March 23, 1865 (Thursday)
Following the Battle of Bentonville, Joseph Johnston, commanding the Confederate forces, retreated across Mill Creek, into and through the town. Taking up positions a couple of miles beyond the crossing, Jo Wheeler’s cavalry held the bridge until the Federals came near to crossing. By that evening, Johnston’s army was near Smithfield.
On the afternoon of this date, Johnston informed General Lee in Petersburg of the battle. “Troops of Tennessee army have fully disproved slanders that have been published against then,” he wrote, referring to John Bell Hood’s excuses for his defeat at Nashville. He also told of how Sherman’s army had moved to Goldsborough rather than to give chase.
“Sherman’s course cannot be hindered by the small force I have,” Johnston warned Lee. “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.”
There was no question at all now. Johnston could not best Sherman anymore than Lee could defeat Grant. Only through the combination of these two main Confederate forces could anything be done. If Lee would depart the Petersburg and Richmond defenses, he might be able to join Johnston and defeat Sherman before Grant could fall upon him.
Though certain that he could not defeat Sherman on his own, Johnston as still uncertain which way Sherman would enter Virgina. There was, in his opinion, two options for the Federal army. The most direct route was through Weldon, while a more round-about path lead through Raleigh. From Smithfield, Johnston could react to either, while at the same time leaving his back door open for Lee to slip down from Virginia.
Whichever road Sherman took, it hardly mattered at all – Weldon would be lost. The depot in this town was the southern terminus of the Weldon Railroad, still mostly open and feeding Lee’s embattled army. The Federals had kept a close eye upon this place, but on this date discovered from a Rebel deserter just what Weldon meant to Lee’s forces.
“All of the forage for General Lee’s army passes through Weldon,” read the report of the deserter. From several other functioning railroads, it was gathered then at the depot for shipment north. Even items such as sugar and coffee were ushered along those rails. So busy was the depot that “From 6,000 to 12,000 pounds of bacon usually passed through Weldon daily, and most of it came from blockade runners, who gave it in exchange for cotton” seized by the Confederate government.
Between Sherman’s army and Grant’s, apart from Johnston’s cavalry was only a handful of local regiments. But first, his weary Federal troops needed rest and reorganization. Seemingly in no hurry at all, Sherman told Grant that with the addition of the Army of the Ohio, which arrived in Goldsborough two days prior, he would have “an army of 80,000 men by April 10.”
“If I get the troops all well placed,and the supplies working well,” continued Sherman to Grant, “I might run up to see you for a day or two before diving again into the bowels of the country.”1
“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.” – From the diary of Major George W. Nichols.
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 46, Part 3, p77-78; Vol. 47, Part 2, p969, 1453-1454; Narrative of Military Operations by Joseph Johnston; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas by John G. Barrett. [↩]