‘Old Hampton is Playing a Bluff Game’ – Saving Bentonville for Battle

March 18, 1865 (Saturday)

Johnston about to pounce!
Johnston about to pounce!

For days, there was no certainly in Joe Johnston, commanding the patchwork of Southern forces in North Carolina. General Sherman’s forces, he believed, would march toward one of two places – the more southerly Goldsboro or the more northerly Raleigh.

And so at Smithfield, located in between, he held much of his command. Johnston was relying upon his cavalry, helmed by Wade Hampton, to act as scouts and determine which way Sherman’s forces were marching.

Just before dawn on this date, the fog was cleared. Hampton sent a message detailing the position of the enemy. Even better, due to the battle at Averasboro a couple of days before, the two wings had become separated, with the Left Wing being greatly strung out on the road to Goldsboro.

“General Johnston directs that you immediately put your command in motion for Bentonville,” read the order to all. Bentonville was a small crossroads south of Smithfield through which the Right Wing of Sherman’s command would pass. With the Left Wing strung out and about a day’s march away, Sherman had handed Johnston the closest thing to opportunity he could have dreamed.

Hardee has no idea what you're talking about.
Hardee has no idea what you’re talking about.

And so from Smithfield, Braxton Bragg and A.P. Stewart marched south, and from Elevation, William Hardee took a longer route, but all were moving upon Bentonville. “The troops here are moving directly on Bentonville,” read a message from Johnston’s aide to Hardee, “and General Johnston desires you to be immediately on their right.”

Come mid-morning, Hampton was certain. At the fork leading to Smithfield and Goldsboro, he sent another message to Johnston. There was still a chance that Sherman could move instead for Smithfield, and so Hampton divided his band, having one regiment fall back toward that town, while with the bulk of his command, he faded toward Goldboro.

But not everything was in Johnston’s immediate favor. His map, for instance, had the town of Elevation in the wrong place. To him, it was only twelve miles from Bentonville. And though there was no direct road shown from one place to the other, a local Sheriff had assured him that there was a small farm road nearby.

This would, believed Johnston, allow Hardee to be in Bentonville by nightfall. Hardee, on the other hand, had no idea what Johnston was talking about. The order, wrote Hardee on this morning, “will be promptly obeys, but I am ignorant of the road you designate, and that must first be found.”

Very big approximate map today.
Very big approximate map today.

“The map proved to be very incorrect,” wrote Johnston after the war, “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.”

In the meanwhile, Wade Hampton’s cavalry skirmished through the morning and afternoon with the vanguard of Sherman’s Left Wing. “I was pressed back by the force of numbers,” wrote Hampton after the war, “to the crest of a wood hill which overlooked a very large field that I had selected as a proper place for battle, which was to take place as soon as our infantry reached the ground. It was vitally important that this position should be held by us during the night, so I dismounted all my men, placing them along the edge of the woods, and at great risk of losing my guns I put my artillery some distance to the right of the road, where, though exposed, it had a commanding position. 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.”

To General Lee in Petersburg, Johnston summed up the concentration:

“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?”

Already Johnston was thinking of his defeat. He knew that there was little chance of actually besting Sherman’s 60,000 with but 18,000, and so needed to know what would happen next. Weldon, 100 miles to the north, and closer to Lee than Johnston, would be Sherman’s next likely objective. His suggestion of turning to Clarksville would him 80 miles west of Sherman, but would likely give Johnston a clear road to join Lee at Petersburg. It would also give Sherman the same to unite with Grant.

But first, there was to be battle, which Hampton’s command, not counted in Johnston’s totals to Lee, had already begun. “I can hold him here for several hours more,” wrote Hampton to Johnston in the mid-afternoon, “and I do not think his advance will get beyond this point tonight.”

Hampton would beat Sherman at poker.
Hampton would beat Sherman at poker.

Hampton’s troops, however, might have had a different opinion. Writing years after the war, Hampton recalled a conversation he overheard on the line:

Turning to some of his comrades he said with a laugh, ‘Old Hampton is playing a bluff game, and if he don’t mind Sherman will call him.’

Just before Sherman’s attack, Hampton, in writing to Johnston, confessed that he “had not yet learned the strength of the force opposed to me, nor what force it is, but I hope to get some prisoners soon.” But Sherman would not give Hampton the wanted prisoners or information.

“It was near sunset when the enemy moved on this position,” recalled Hampton, “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 arrived on the field after dark, establishing his headquarters, writing immediately to Hardee, enquiring of his position. “It is of great consequence that you should be here as early as possible tomorrow morning,” he wrote. “Please say at what hour you went into camp.”

Hardee immedaitely sent a messenger, relaying that “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 ealier hour.”

As Johnston settled into his headquarters, Hampton reported, “giving him all the information in my possession as to the position of the enemy and the character of the groun on which we had to operate.”

According to Johnston, Hampton “described the ground near the road abreast of us as favorable for our purpose. The Federal camp, however, was but five or six miles from that ground, – nearer, by several miles, than Hardee’s bivouac, – and there for we could nto hope for the advantage of attacking the head of a deep column.”

Since Johnston had no time to scout the ground for himself, it was Hampton who made the dispositions for the battle. “The plan proposed,” Hampton related, “was that the cavalry shoudl move out at daylight and occupy the position held by them on the previous evening [meaning a few hours ago]. The infantry could then be depoyed, with one corps across the main road and the other two obliquely in echelon to the right of the first. As soon as these positions were occupied, I was to fall back with my command, through the first corps [Bragg’s], and, passing to the rear of the infantry line, I was to take position on our extreme right.”

“All the signs induced me to beleive that the enemy would make no further opposition to our progress,” wrote William Tecumseh Sherman remembering this night, “and would not attempt to strike us in flank while in motion.” Sherman believed that all was safe in their front because the demonstration against Hampton was never developed into a full advance. Had it been, he might have known that Johnston’s forces were funneling into Bentonville, five miles beyond.

Instead, wishing to re-establish communication with Generals Schofield and Terry, coming up toward Goldsboro from the coast, he made plans to leave at dawn for the Right Wing of the army, leaving behind the Left at Bentonville before any advance would be made.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p25, 1112; Part 2, p1427, 1429-1430; Narrative of Military Operations by Joseph Eggleston Johnston; “The Battle of Bentonville” by Wade Hampton, as printed in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War: Volume IV; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []


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