March 11, 1865 – The left wing of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies captured Fayetteville, a key city on the Cape Fear River in southern North Carolina.
Sherman’s Federals had begun entering the state on the 7th, sweeping in from South Carolina in two wings of two columns each:
- Major General Henry W. Slocum’s Army of Georgia, consisting of XIV and XX corps, held the left (west).
- Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, consisting of XV and XVII corps, held the right (east).
Sherman planned to feint toward Charlotte while actually targeting Fayetteville, the largest town in his path through North Carolina thus far. It housed 3,000 residents and an arsenal that North Carolinians had seized from the Federal government after the state seceded. The arsenal contained rifle-making machinery that Confederates had transferred from Harpers Ferry in 1861.
Securing Fayetteville would enable Sherman to open a supply line on the Cape Fear River. The Federals were slowed by rain and sandy roads that needed corduroying, as well as sporadic Confederate resistance, but they eventually closed in on their target. Only a small cavalry force led by Lieutenant General Wade Hampton guarded Fayetteville. The rest of the Confederate forces in North Carolina remained dispersed while their new commander, General Joseph E. Johnston, tried to unite them. Sherman wrote, “Up to this period I had perfectly succeeded in interposing my superior army between the scattered parts of my enemy.”
On the morning of the 11th, Slocum reported to Sherman: “The advance of the Fourteenth Army Corps last night reached Buckhead Creek, where they met the enemy in some force. (Absalom) Baird’s division is now moving from this point. The Twentieth Corps is several miles in rear. I shall soon learn whether they intend to defend the place and shall be in there at 9 a.m. if they do not.”
As the Federals began surrounding Fayetteville, a scouting party of 67 cavalrymen under Captain William R. Duncan rode into town. The party encountered Hampton’s horsemen and nearly captured Hampton himself, but a Confederate detachment arrived and drove the Federals off. The Confederates killed 11 and took 12 prisoners, including Duncan.
Major General Lafayette McLaws, commanding Confederate infantry near Fayetteville, received sensational reports that Hampton had driven off a much larger Federal force, but he was unimpressed: “Report says he killed two with his own hand, but the chivalry have fallen so deep into the pit of ‘want of chivalry’ that they are constantly inventing Munchausen as to the prowess of those from that state, of defaming others in order that thereby they appear elevated by the contrast.”
If the clash could be called a Confederate victory, it was a short-lived one. Federal troops soon advanced in overwhelming numbers, and Hampton abandoned Fayetteville. The Confederates scored one last moral victory by burning the Cape Fear Bridge before the Federals could stop them. Mayor Archibald McLean formally surrendered the city to Sherman’s men.
Sherman sent messengers to contact Major General Alfred H. Terry’s Federal X Corps at Wilmington, 75 miles down the Cape Fear River. Terry’s corps was part of Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina, all under Sherman’s military division. Terry responded by sending a naval squadron under Lieutenant Commander George W. Young upriver to open communications between Sherman and Washington. Scouts reported the waterway to be “very narrow and torturous, with a strong current… the Chickamauga is sunk across the stream at Indian Wells, with a chain just below. Her two guns are on a bluff on the western bank of the river.”
Meanwhile, Sherman entered Fayetteville:
“I took up my quarters at the old United States Arsenal, which was in fine order, and had been much enlarged by the Confederate authorities, who never dreamed that an invading army would reach it from the west… During the 11th the whole army closed down upon Fayetteville, and immediate preparations were made to lay two pontoon bridges, one near the burned bridge, and another about four miles lower down.”
Sherman intended to continue northeast to Goldsboro, where he would join with Schofield’s forces coming from Wilmington (Terry’s X Corps) and Kinston (Major General Jacob D. Cox’s XXIII Corps). From there, the united command would advance in two wings to confront Johnston’s Confederates spread out between Goldsboro and Raleigh.
But before Sherman’s men continued their march, they stayed at Fayetteville long enough to destroy factories, tanneries, railroad machine shops, factories, warehouses, and supplies considered useful to the Confederate war effort. This included the arsenal. Sherman reported to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton:
“The arsenal is in fine order, and has been much enlarged. I cannot leave a detachment to hold it, therefore shall burn it, blow it up with gunpowder, and then with rams knock down its walls. I take it for granted the United States will never again trust North Carolina with an arsenal to appropriate at her leisure.”
Sherman informed Terry, “We are all well and have destroyed a vast amount of stores and done the enemy irreparable damage. I will destroy the arsenal utterly.” In addition to war-related property, the Federals destroyed several private residences and three newspaper buildings. A resident wrote that “there was no place, no chamber, trunk, drawer, desk, garret, closet, or cellar that was private to their unholy eyes. Their rude hands spared nothing but our lives…” A provost guard was finally assigned to stop the pillaging.
Meanwhile, Sherman instructed Terry:
“I want you to send me all the shoes, stockings, drawers, sugar, coffee, and flour you can spare; finish the loads with oats or corn. Have the boats escorted and them run at night at any risk… refugees, white and black… have clung to our skirts, impeded our movements, and consumed our food… I must rid my army of from 20,000 to 30,000 useless mouths, as many to go to Cape Fear as possible, and balance will go in vehicles, and captured horses via Clinton to Wilmington.”
The steamer U.S.S. Eolus became the first vessel to reach Sherman’s men at Fayetteville on the afternoon of the 12th. The Eolus delivered supplies and mail, giving the troops knowledge of the “outside world” for the first time since leaving Savannah over a month ago.
As the Federals continued their destruction, a small Confederate force fought a delaying action while retreating from the Fayetteville area. This gave Johnston more time to concentrate his main force at Smithfield, between Goldsboro and Raleigh, in hopes of preventing the junction of Sherman and Schofield. Johnston warned General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee that if this happened, “their march into Virginia cannot be prevented by me.”
Sherman wrote to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, “Jos. Johnston may try to interpose between me here and Schofield about New Bern, but I think he will not try that.” Instead, Sherman predicted Johnston would try uniting his forces at Raleigh and make a stand there. Sherman was right.
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