XX Corps division in support, in order to delay the Confederates long enough to allow the rest of his wing to arrive. None of these divisions constructed strong breastworks except for Morgan's division. In addition, there was a gap in the center of the Union line.
At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Confederate infantry launched their attack and drove the Union left flank back in confusion. Confederates under Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill filled the vacuum left by the retreating Federals and began enfilading the Union troops remaining along the front. At one point Morgan's division was nearly surrounded and was being attacked from three sides, but the Confederate attacks were uncoordinated. Other units under Hardee attacked the prepared Union positions near the Harper house but were repulsed after multiple assaults. After a heated engagement, Union reinforcements arrived and checked Hill's assault. Fighting continued after nightfall as the Confederates tried without success to drive back the remaining Union line. About midnight, the Confederates withdrew to their original positions and started entrenching.
Slocum had called for aid from Sherman during the afternoon attacks, and Howard's wing arrived on the field late on the afternoon of March 20, deploying on Slocum's right flank and extending the Union line towards Mill Creek. Johnston responded to Howard's arrival by pulling back Hoke's division so it ran at a right angle to Stewart's left flank, and deploying one of Hardee's divisions on Hoke's left. Confederate cavalry protected the Confederate flank to Mill Creek in a weak skirmish line. Only light skirmishing occurred on this day. Johnston remained on the field, claiming that he stayed to remove his wounded, but perhaps also in hope of enticing Sherman to attack again, as had happened at Kennesaw Mountain.
On March 21, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower, commanding the division on the Union right flank, requested permission from his corps commander to launch a "little reconnaissance" to his front, which was granted. Mower instead launched an attack with two brigades on the Confederate left flank, which was defending Mill Creek Bridge. Mower's men managed to come within one mile (1.6 km) of the crossing before Sherman peremptorily ordered them to pull back. In his memoirs, Sherman admitted that this was a mistake and that he missed an opportunity to end the campaign then and there, perhaps capturing Johnston's army entirely. Among the Confederate casualties was Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee's 16-year-old son, Willie. Hardee had reluctantly allowed his son to attach himself to the 8th Texas Cavalry just hours before Mower's attack.
During the night of the 21st to dawn on the 22nd, Johnston withdrew his army across Mill Creek and burned the bridge behind him, leaving behind a cavalry detachment as a rearguard. The Union army failed to detect the Confederate retreat until it was over. Sherman took little notice and did not pursue the Confederates, but continued his march to Goldsboro, where joined the Union forces under Terry and Schofield. The Confederate army had failed in its last chance to achieve a decisive victory over the Union army in North Carolina.
Sherman was criticized after the war for not attacking and capturing most, if not all, of Johnston's army when he had the chance. This might have shortened the war by several weeks. Others suggest that he knew that the war was rapidly drawing to a close, and that any further bloodshed at that point was pointless. Once he joined with the Union forces at Goldsboro, he would vastly outnumber Johnston and would be able to "lever Johnston easily from any position he chose. North Carolina, indeed Virginia, would be his."
The site of the battle is preserved as the Bentonville Battleground State Historic Site, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996. The park, founded in 1965, includes 130 acres of the battlefield and runs a visitor's center adjacent to the restored Harper House, which served as a hospital for Union soldiers during the battle. The Bentonville Battlefield Historical Association and the Civil War Preservation Trust also owns portions of the battlefield not included in the state park, including 901 acres by the CWPT alone.
- Confederate order of battle
- Union order of battle
- Barrett, p. 409.
- Bradley, p. 404.
- Barrett, p. 411.
- Bradley, p. 2.
- Hughes, p. 16-17.
- Hughes, p. 21-22.
- This division had lately been operating in the Department of North Carolina, and so during the battle would be under the nominal operational control of department commander General Braxton Bragg. (Luvaas, p. 6.)
- Hampton's command consisted of Matthew C. Butler's division from the Army of Northern Virginia and Joseph Wheeler's corps from the Army of Tennessee.
- Bradly, p. 137.
- Luvaas, p. 3
- Hughes, p. 47
- Barrett, p. 408
- Hughes, p. 74-76
- Luvaas, p. 11-12.
- Luvaas, p. 13.
- Luvaas, p. 13-14.
- Luvaas, p. 16-17.
- Hughes, p. 167.
- Hughes, p. 169.
- Hughes, p. 168
- Hughes, p. 187.
- Hughes, p. 204.
- Bradley, p. 400-401
- Bradley, p. 407.
- Bradley, p. 407.
- Bradley, p. 404-405.
- Hughes, p. 230.
- CWPT website land saved page
- National Park Service battle description
- Civil War Preservation Trust
- Barrett, John G. "Bentonville, North Carolina (NC020), Johnston County, March 19-21, 1865." in Kennedy, Frances H., ed., The Civil War Battlefield Guide, 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998. ISBN 0-395-74012-6.
- Bradley, Mark L. Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville. Campbell, California: Savas Publishing Company, 1996. ISBN 1-882810-02-3
- Broadwater, Robert P., Battle of despair : Bentonville and the North Carolina campaign, Macon, Ga : Mercer University Press, c2004.
- Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs, Jr., Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996. ISBN 0-8078-2281-7
- Luvaas, Jay. "Johnston's Last Stand Bentonville." pamphlet, no date, no publisher. Republished from North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 33, no. 3 (July 1956), pp. 332–358.
- Bentonville Battlefield
- Battle of Bentonville: Maps, Histories, Photos, and Preservation News (CWPT)
- The Flags of Bentonville: Union and Confederate flags that flew with units at the Battle of Bentonville
- The Battle of Bentonville: Caring for Casualties of the Civil War, a National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan
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