The life of the Confederacy was ebbing fast, but it still had soldiers willing to fight for it, as was amply demonstrated at the battle of Bentonville, North Carolina, fought March 19-21, 1865.
Outnumbered 60,000 to 21,000, General Joseph Johnston’s only hope of victory was to attack a portion of Sherman’s army and defeat it. Moving on Goldsboro, Sherman had his army marching in two groups, a left wing under Major General Henry Slocum and a right wing under Major General O. O. Howard. On March 19, 1865, Slocum ran into the entrenched troops of Johnston. Thinking that he was opposed only by cavalry, Slocum attacked and was repulsed. In the afternoon Johnston attacked and was initially successful, routing two Union divisions. The fighting continued until midnight, with Union reinforcements stopping the Confederate attack, and the Confederates withdrawing to their lines.
On March 20, Howard joined Slocum and only light skirmishing occurred.
On March 21, Sherman stopped an attack which, in retrospect, he regretted stopping, since it might well have led to a general action which may have ended in the destruction of Johnston’s force.
Johnston had been lucky and the Confederates had fought skillfully, but the results of the battle demonstrated the futility of fighting against a force that was so numerically superior. Johnston lost 2600 men, almost ten percent of his force, while Sherman had 1604 casualties which diminished his force almost not at all.
One of the Confederate casualties underlined the endless tragedies of the War. On the 21rst Willie Hardee, the 16 year old son of Confederate Lieutenant General William Hardee, was mortally wounded. His father had reluctantly agreed a few hours before his wounding to his son serving with the elite Eighth Texas Cavalry, known popularly as Terry’s Texas Rangers, his son desperate to see action before the end of the War. Willie’s death was mourned by General O.O. Howard who commanded Sherman’s right wing and who had been a friend of Hardee at West Point and who had tutored Willie.
Here are Sherman’s comments on the battle in his memoirs:
I remained with this wing until the night of the 18th, when we were within twenty-seven miles of Goldsboro’ and five from Bentonsville; and, supposing that all danger was over, I crossed over to join Howard’s column, to the right, so as to be nearer to Generals Schofield and Terry, known to be approaching Goldsboro’. I overtook General Howard at Falling-Creek Church, and found his column well drawn out, by reason of the bad roads. I had heard some cannonading over about Slocum’s head of column, and supposed it to indicate about the same measure of opposition by Hardee’s troops and Hampton’s cavalry before experienced; but during the day a messenger overtook me, and notified me that near Bentonsville General Slocum had run up against Johnston’s whole army. I sent back orders for him to fight defensively to save time, and that I would come up with reenforcements from the direction of Cog’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. The Fifteenth Corps, less one division (Hazen’s), still well to the rear, was turned at once toward Bentonsville; Hazen’s division was ordered to Slocum’s flank, and orders were also sent for General Blair, with the Seventeenth Corps, to come to the same destination. Meantime the sound of cannon came from the direction of Bentonsville.
The night of the 19th caught us near Falling-Creek Church; but early the next morning the Fifteenth Corps, General C. R. Woods’s division leading, closed down on Bentonsville, near which it was brought up by encountering a line of fresh parapet, crossing the road and extending north, toward Mill Creek.
After deploying, I ordered General Howard to proceed with due caution, using skirmishers alone, till he had made junction with General Slocum, on his left. These deployments occupied all day, during which two divisions of the Seventeenth Corps also got up. At that time General Johnston’s army occupied the form of a V, the angle reaching the road leading from Averysboro’ to Goldsboro’, and the flanks resting on Mill Creek, his lines embracing the village of Bentonsville.
General Slocum’s wing faced one of these lines and General Howard’s the other; and, in the uncertainty of General Johnston’s strength, I did not feel disposed to invite a general battle, for we had been out from Savannah since the latter part of January, and our wagon-trains contained but little food. I had also received messages during the day from General Schofield, at Kinston, and General Terry, at Faison’s Depot, approaching Goldsboro’, both expecting to reach it by March 21st. During the 20th we simply held our ground and started our trains back to Kinston for provisions, which would be needed in the event of being forced to fight a general battle at Bentonsville. The next day (21st) it began to rain again, and we remained quiet till about noon, when General Mower, ever rash, broke through the rebel line on his extreme left flank, and was pushing straight for Bentonsville and the bridge across Mill Creek. I ordered him back to connect with his own corps; and, lest the enemy should concentrate on him, ordered the whole rebel line to be engaged with a strong skirmish-fire.
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 next day he was gone, and had retreated on Smithfield; and, the roads all being clear, our army moved to Goldsboro’. The heaviest fighting at Bentonsville was on the first day, viz., the 19th, when Johnston’s army struck the head of Slocum’s columns, knocking back Carlin’s division; but, as soon as General Slocum had brought up the rest of the Fourteenth Corps into line, and afterward the Twentieth on its left, he received and repulsed all attacks, and held his ground as ordered, to await the coming back of the right wing. His loss, as reported, was nine officers and one hundred and forty-five men killed, eight hundred and sixteen wounded, and two hundred and twenty-six missing. He reported having buried of the rebel dead one hundred and sixty-seven, and captured three hundred and thirty-eight prisoners.
The loss of the right wing was two officers and thirty-five men killed, twelve officers and two hundred and eighty-nine men wounded, and seventy missing. General Howard reported that he had buried one hundred of the rebel dead, and had captured twelve hundred and eighty-seven prisoners.
Our total loss, therefore, at Bentonsville was: 1,604