March 20, 1865 – The fight that began yesterday in North Carolina ended as Major General William T. Sherman scrambled to unite his Federal army to oppose General Joseph E. Johnston’s makeshift Confederate force.
By daybreak on the 20th, Johnston’s Confederates had returned to their original line behind Mill Creek, north of the Goldsboro road. Having sustained about 2,000 casualties in yesterday’s fighting, Johnston could field no more than 16,000 men. His left flank guarded the Mill Creek Bridge, which was the Confederates’ only escape route if retreat became necessary.
The left wing of Sherman’s army–Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XIV and XX corps–held positions near Bentonville, while Sherman rushed his right wing–Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XV and XVII corps–westward to reinforce them. According to Sherman, “I ordered General Howard to proceed with due caution, using skirmishers alone, till he had made junction with General Slocum, on his left.” Once Sherman’s wings were united, the force would number close to 60,000 men.
Confederate cavalry troopers harassed Howard’s marching Federals, but Howard wrote that they were “unable to offer any serious opposition until our head of column encountered a considerable body behind a barricade at the forks of the road near Bentonville, about three miles east of the battlefield of the day before. This body of cavalry was, however, quickly dislodged, and the intersection of the roads secured.”
The Confederates “reported that the right wing of the Federal army, which had struck the road on which we were some miles to the east, was rapidly moving down on our rear and left flank.” Johnston responded by refusing the line on his left flank until his line resembled a misshapen “V”. Major General Robert F. Hoke’s infantry and Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s cavalry manned the left. Hampton wrote:
“Our line was a very weak one, and our position was extremely perilous, for our small force was confronted, almost surrounded, by one nearly five times as large. Our flanks rested on no natural defenses, and behind us was a deep and rapid stream over which there was but one bridge, which gave the only means of withdrawal. Our left flank–far overlapped by the enemy–was held along a small stream which flowed into Mill Creek, and this was held only by cavalry videttes stationed at long intervals apart.”
Johnston expected Sherman to attack, but the Federals spent the day mostly probing the Confederate defenses. As Howard’s troops arrived on Slocum’s right (i.e., the Confederate left), Howard wrote:
“We came upon the enemy infantry between 10 and 11 a.m. He had a position at the forks where the right hand road leads to Bentonville and the straight forward road on toward Averasborough… In this place he was carefully intrenched. The ground was for the most part low, swampy, and covered with woods.”
All four of Sherman’s corps arrived by midday, and any chance Johnston may have had to defeat Sherman’s army while separated was gone. Howard’s troops now comprised the Federal right, with XVII Corps on the flank. Major General Joseph A. Mower’s division of XVII Corps held the end of the line. The Federals conducted several reconnaissances in force, and according to Johnston:
“The Federal army was united before us about noon and made repeated attacks, between that time and sunset, upon Hoke’s division… In all, the enemy was so effectually driven back, that our infirmary corps brought in a number of their wounded that had been left on the field, and carried them to our field-hospitals.”
Hoke praised his North Carolina Junior Reserves, referred to as “the seed corn of the Confederacy,” for standing firm against “every charge that was made upon them.” But the left was still in danger, and as such Johnston shifted Major General Lafayette McLaws’s division to that sector.
Johnston hoped that Sherman would commit a blunder by attacking his fortified positions. However, Sherman’s top priority was not to defeat Johnston, but to get to Goldsboro, join forces with those of Major Generals John Schofield and Alfred H. Terry, and rest his exhausted men after their grueling march through the Carolinas.
As rain opened the 21st, the troops continued watching each other from opposing lines. Mower received permission to conduct a reconnaissance, but as he later reported, “Learning that a road leading from the right of the line crossed Mill Creek by a ford, I pushed my command down that road for the purpose of closing on the enemy’s flank.” Thus, instead of just a reconnaissance, Mower would try moving two brigades around the Confederate flank to seize the vital Mill Creek Bridge.
As Federal pickets closed in on the Confederate line, Hampton recalled:
“I immediately rode down to report this fact to General Johnston, and I told him that there was no force present able to resist an attack, and that if the enemy broke through at that point, which was near the bridge, across the main stream, our only line of retreat would be cut off.”
Hampton scrambled to put every available Confederate unit on the line to stop the Federal movement. Lieutenant General William Hardee then arrived on the scene and, being the ranking commander, ordered the Confederates to charge. Hampton wrote that “the attack was so sudden and so impetuous that it carried everything before it, and the enemy retreated hastily across the branch.”
Hardee himself participated in the attack and said, “That was Nip and Tuck, and for a time I thought Tuck had it.” He survived, but his 16-year-old son Willie was killed. Earlier that day, Hardee had reluctantly allowed Willie to see action with the 8th Texas Cavalry.
The Federals were momentarily stopped, but they were still within just a mile of the bridge, and Mower was poised to counterattack. But just then Sherman ordered him to stop where he was and build defenses. An assault might have cut off Johnston’s line of retreat and possibly forced him to surrender. Sherman later admitted:
“I think I made a mistake there, and should rapidly have followed Mower’s lead with the whole of the right wing, which would have brought on a general battle, and it could not have resulted otherwise than successfully to us, by reason of our vastly superior numbers; but at the moment, for the reasons given, I preferred to make junction with Generals Terry and Schofield, before engaging Johnston’s army, the strength of which was utterly unknown.”
The armies disengaged, and according to Johnston:
“At night all the wounded that could bear transportation had been removed; so that we had no object for remaining in a position made very hazardous by the stream behind us, rendered unfordable by recent rain. The army was therefore ordered to cross Mill Creek by the bridge at Bentonville before daybreak of the 22nd.”
This battle was well fought by both sides. The Federals sustained 1,527 casualties while the Confederates lost 2,606, a much greater loss in proportion to their total number. Never before or after did the Confederacy field so few men under so many high-ranking officers: Generals Johnston and Braxton Bragg; Lieutenant Generals Hardee, Hampton, and Alexander P. Stewart; and Major Generals Hoke, McLaws, D.H. Hill, Joseph Wheeler, and William W. Loring.
Although the Confederates fought hard against heavy odds, they could not stop Sherman’s march to Goldsboro, where his force combined with Schofield’s and Terry’s would number nearly 90,000. Johnston would never be able to muster more than 20,000 men. The fight at Bentonville marked the Confederates’ last effective opposition to the relentless Federal sweep into North Carolina.
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