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American Civil War: Battle of Bentonville

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American Civil War: Battle of Bentonville

Major General Henry W. Slocum, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Battle of Bentonville Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Bentonville took place March 19-21, 1865, during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Union

Confederate

Battle of Bentonville - Background:

Having taken Savannah in December 1864, after his March to the Sea, Major General William T. Sherman turned north and moved into South Carolina. Cutting a path of destruction through the seat of the secession movement, Sherman captured Columbia before pressing north with the goal of cutting Confederate supply lines to Petersburg, VA. Entering North Carolina on March 8, Sherman split his army into two wings under the command of Major Generals Henry Slocum and Oliver O. Howard. Moving along separate paths, they marched for Goldsboro where they intended to unite with Union forces advancing inland from Wilmington (Map).

In an effort to halt this Union thrust and protect his rear, Confederate General-in-Chief Robert E. Lee dispatched General Joseph E. Johnston to North Carolina with orders to form a force to oppose Sherman. With most the Confederate Army in the West shattered, Johnston cobbled together a composite force consisting of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, a division from Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, as well as troops that had been scattered across the southeast. Concentrating his men, Johnston dubbed his command the Army of the South.

Battle of Bentonville - Fighting Begins:

Mistakenly believing Sherman's two wings to be a full day's march apart and unable to support each other, Johnston focused his attention on defeating Slocum's column. He hoped to do so before Sherman and Howard could arrive to provide assistance. On March 19, as his men moved north on the Goldsboro Road, Slocum encountered Confederate forces just south of Bentonville. Believing the enemy to be little more than cavalry and artillery, he advanced two divisions from Major General Jefferson C. Davis' XIV Corps. Attacking, these two divisions encountered Johnston's infantry and were repulsed.

Pulling these divisions back, Slocum formed a defensive line and added Brigadier General James D. Morgan's division on the right and provided a division from Major General Alpheus S. Williams' XX Corps as a reserve. Of these only Morgan's men made an effort to fortify their position and gaps existed in the Union line. Around 3:00 PM, Johnston attacked this position with Major General D.H. Hill's troops exploiting the gap. This assault caused the Union left to collapse allowing the right to be flanked. Holding their position, Morgan's division fought valiantly before being forced to withdraw (Map).

Battle of Bentonville - The Tide Turns:

As his line was slowly pushed back, Slocum fed arriving units of XX Corps into the fight while sending messages to Sherman calling for aid. Fighting raged until nightfall, but after five major attacks, Johnston was unable to drive Slocum from the field. As Slocum's position became increasingly stronger with reinforcements arriving, the Confederates withdrew to their original positions around midnight and began building earthworks. Having learned of Slocum's situation, Sherman ordered a night march and raced to the scene with the right wing of the army.

Through the day on March 20, Johnston stayed in position despite the approach of Sherman and the fact that he had Mill Creek to his rear. He later defended this decision by stating that he remained in order to remove his wounded. Skirmishing continued through the day and by late afternoon Sherman had arrived with Howard's command. Coming into line on Slocum's right, the Union deployment forced Johnston to bend back his line and shift Major General Lafayette McLaws' division from his right to extend his left. For the remainder of the day, both forces remained in place with Sherman content to let Johnston retreat (Map).

On March 21, Sherman, who wished to avoid a major engagement, was irritated to find Johnston still in place. During the day, the Union right closed to within a few hundred yards of the Confederates. That afternoon, Major General Joseph A. Mower, commanding the division on the extreme Union right, asked permission to conduct a "little reconnaissance." Having received clearance, Mower instead moved forward with a large attack on the Confederate left. Moving along a narrow trace, his division assaulted into the Confederate rear and overran Johnston's headquarters and near the Mill Creek Bridge (Map).

With their only line of retreat under threat, the Confederates launched a series of counterattacks under the guidance of Lieutenant General William Hardee. These succeeded in containing Mower and pushing his men back. This was aided by orders from an irate Sherman which demanded that Mower break off the action. Sherman later admitted that not reinforcing Mower was a mistake and that it was a missed opportunity to destroy Johnston's army. Despite this, it appears that Sherman was seeking to avoid unnecessary bloodshed during the war's final weeks.

Aftermath of the Battle of Bentonville:

Given a reprieve, Johnston began withdrawing over rain-swollen Mill Creek that night. Spotting the Confederate retreat at dawn, Union forces pursued the Confederates as far as Hannah's Creek. Eager to link up with the other troops at Goldsboro, Sherman resumed his march. In the fighting at Bentonville, Union forces lost 194 killed, 1,112 wounded, 221 missing/captured, while Johnston's command suffered 239 killed, 1,694 wounded, 673 missing/captured. Reaching Goldsboro, Sherman added the forces of Major Generals John Schofield and Alfred Terry to his command. After two and half weeks of rest, his army departed for its final campaign which culminated in Johnston's surrender at Bennett Place on April 26, 1865.

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