March 22, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals ended their devastating march through the Carolinas by arriving at Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Since entering the state, Sherman had planned to lead his 60,000 men to Goldsboro, where they could be resupplied and united with Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina. Following the Battle of Bentonville, Sherman learned that General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate army was falling back northwest toward Smithfield. This left the northeastern path to Goldsborough open, and one of Schofield’s corps under Major General Jacob D. Cox had entered the town on the 21st.
Sherman’s left wing, commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum, took the lead on the march to Goldsboro. They were followed by the right wing, commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard. The Federals were slowed by sandy and muddy roads, but they reached the town on the 22nd. Sherman issued a congratulatory order to his troops:
“After a march of the most extraordinary character, nearly 500 miles over swamps and rivers deemed impassable to others, at the most inclement season of the year, and drawing our chief supplies from a poor and wasted country, we reach our destination in good health and condition.”
Sherman met with Schofield on the 23rd, just three days behind the schedule they had drafted in January. In the past 50 days, Sherman’s men had advanced 425 miles through harsh terrain and foul weather, crossing high rivers and “impenetrable” swamps. They cut a swath of destruction 45 miles wide between Savannah and Goldsboro, winning battles at Averasboro and Bentonville on the way. Sherman later wrote, “Were I to express my measure of the relative importance of the march to the sea and of that from Savannah northward, I would place the former at one and the latter at 10 or the maximum.”
Schofield’s Federals had captured Wilmington and won a battle at Kinston. They worked around the clock to restore the railroad line from Goldsboro to New Bern, thus assuring that the troops would be well supplied by the naval vessels on the Atlantic coast. The combined forces of Sherman and Schofield included six army corps totaling 88,948 men. They now dominated North Carolina.
In contrast, Johnston had no more than 20,000 men left in his makeshift Confederate army. Despite this, Johnston took the time to write to General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee to dispel rumors that the proud Army of Tennessee refused to fight any longer: “Troops of Tennessee army have fully disproved slanders that have been published against them.”
Johnston informed Lee that Sherman had linked with Schofield at Goldsboro, and then conceded, “Sherman’s course cannot be hindered by the small force I have. I can do no more than annoy him. I respectfully suggest that it is no longer a question of whether you leave present position; you have only to decide where to meet Sherman. I will be near him.”
Johnston’s Confederates crossed the Neuse River and took positions on the roads leading to Raleigh and Weldon. Johnston expected Sherman to target one of those towns next on his way to join with the Federal Armies of the Potomac and the James laying siege to Petersburg. These were also solid linkage points with Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia if Lee abandoned Petersburg and Richmond. Weldon was particularly important because the railroad ran north from that town to Petersburg and, according to a Confederate deserter, “All of the forage for General Lee’s army passes through Weldon.”
Sherman seemed in no hurry to resume his advance. His exhausted men needed rest and supplies, and he needed time to plan his next move. Federal Major George Nicholls summed it up: “Our army (needs) not only to be reclothed, but to gain the repose it needs. Mind, as well as body, requires rest after the fatigues of rapid campaigns like these. These ragged, bareheaded, shoeless, brave, jolly fellows of Sherman’s legions, too, want covering for their naked limbs.”
With his planning still in the preliminary phase, Sherman wrote to Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, on the 24th: “I think I see pretty clearly how, in one more move, we can checkmate Lee, forcing him to unite Johnston with him in defense of Richmond, or, by leaving Richmond, to abandon the cause. I feel certain if he leaves Richmond, Virginia leaves the Confederacy.”
Sherman assured Grant that he would be able to field “an army of 80,000 men by April 10. If I get the troops all well placed, and the supplies working well, I might run up to see you for a day or two before diving again into the bowels of the country.”
The next day, supplies began arriving in Goldsboro from the restored railroad to New Bern. This included much-needed new clothing. No more would the troops live off southern civilians. The men were particularly excited when over 500 bags of mail arrived for them, as many had not received mail in months.
Sherman became one of the first passengers on the first eastbound train to New Bern. Leaving the Federals under Schofield’s command, he left to meet with Grant in Virginia to discuss future military strategy. Both Sherman and Grant expressed confidence that the next big campaign could end the war.
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