‘Our Position Was Extremely Perilous’ – Johnston Hangs on at Bentonville

March 20, 1865 (Monday)

The Right Wing advancing to join the Left.
The Right Wing advancing to join the Left.

“On the 21st the skirmishing was resumed with spirit by the enemy,” wrote Joe Johnston. Through the night, little hand changed on the Bentonville battlefield. Johnston’s three small corps still remained in their initial lines and his left was sharply engaged. His right, on the other hand, was quiet.

General Sherman, commanding the Union troops, had learned of the battle late the previous night. On the morning of this date, he rode toward the lines, his Right Wing in tow, to bring his entire force to bear against Johnston. When he arrived near the field with the bulk of the two corps, he established lines of battle and advanced, with skirmishers front, in hopes of linking up with General Slocum’s wing.

Through the night, Slocum improved his line as elements of the Fifteenth Corps augmented his numbers, making the lines, in Sherman’s words, “impregnable.” The next morning, the rest of the Right Wing joined them.

Map of Right Wing's advance.
Map of Right Wing’s advance.

“I ordered General Howard to proceed with due caution, using skirmishers alone,” wrote Sherman, “till he had made junction with General Slocum, on his left.” All along their march to the field, General Oliver Otis Howard’s Right Wing was watched by the Rebel cavalry, but the enemy was “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 he battlefield of the day before. This body of cavalry was, however, quickly dislodged, and the intersection of the roads secured.”

The cavalry was that of General M.C. Butler’s Brigade, temporarily commanded by Evander Law, who “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.” The left flank of Johnston’s army was held by Law’s troopers as well as the infantry division under Robert Hoke, who refused his own left flank, holding off the Federals as best he could.

But Sherman was hardly making an attack. Rather, Howard’s wing was probing for the Rebels lines. Once found, the heavy skirmishing continued most of the day. “Our line was a very weak one,” recalled Wade Hampton, commanding the Confederate cavalry, “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 [Mill Creek] 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 be cavalry videttes stations at long intervals apart.”

Map of the entire battlefield.
Map of the entire battlefield.

“We came upon the enemy infantry between 10 and 11am,” wrote Union General Howard of the advance. “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.”

General Logan wrote this of the movement:

“Occasional shots were fired from our artillery to inform General Slocum that we were moving to his support. On approaching Mill Creek, where it was expected to find the enemy in force, the rebel cavalry, fighting dismounted, took position behind successive barricades previously constructed, but were in each instance driven from them in handsome style.

“The last outwork defended by the enemy before retreating within their main line having been carried, we held the cross-roads leading to Bentonville and Smithfield, and could distinctly hear the musketry in General Slocum’s front. […] As well as could be ascertained, the line of the enemy appeared to run through a thickly-wooded country, along a ridge opposite to that on which we were in position, right covering both roads and stretching away to the front of the Left Wing, with left refused along the face of Mill Creek. No artillery was developed in our front, but from the direction of the sound when the enemy opened in General Slocum’s front it seemed as though the enemy’s line was well advanced on our left.”

Before Johnston could crush one of Sherman’s corps, as he had planned the day previous, the whole of Sherman’s forces – all four corps – was now on the field. “The Federal army was united before us about noon,” wrote Johnston after the war, “and made repeated attacks, between that time and sunset, upon Hoke’s division; the most spirited of them was the last, made upon Kirkland’s brigade. 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.”

Very rough sketch by Andrew Waud which was later turned into the engraving seen above.
Very rough sketch by Andrew Waud which was later turned into the engraving seen above.

Johnston could plainly see that his left was in trouble, and shifted Lafayette McLaw’s Division from William Hardee’s Corps to fill in the flank. To make up the difference, he sprinkled a skirmish line of cavalry “to show a front equal to that of the enemy.”

In all, it was a mostly eventless day which faded almost unnoticed into night. “By nightfall the corps were firmly entrenched,” Logan remembered. And all waited for dawn, when the battle might finally continue.1

  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p26, 206, 235, 424; 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; “The Last Chance of the Confederacy” by Alexander C. McClurg, as printed in The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1882; Memoirs by William Tecumseh Sherman; The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett. []


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