Tag Archives: Joseph E. Johnston

The Battle of Bentonville: Day Two

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.

Generals W.T. Sherman and J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: Bing public domain

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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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22128; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 548-49; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17335-45, 17433-43; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 568-69; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (John G. Barrett, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 271-72; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 70-75; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 653-56; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 736; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 56; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 829-30; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 453; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 362-63

The Battle of Bentonville

March 19, 1865 – General Joseph E. Johnston’s makeshift Confederate army moved to crush the left wing of Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal army outside Bentonville before the right wing could come up in support.

Sherman’s left wing was led by Major General Henry W. Slocum, and it consisted of XIV and XX corps, with Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry in support. The Federals had camped within five miles of the Confederate line on the 18th and resumed their forward march the next morning, with Major General Jefferson C. Davis’s XIV Corps in the lead.

Johnston had about 18,000 infantrymen from various commands, along with Lieutenant General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. The Confederates blocked the Federals’ path to Goldsboro, where Sherman hoped to join forces with Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina. Johnston looked to take on XIV Corps, which was about the same size as his force, before XX Corps or Sherman’s right wing could reinforce it.

The Federals advanced near dawn and quickly ran into Hampton’s cavalry in front of the main Confederate line. Skirmishing ensued, but Slocum did not think it was too serious. A staff officer informed Sherman that Slocum’s “leading division had encountered a division of rebel cavalry, which he was driving easily.” Satisfied there was no danger, Sherman rode off to join his right wing, about a half-day’s march to the east.

Meanwhile, the skirmishing intensified and both sides brought up artillery. The Confederates began deploying for battle, but they moved slowly because there was only one viable road from Bentonville to the field. General Braxton Bragg’s division under Major General Robert F. Hoke held the Confederate left, while Lieutenant General Alexander P. Stewart’s corps from the Army of Tennessee held the right. Lieutenant General William Hardee’s command was slated to come up between Hoke and Stewart, but he was running late. Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham’s corps from the Army of Tennessee was also on its way.

Fighting at Bentonville | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Slocum sent a message to Sherman assuring him that no reinforcements were needed. He then ordered Davis’s XIV Corps forward to meet the threat. Brigadier General William P. Carlin’s division led the advance, but they were hit by unexpectedly heavy volleys from Hoke’s Confederates and forced to fall back. One officer said, “I tell you it was a tight spot… (we) stood as long as man could stand… (then) we run like the devil.” Carlin’s men quickly built breastworks that one officer said “saved Sherman’s reputation.”

Davis soon learned from Confederate prisoners that this was more than just an isolated Confederate unit; Johnston was making a stand with his whole army. According to Slocum, Davis “informed me that General Johnston had, by forced marches, concentrated his army in my front; that it was understood among the rebel soldiers that this force amounted to 40,000 men; they were told that they were to crush one corps of Sherman’s army.” Slocum therefore “concluded to take a defensive position and communicate with the commanding general.”

The Federal advance was stopped by 1:30 p.m., as the troops fortified themselves and Slocum called on XX Corps, led by Brigadier General Alpheus Williams, to hurry to the front. Williams’s men began arriving around 2 p.m. and took positions to the left of XIV Corps.

On the Confederate side, Hardee’s troops began arriving around 2:45 p.m., with Hardee taking command of the right wing. Johnston then ordered a general assault. Colonel Charles W. Broadfoot from Hoke’s command described the scene: “It looked like a picture and at our distance was truly beautiful… But it was a painful sight to see how close their battle flags were together, regiments being scarcely larger than companies and a division not much larger than a regiment should be.”

The Confederates crumpled the Federals’ left flank, which had not yet been fully manned by XX Corps. They nearly captured Carlin and overran a Federal field hospital. As they continued forward, Major General D.H. Hill’s Confederates began enfilading the rest of the Federal line. However, the attack was not coordinated well enough to break the Federal defenses.

A second phase of the battle began when Hoke’s Confederates attacked the Federal right, which was isolated due to the left having been crumpled. Vicious fighting took place, with one Army of Northern Virginia veteran later stating that “it was the hottest infantry fight they had been in except Cold Harbor.” The Federal line seemed about to break, but reinforcements arrived just in time to repel the attackers.

Hampton wrote that Bragg, “fearing he could not maintain his ground, applied for reinforcements. General Johnston at once determined to comply with this request, and he directed Hardee to send a portion of his force to the support of Hoke. This movement was in my judgment the only mistake committed on our part during the fight…”

A third phase began when the Confederates on the right renewed their assault on the crumpled flank. Hardee committed two divisions in a heavy attack near the Harper house. Johnston later wrote of Hardee:

“He then made the charge with characteristic skill and vigor. Once, when he apprehended the difficult, Hardee literally led the advance. The Federals were routed in a few minutes, our brave fellows dashing successively over two lines of temporary breastworks, and following the enemy rapidly, but in good order.”

But troops from XX Corps came up and checked the Confederate advance. Hardee committed a third division and launched five separate assaults after 5 p.m., but none could break the Federal line. A North Carolinian remembered that nowhere “in the battle of Gettysburg (was) as hot as that place.” Slocum reported, “The enemy was repulsed at all points along our line, but continued his assaults until a late hour in the evening.”

Nightfall ended the fighting. Johnston concluded that the enemy force had been “greatly increased,” even though Sherman’s right wing had not yet arrived. He reported:

“After burying our dead and bringing off our own and many of the Federal wounded, and three pieces of artillery… we returned to our first position. The impossibility of concentrating the Confederate forces in time to attack the Federal left wing while in column on the march, made complete success also impossible, from the enemy’s great numerical superiority.”

After midnight, the Confederates fell back to their original position behind Mill Creek and built defenses. Meanwhile, the Federals set up makeshift hospitals to tend to the wounded, and a witness recalled:

“A dozen surgeons and attendants in their shirt sleeves stood at rude benches cutting off arms and legs and throwing them out of the window where they lay scattered on the grass. The legs of the infantrymen could be distinguished from those of the cavalry by the size of their calves.”

During the night, couriers hurried to Sherman’s headquarters and delivered the news that a major battle had been fought. One of Sherman’s staff officers recalled:

“At about half past nine, one of General Slocum’s aides came up at a dashing pace, and, throwing himself from his horse, asked for General Sherman. We all gathered round, and listened attentively, as he told the particulars of the battle. The commander-in-chief would have made a good subject for Punch or Vanity Fair. He had been lying down in General Howard’s tent, and hearing the inquiry for him, and being of course anxious to hear the news of the fight, he rushed out to the camp-fire without stopping to put on his clothes. He stood in a bed of ashes up to his ankles, chewing impatiently the stump of a cigar, with his hands clasped behind him, and with nothing on but a red flannel undershirt and a pair of drawers.”

Sherman wrote:

“I sent back orders for him to fight defensively to save time, and that I would come up with reénforcements from the direction of Cox’s Bridge, by the road which we had reached near Falling-Creek Church. The country was very obscure, and the maps extremely defective. By this movement I hoped General Slocum would hold Johnston’s army facing west, while I would come on his rear from the east…”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22119-28; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 548; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 568; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (John G. Barrett, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 270-71; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 70-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 654-55; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p.56; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 829; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 453; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 304; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 362-63

Confederates Make a Stand at Bentonville

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.

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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.

General Wade Hampton | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22119; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 548; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17335-45; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 567; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (John G. Barrett, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 268-70; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 653-54

The Battle of Averasboro

March 15, 1865 – A small Confederate force dug in near Averasboro and partially blocked the path of Major General William T. Sherman’s advance into North Carolina.

Sherman’s Federals moved out of Fayetteville on the 14th and began crossing the Cape Fear River on their way to Goldsboro, where they hoped to join forces with Major General John Schofield’s Federal Army of North Carolina. After three days of repairing bridges, Schofield’s men crossed the Neuse River and resumed their advance toward Goldsboro.

The Confederate high command still believed that Sherman’s true objective was Raleigh, and General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee warned General Joseph E. Johnston not to allow the Federals to cut the railroad supply line running from Raleigh to Petersburg and Richmond. If this happened, Johnston’s army would have to fall back toward Virginia, and if “forced back in this direction both armies would certainly starve.”

Johnston had no more than 24,000 men, most of whom were either pulled from garrison duty or belonged to state militias. Some were demoralized veterans from the Army of Tennessee. They were expected to stop an enemy that, if Sherman and Schofield joined forces, would number over 90,000. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis:

“The army under Genl Johnston is about being united at Raleigh. It is inferior in number to the enemy, and I fear its tone is not yet restored. It is in great part without field transportation and labours under other disadvantages, I think it would be better at this time if practicable to avoid a general engagement and endeavour to strike the enemy in detail. This is Genl Johnston’s plan, in which I hope he may succeed, and he may then recover all the ground he may be obliged to relinquish in accomplishing it.

“The greatest calamity that can befall us is the destruction of our armies. If they can be maintained we may recover from our reverses, but if lost we have no resource. I will endeavour to keep your Excellency advised of Genl Johnston’s intentions, but from his dispatches and reports of the condition of his army, I fear it may be necessary to relinquish Raleigh.”

Johnston hoped to defeat Sherman and Schofield while they were still separated, but since he still did not know Sherman’s true intentions, he had to divide his own force. General Braxton Bragg’s Confederates coming from Kinston were directed to guard Goldsboro, while Lieutenant General William Hardee’s small force coming up from Fayetteville was to guard Raleigh. The central command would be at Smithfield, between the two towns.

Confederate Lieut Gen William Hardee | Image Credit: Flickr.com

By the 15th, both the left and right wings of Sherman’s Federal army had crossed the Cape Fear River. Hardee’s 7,500 Confederates took positions on a ridge between the river and Averasboro, a small town about 30 miles south of Raleigh. This blocked Sherman’s left wing, specifically Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XX Corps in that wing. According to Sherman:

“On the 15th of March the whole army was across Cape Fear River, and at once began its march for Goldsboro’; the Seventeenth Corps still on the right, the Fifteenth next in order, then the Fourteenth and Twentieth on the extreme left; the cavalry acting in close concert with the left flank. With almost a certainty of being attacked on this flank, I had instructed General Slocum to send his corps-trains under strong escort by an interior road, holding four divisions ready for immediate battle.”

Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry screened Slocum’s advance on the left, probing for the enemy. The Federals ran into a Confederate skirmish line consisting mainly of the 1st South Carolina Heavy Artillery, which had previously been garrisoned at Charleston. A skirmish ensued in which the Federals took several prisoners.

The prisoners included Colonel Alfred M. Rhett, son of Robert B. Rhett, the fire-eating editor of the Charleston Mercury. Colonel Rhett defiantly warned Kilpatrick, “There are 50,000 fresh men ready and waiting for you” in South Carolina. Kilpatrick replied, “Yes and if that is true we will have to hunt the swamp to find the damned cowards.” Rhett was taken to Sherman’s headquarters, where he was questioned and turned over to Slocum’s provost-guard.

Hardee’s Confederates ultimately fended off Kilpatrick’s probe, and Slocum’s men camped within eight miles of Averasboro on the night of the 15th. As Sherman explained, his force “encountered pretty stubborn resistance by Hardee’s infantry, artillery, and cavalry, and the ground favored our enemy; for the deep river, Cape Fear, was on his right, and North River on his left, forcing us to attack him square in front. I proposed to drive Hardee well beyond Averysboro’, and then to turn to the right by Bentonville for Goldsboro.”

The next day, as Hardee resumed his attacks on Kilpatrick’s cavalry, Slocum’s XX Corps attacked the Confederate front. The Federals made little progress until Sherman ordered a brigade to move around and try outflanking Hardee’s right. This forced the Confederates to fall back to a second defensive line. They fended off three Federal charges, and when their flanks were about to crumble, Hardee withdrew to a third position on high ground behind a swamp.

The Confederates withstood repeated attacks from this new position throughout the afternoon. As night fell, Hardee learned that the Federals were crossing the Black River to turn his left flank. This compelled him to withdraw his men under cover of a stormy night toward Smithfield. Hardee reported to Johnston:

“The enemy have made repeated attempts to carry my lines and turn my flanks, but have been repulsed in every attempt. I shall retire toward Smithfield tonight. General Hampton says the enemy have crossed Black River at several places, and urges me to move rapidly to prevent being intercepted…”

The fight at Averasboro cost the Federals 682 casualties (95 killed, 533 wounded, and 54 missing), while the Confederates lost about 865. This was neither a major battle nor a Confederate victory, but it gave Johnston more time to concentrate his forces and possibly block the planned junction between Sherman and Schofield at Goldsboro. Hardee issued orders commending his troops for their effort and for “giving the enemy the first check he has received since leaving Atlanta.”

Sherman’s advance through the Carolinas had been nearly flawless thus far, but he made a serious mistake at Averasboro: he failed to put his right wing into the fight, which could have destroyed Hardee’s entire force. This not only allowed Hardee to escape, but the fight left Sherman’s left wing dangerously spread out and separated from the right by nearly 12 miles.

Sherman’s forces continued moving forward nonetheless, struggling along muddy roads and building bridges on the way.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22111-19; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 547; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 17246-96, 17315-35; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 566-67; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (John G. Barrett, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 268; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 652-53; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 418-19; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 31, 56; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 829; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 452-53; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 304

The Deteriorating State of the Confederacy

March 13, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis submitted a contentious message to the Confederate Congress as a growing sense of defeat spread throughout the South.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

While Confederate officials became more vocal in their belief that independence could not be attained, Davis refused to publicly acknowledge such a possibility. His continued resistance was reflected in a letter he wrote to influential Virginian Willoughby Newton:

“In spite of the timidity and faithlessness of many who should give tone to the popular feeling and hope to the popular heart, I am satisfied that it is in the power of the good men and true patriots of the country to reanimate the wearied spirit of our people. The incredible sacrifices made by them in the cause will be surpassed by what they are still willing to endure in preference to abject submission, if they are not deserted by their leaders… I expect the hour of deliverance.”

But the future seemed increasingly bleak for Davis. In early March, he received a message from General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, in which Smith noted that he was under heavy criticism from the southern press for failing to send troops east to stop the Federal surge. Smith asked Davis to relieve him of command, but while Davis agreed with some of the criticism, he refused to fire Smith.

Davis then turned to Congress, which he believed was not doing enough to sustain the war effort. The members were scheduled to adjourn in mid-March, but Davis urged them to stay on in special session to consider “further and more energetic legislation.” He then accused the senators and congressmen of inaction in the face of emergency.

He requested the modification of laws governing impressments and raising revenue, as well as military recruiting. Specifically, Davis wanted all class exemptions removed from the Conscription Act, a new militia law to strengthen local defenses, and the same power that President Abraham Lincoln had to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

Congress responded by approving legislation allowing for the recruitment of black men into the military, which Davis signed into law. Members also revised the impressment law of March 6, 1863, by forbidding the Confederate government from taking breeding livestock from private farms. However, the members did not act upon any of the president’s other recommendations. Instead they issued a response to Davis’s message, which read in part:

“Nothing is more desirable then concord and cordial cooperation between all departments of Government. Hence your committee regret that the Executive deemed it necessary to transmit to Congress a message so well calculated to excite discord and dissension…”

The members approved a new national flag, which was a modified Stainless Banner, and they voted to give official thanks to Lieutenant General Wade Hampton for his defense of Richmond. Then they adjourned. Many senators and congressmen deeply resented Davis’s charges of obstructionism.

General Joseph E. Johnston, a longtime Davis opponent, wrote to his friend and fellow Davis opponent, Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, in response to Wigfall’s assertion that Davis was in intense anguish over the state of the Confederacy. Johnston wrote, “I have a most unchristian satisfaction in what you say of the state of mind of the leading occupants of the Presidential Mansion. For me, it is very sufficient revenge.”

Near month’s end, when the future appeared even bleaker than when the month began, Davis told a friend, “Faction has done much to cloud our prospects and impair my power to serve the country.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 262-63; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17256-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563, 567, 572; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-49, 651-54; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 473; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 751; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 379; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q165

The Fall of Fayetteville

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.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

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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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22111; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 545-47; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 17169-89, 17246-56, 17618-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 565; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67-69; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 650-52; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 254-55; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 31; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 452; Rhodes, James Ford, History of the Civil War, 1861-1865 (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917 [Kindle Edition, Reservoir House, 2016], Loc 5546

North Carolina: Battle Looms Near Kinston

March 7, 1865 – General Braxton Bragg hoped to prevent Federals from joining forces in North Carolina by blocking a detachment moving inland from the coast.

Major General John Schofield’s Federal Army of North Carolina had begun moving inland after capturing the vital port city of Wilmington. Schofield’s X Corps under Major General Alfred H. Terry moved north from Wilmington, while a division led by Major General Jacob D. Cox moved via water up the coast to New Bern. Once there, Cox’s command was expanded to three divisions known as a Provisional Corps.

Brig Gen J.D. Cox | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Cox’s new corps established a supply base at New Bern and began repairing the railroad to Goldsboro. Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals moving north from South Carolina were to link with Schofield’s army at Goldsboro, using the railroad as their supply line. After Sherman and Schofield joined forces, they would confront the remaining Confederates in the state now led by General Joseph E. Johnston.

Bragg commanded the Confederate department covering the Wilmington area, which included Major General Robert F. Hoke’s 5,500-man division. Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee directed that Johnston absorb Bragg’s department into his command. This gave Johnston about 23,500 effectives against nearly 100,000 Federals under Sherman and Schofield. Johnston looked to attack before Sherman and Schofield could unite.

Bragg was disgusted that Johnston now superseded him, and even worse, a man who despised him, John C. Breckinridge, was now Confederate secretary of war. Bragg felt no longer needed in North Carolina and therefore wrote to President Jefferson Davis, “I seek no command or position, and only desire to be ordered to await assignment to duty at some point in Georgia or Alabama.” Davis did not immediately respond due to more pressing matters at hand.

Johnston looked to concentrate all available Confederate forces near Fayetteville, where Sherman was headed, to block him from linking with Schofield. Johnston asked Lee to send elements of the Army of Northern Virginia down from Petersburg to help him “crush Sherman.” Once Sherman was defeated, Schofield would be isolated on the coast, allowing the Confederates to turn north and break the siege of Petersburg.

Lee did not have much faith in this plan, but there were few other options. He only asked that Johnston leave supplies at railroad depots alone: “Endeavor to supply your army by collecting subsistence through the country. That at depots is necessary for Army of Northern Virginia. In moving troops on North Carolina Railroad please do not interrupt transportation of supplies to this army.”

Johnston asked for guidance on how best he could link with Bragg and Hoke near the coast. Lee answered that that “must be determined by you. I wish you to act as you think best.” By the 6th, Johnston realized that Sherman’s army was moving too fast toward Fayetteville to be stopped. He wrote to Lieutenant General William Hardee, whose command was retreating from that town, “It is too late to turn to Fayetteville. (Take) the best route to Raleigh. It may be through Egypt, crossing both Deep and Haw Rivers, near their junction.”

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Meanwhile, Bragg’s Confederates were close to Cox’s Provisional Corps moving on Goldsboro, and Bragg saw a chance to destroy Cox before Schofield or Sherman could rescue him. Bragg therefore positioned his troops on the Neuse River near Kinston and informed Johnston on the 6th, “The enemy’s advance was this morning nine miles from Kinston. They are in heavy force and moving in confidence. A few hours would suffice to unite the forces at Smithfield with mine and insure a victory.”

The “forces at Smithfield” were 2,000 Confederate veterans from the Army of Tennessee under Major General D.H. Hill. Johnston directed Hill to rush these troops to Bragg and join him in attacking Cox. Hill was then to hurry back to Smithfield so he could reinforce Hardee and stop Sherman between Fayetteville and Raleigh.

The next day, Bragg entrenched Hoke’s division on the west bank of Southwest Creek, about three miles east of Kinston. This important position connected the creek to the Neuse River and blocked Cox’s advance along the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad. Cox reconnoitered the Confederate positions and informed Schofield that they were “the last point the enemy can make a stand” in front of Kinston.

Cox learned from scouts that the enemy consisted of Hoke’s North Carolina veterans, augmented by junior reserves. Cox did not know that Hill’s Confederates were on their way as well. He directed Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer’s division to guard a crossroads a mile and a half in front of Wyse Fork. Major General Samuel P. Carter’s division came up to support Palmer, and both sides traded artillery fire.

Hoke’s men had destroyed the three nearby creek crossings, but Federal cavalry rode off to the far left and secured a crossing at the Upper Trent Road. Some troopers went farther left and found the Wilmington Road unguarded. Cox reported to Schofield:

“The cavalry was ordered to observe carefully the Wilmington road on the left and to picket the crossings of the creek, giving prompt notice of any movement toward that flank. All the troops were ordered to be on the alert, though the command was not expected to take the aggressive until the railroad should be farther advanced or supplies received by the river, since it had been found impossible to feed the troops regularly where they were.”

Cox stated that his troops “will practically invest the bridge-head at Kinston by occupying the line of Southwest Creek, my right being within reaching distance of the (Neuse) River.” A fight would come the next day.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22103; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 544; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 17189-218; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 562-63; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 647-48; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 418-19

Sherman Approaches North Carolina

March 5, 1865 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies began crossing the Pee Dee River after leaving a swath of destruction through South Carolina.

As March began, Sherman’s troops continued their northward march. The Federals laid waste to most everything in their path, making sure that the state which had been the first to secede felt their fury. They were hampered by bad roads and rough wire grass, but they still averaged about 10 miles per day.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Sherman planned to invade North Carolina and feint toward Charlotte while occupying Fayetteville. From there, he intended to join forces with Major General John Schofield’s Army of North Carolina, which was securing a supply line from the Atlantic to Goldsboro.

Sherman’s right wing, consisting of Major General Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee, entered the town of Cheraw on the 2nd. Lieutenant General William Hardee, whose small Confederate force had retreated through South Carolina after abandoning Charleston, withdrew across the Pee Dee River. Sherman arrived at Cheraw the next day and later wrote:

“Cheraw was found to be full of stores which had been sent up from Charleston prior to its evacuation, and which could not be removed. I was satisfied from inquirers, that General Hardee had with him only the Charleston garrison, that the enemy had not divined our movements, and that consequently they were still scattered from Charlotte around to Florence, then behind us. Having thus secured the passage of the Pedee, I felt no uneasiness about the future, because there remained no further great impediment between us and the Cape Fear River, which I felt assured was by that time in possession of our friends (i.e., Schofield).”

Sherman reported that Cheraw had been a sort of sanctuary for people who had fled Charleston. Many had brought their possessions with them, including luxury items that the Federals quickly seized. Sherman added, “There was an immense amount of stores in Cheraw, which were used or destroyed; among them twenty-four guns, two thousand muskets, and thirty-six hundred barrels of gunpowder. By the carelessness of a soldier, an immense pile of this powder was exploded, which shook the town badly, and killed and maimed several of our men.”

An investigation was conducted as to the cause of the deadly blast, and according to the official report:

“The explosion was caused by ignition of a large quantity of rebel ammunition which had been found in the town of Cheraw and hauled out and thrown into a deep ravine lying between the town and the pontoon bridge… After diligent inquiry I am unable to ascertain the names of the men who set fire to the powder, but I have no doubt they were ignorant, as I was myself, that any explosive material was in the ravine.”

Another explosion occurred behind Sherman’s armies in South Carolina. Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, left Charleston aboard his flagship Harvest Moon to inspect the recently captured Fort White at Georgetown. During the trip, the flagship struck a torpedo. One man was killed, but Dahlgren escaped. He later reported:

“Suddenly, without warning, came a crashing sound, a heavy shock, the partition between the cabin and wardroom was shattered and driven in toward me, while all loose articles in the cabin flew in different directions… A torpedo had been struck by the poor old Harvest Moon, and she was sinking.”

The ship went down in five minutes.

Back at Cheraw, Sherman learned that General Joseph E. Johnston had assumed command of the Confederate forces in the region. Sherman guessed that Johnston’s priority would be to unite these scattered commands and then make a stand against him somewhere in North Carolina. As such, Sherman sought to hurry and join forces with Schofield before Johnston could stop him.

The Federals laid a pontoon bridge over the Pee Dee on the 4th and began crossing the next day. They moved in four columns, with Howard’s XV and XVII corps on the right (east), and Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XIV and XX corps of his Army of Georgia on the left (west). Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry division screened the Federal left. By the 8th, Sherman’s entire force had crossed into North Carolina.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 541-44; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 560-63; Kennedy, Frances H. (ed.), The Civil War Battlefield Guide (John G. Barrett, The Conservation Fund, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990), p. 268; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 648; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 254-55, 506; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 451-52

Johnston Returns to Duty

February 25, 1865 – General Joseph E. Johnston reluctantly took command of the shattered Army of Tennessee and all other Confederates in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

Most troops in this vast region had been under General P.G.T. Beauregard’s Division of the West. However, Beauregard had been in poor health, and now he was breaking down from the stress of trying to stop the Federal thrust through the Carolinas. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and 17 senators had petitioned General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee to put Johnston back in charge of his old Army of Tennessee, and Lee responded on the 13th:

“The three corps of that army have been ordered to South Carolina and are now under the command of Genl Beauregard. I entertain a high opinion of Genl Johnston’s capacity, but think a continual change of commanders is very injurious to any troops and tends greatly to their disorganization… Genl Beauregard is well known to the citizens of South Carolina, as well as to the troops of the Army of Tennessee, and I would recommend that it be certainly ascertained that a change was necessary before it was made. I do not consider that my appointment… confers the right which you assume belongs to it, nor is it proper that it should. I can only employ such troops and officers as may be placed at my disposal by the War Department.”

Confederate General J.E. Johnston | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Less than a week later, the Federals captured Columbia and Charleston. Major General William T. Sherman’s Federals continued their relentless march toward North Carolina, and Major General John Schofield’s Federals threatened Wilmington. Lee wrote to Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge:

“I do not know where his (Beauregard’s) troops are, or on what lines they are moving… Should his strength give way, there is no one on duty in the department that could replace him, nor have I anyone to send there. Genl J.E. Johnston is the only officer whom I know who has the confidence of the army and the people, and if he was ordered to report to me I would place him there on duty…”

President Jefferson Davis had strongly disliked Johnston almost since the beginning of the war. However, Johnston had influential supporters such as Stephens and Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas. Therefore, Lee and the War Department issued orders recalling Johnston to duty on the 22nd. His command included the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, as well as the Department of Tennessee and Georgia.

The next day, Lee informed Davis that Johnston had been reinstated. Lee acknowledged that the Confederates in South Carolina were “much scattered,” but “by diligence & boldness they can be united.” Davis agreed to the appointment after assurances that Lee would oversee all of Johnston’s operations. Lee told Davis, “I shall do all in my power to strengthen him.”

Johnston was reluctant to accept the assignment. He had recently speculated to a friend that if Davis ever gave him another command, it would be one destined to fail so that Davis could blame him for the Confederacy’s downfall. Nevertheless, Johnston obeyed orders.

Lee instructed him to “concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” Lee then notified Davis that he had “directed all the available troops in the Southern Dept to be concentrated, with a view to embarrass, if they can not arrest Sherman’s progress.” But before Johnston even left to take command, he replied to Lee, “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman.”

Two days later, Johnston arrived at Charlotte, North Carolina, to take command. His jurisdiction included:

  • Lieutenant General William Hardee’s 8,000 Confederates at Cheraw, South Carolina (75 miles southeast of Charlotte)
  • General Braxton Bragg’s 5,000 Confederates retreating from Wilmington to Goldsborough
  • The once mighty Army of Tennessee, now numbering just a few thousand men at Newberry, South Carolina (about 100 miles south of Charlotte)

Johnston’s top priority was to unite these commands, but he reported that they numbered no more than 25,000 against Sherman’s estimated 40,000 (Sherman actually had closer to 60,000). Moreover, Sherman’s army could “prevent their concentration or compel them to unite in its rear by keeping on its way without loss of time.” Johnston wrote, “In my opinion, these troops form an army too weak to cope with Sherman.”

Johnston hoped that Sherman would move toward Fayetteville because this would allow Bragg to confront the Federals from the east while the rest of Johnston’s force came in from the west. However, as February ended, Johnston and the Confederates were still unaware whether Sherman planned to head for Fayetteville or Charlotte. Either way, it seemed that they could do little to stop him now.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 213; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 22057; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 538, 540; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 16696-706, 16715-55; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 557-58; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 8179; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 400-01; Korn, Jerry, Pursuit to Appomattox: The Last Battles (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26, 61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 638, 642-44; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 704; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 828; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 457-58; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 747-48

Sherman Prepares to Move Again

July 19, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal armies launched their long-anticipated drive on Atlanta.

As part of Sherman’s three armies made their way across the Chattahoochee River, Sherman directed them to take a rest, “and accordingly we took a short spell.” Sherman needed not only to regroup, but to find the Confederate Army of Tennessee and assess its defenses.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Two days later, Sherman dispatched cavalry under Major General George Stoneman to wreck railroads and deceive the Confederates into thinking that the main Federal force would cross the Chattahoochee below Atlanta. To help with the deception:

  • Two corps from Major General James B. McPherson’s Army of the Tennessee would cross above Atlanta and attack the Georgia Railroad.
  • One of McPherson’s corps would remain to the right of Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland to support Stoneman.
  • Major General John Schofield’s Army of the Ohio would distract the Confederates in their front.

Sherman telegraphed Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the 14th: “All is well. I have now accumulated stores at Allatoona and Marietta, both fortified and garrisoned points. Have also three places at which to cross the Chattahoochee in our possession, and only await General Stoneman’s return from a trip down the river, to cross the army in force and move on Atlanta.”

Two days later, Sherman prepared to cross the Chattahoochee as McPherson conducted an enveloping movement around the north side of Atlanta toward Decatur. The Confederates continued strengthening their defenses near the Chattahoochee, from south of Peachtree Creek to the Atlanta & Decatur Railroad. General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate army, planned to attack when Sherman’s two flanks separated from the center.

The Federals began advancing on Atlanta on the 17th, with Sherman’s three armies moving like a wheel and crossing the Chattahoochee with Schofield’s army in the center. The Federals were now within eight miles of Atlanta. That morning, Johnston learned that the entire Federal force had crossed the river, apparently to move on Atlanta from the north and east.

Concerned that Thomas’s army may be moving too slow, Sherman wrote him, “Feel down strong to Peach Tree and see what is there. A vigorous demonstration should be made, and caution your commanders not to exhibit any of the signs of a halt or pause.” That night, Sherman learned that Schofield and McPherson had reached their objectives and would begin wrecking the Georgia Railroad at daybreak.

The next day, Sherman was discussing strategy with Thomas when a spy showed them an Atlanta newspaper reporting that Johnston had been replaced as Confederate army commander by General John Bell Hood. Sherman expressed hope that Hood, unlike Johnston, might actually come out into the open and fight, where the Federals could finally use their numerical superiority.

The Atlanta city council adjourned as the Federals approached. Meanwhile, Sherman directed Thomas to “press down from the north on Atlanta,” crossing Peachtree Creek and driving off the Confederates in the area. Schofield was to advance on Decatur (northeast of Atlanta) from the north, wrecking railroad track and telegraph wires along the way. McPherson was to advance on Decatur from the east, aiding Schofield if needed:

“Otherwise keep every man of his (McPherson’s) command at work in destroying the railroad by tearing up track, burning the ties and iron, and twisting the bars when hot. Officers should be instructed that bar simply bent may be used again, but if when red hot they are twisted out of light they cannot be used again. Pile the ties into shape for a bonfire, put the rails across, and when red hot in the middle, let a man at each end twist the bar so that its surface become spiral.”

By the 19th, two Confederate corps under Lieutenant Generals William Hardee and Alexander P. Stewart defended Peachtree Creek, north of Atlanta. Hood’s former corps, now led by Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham, guarded Atlanta to the east. The Federals began their advance, and, Sherman later wrote, “meeting such feeble resistance that I really thought the enemy intended to evacuate the place.”

Hood received word that Thomas was crossing Peachtree Creek, north of Atlanta, while the armies of Schofield and McPherson were at least two miles to Thomas’s left (east). Johnston had originally planned to attack the Federals if a portion of their force became isolated. Hood decided to adopt this strategy and attack Thomas’s isolated army before it could cross the creek and build defenses. That night, Hood gathered his commanders at his Whitehall Street headquarters in Atlanta and explained his plan:

  • Hardee and Stewart would attack Thomas’s army and drive it west, away from both Atlanta and the other two Federal armies.
  • Cheatham’s corps, along with Confederate cavalry and Georgia militia, would demonstrate against McPherson and Schofield to prevent them from helping Thomas.
  • After Hardee and Stewart defeated Thomas, they would turn right (east) to join with Cheatham in defeating McPherson and Schofield.

Hood demanded that the attacks be “bold and persistent,” and the defensive works that the Federals were building were to be seized at the “point of the bayonet.” For Hood to succeed, time was of the essence. However, instead of scheduling the attack to begin at dawn, he set it for 1 p.m. And the armies of Schofield and McPherson were not as far from Thomas as originally reported.

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References

Bailey, Ronald H., The Battles for Atlanta: Sherman Moves East (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 81, 91-92; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 436-37; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8576-618, 8808-18, 9855-85; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 469-71; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 540, 542