March 18, 1865 – General Joseph E. Johnston concentrated all the Confederates he could muster near Bentonville, North Carolina, to oppose the advancing left wing of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal army.
Following the Battle of Averasboro, the two wings of Sherman’s army were separated by about a half-day’s march. Johnston did not know whether Sherman planned to advance on Raleigh or Goldsboro, so he kept most of his forces between the two towns at Smithfield and waited for Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s cavalry to scout the Federal advance.
Early on the 18th, Hampton notified Johnston that the Federals had crossed the Black River and were headed for Goldsboro, not Raleigh. Hampton also confirmed that Sherman’s wings were spread out and therefore vulnerable to attack. Each of Sherman’s wings numbered about 30,000 men, while Johnston could assemble no more than 18,000 in all. Johnston therefore looked to attack Sherman’s left wing before the right could come to its aid. Johnston’s makeshift Army of the South included:
- General Braxton Bragg’s command, consisting of Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division and Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s corps from the Army of Tennessee, which was at Smithfield.
- Lieutenant General William Hardee’s command, consisting of two divisions under Major General Lafayette McLaws and Brigadier General William B. Taliaferro, which had fallen back from Averasboro to Elevation.
- Another corps from the Army of Tennessee under Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham was on its way but not expected to arrive in time.
Johnston issued orders for all commanders to bring their forces to Bentonville, a village about 20 miles west of Goldsboro. Bragg’s command arrived at Bentonville on the 18th, but Hardee’s was delayed. According to Johnston, “The map proved to be very incorrect, and deceived me greatly in relation to the distance between the two roads on which the Federal columns were marching, which it exaggerated very much, and that from Elevation, which it reduced almost as much. General Hardee found it too great for a day’s march.
Meanwhile, Hampton led his cavalry troopers and some guns out to meet the Federal advance, led by Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry. The Confederates held until overwhelmed by numbers; they then fell back to the crest of a wooded hill and prepared to make a stand. Hampton later wrote, “I knew that if a serious attack was made on me the guns would be lost, but I determined to run this risk in the hope of checking the Federal advance.”
Hampton informed Johnston, “I can hold him here for several hours more, and I do not think his advance will get beyond this point tonight.” However, Hampton later recalled that some of his troopers did not share his confidence, with one saying, “Old Hampton is playing a bluff game, and if he don’t mind Sherman will call him.” Hampton wrote:
“It was near sunset when the enemy moved on this position, and recognizing its strength, not knowing also, I suppose, what number of troops held it, they withdrew after a rather feeble demonstration against us. We were thus left in possession of the ground chosen for the fight.”
Johnston rode up to meet Hampton that night. Hampton told him that XIV Corps of Sherman’s left wing was leading the advance down the Goldsboro Road. Hampton proposed attacking them in the densely wooded marshes two miles south of Bentonville.
Anxious for Hardee to arrive, Johnston wrote him, “It is of great consequence that you should be here as early as possible tomorrow morning. Please say at what hour you went into camp.” Hardee quickly replied, “This house is five miles from Bentonville. My command is about a mile in rear. I shall start at 4 o’clock, so as to reach Bentonville at an early hour in the morning. I did not reach camp till after dark, but if it be necessary I can start my command at an earlier hour.”
Johnston left the battle plan to Hampton, who was more familiar with the ground. Hampton planned to send the cavalry forward the next morning, with an infantry force deployed across the Goldsboro road and another “obliquely in echelon to the right of the first.” The cavalry would then withdraw through the infantry line and take positions on the extreme right. The attack was planned for “as soon after dawn tomorrow as possible.”
Johnston reported to General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee: “The troops will be united today, except two divisions of Cheatham’s corps not yet arrived. Effective totals, infantry and artillery: Bragg, 6,500; Hardee, 7,500; Army of Tennessee, 4,000. Should Sherman move by Weldon would you prefer my turning to Clarksville?” Clarksville was about 80 miles west of Weldon, giving Johnston a direct line northeast to join Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia at Petersburg if necessary.
On the Federal side, Sherman did not expect Johnston to put up a right at Bentonville. He wrote, “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.” Sherman therefore planned to travel with his right wing and try establishing communications with Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina, which he was to join with at Goldsboro.
Unbeknownst to Sherman and his left wing, Johnston’s entire makeshift army was waiting for them just five miles ahead.
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