Sherman’s Mistake at Bentonville

March 21, 1865 (Tuesday)

General Mower
General Mower

“The next day,” wrote General Sherman, “it began to rain again, and we remained quiet till about noon.” Sherman had placed Francis Blair’s Seventeenth Corps on the right, with Joseph Mower’s division holding the flank near Mill Creek.

In his report, General Mower wrote:

Learning that a road. leading from the right of the line crossed Mill Creek by a ford, I pushed my command down that road for the purpose of closing on the enemy’s flank. I left five companies of the First Brigade to guard the ford, then formed in line of battle, and throwing out skirmishers moved forward, keeping my line parallel, or as nearly so as possible, with the road crossing the creek. In moving forward the brigade on the right (Brigadier-General Fuller’s) encountered a very bad swamp, and I found it necessary to half the Third Brigade some three quarters of a hour to allow the First Brigade to pass the swamp.

At this time our skirmishers advancing met those of the enemy; they being thus aware of our approach opened first of artillery upon us. As soon as General Fuller had again formed on the right I moved forward, driving the enemy from a line of skirmish pits which they had occupied, and capturing a caison belonging to the battery which had been firing upon us and which they were unable to get away owing to two of the horses having been shot.

After gaining the crest of the hill I ordered a halt. At this moment I received a report from Colonel Tillson, commanding Third Brigade, that his skirmishers did not connect on the left. Being convinced that I had obliqued to the right in moving through the swamp I immediately gave the command to move by the left flank, and proceeded myself to the left to see to the execution of the order.

Mower's Division's original position.
Mower’s Division’s original position.

Confederate cavalry general, Wade Hampton, was on the left, and about to receive Mower’s attack. He had reports from his pickets that the Federals were closing in. “I immediately rode down to report this fact to General Johnston,” Hampton recalled, “and I told him that there was no foce present able to resist an attack, and that if the enemy broke through at that point, which was near the bridge, across the main stream, our only line of retreat would be cut off.”

Johnston sent Hamtpon back so that he might know for sure what the situation was, but as he was returning, he learned that the Federals drew closer still, driving in the Rebel pickets, “and were very near the main road leading to the bridge.” Hampton grabbed the nearest brigade – a Georgia unit hardly larger than a regiment – and threw it toward the attack. He did the same with a nearby battery and some random cavalry.

“All of these troops were hurried up to meet the enemy,” continued Hampton, “who were then within a few hundred yards of the road, and just as I had put them in position General Hardee arrived on the ground. Explaining the position to him and telling him of the dispositions I had made, he at once ordered a charge, and our small force was hurled against the advancing enemy.”

Union General Mower here takes up the story:
“Our skirmishers on the front and left were driven in. The enemy advanced in two lines of infantry obliquely on our front and left. I immediately sent for a regiment from General Fuller on the right, not being aware that he was attacked at the same moment, the heavy firing where I was preventing my hearing the firing on the right. Finding that the enemy were about enveloping my left flank I directed the Tenth Illinois to move obliquely to the left and rear, and occupy the reverse side of the skirmish pits, which had been held by the enemy.”

Hampton concluded that “the attack was so sudden and so impetuous that it carried everything before it, and the enemy retreated hastily across the branch,” asserting that his own command fielded but 300 men.

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There then fell a lull, and Mower quickly formed two lines and distributed ammunition in preparation to launch another attack. But then, “I received an order to remain in the position in which I then was and intrench.”

According to Sherman: “I ordered him [Mower] 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.”

General Hardee returned from the charge, exclaiming, “That was Nip and Tuck, and for a time I thought Tuck had it.” Hardee’s only son, “a gallant boy of sixteen, who had joined the 8th Texas Cavalry two hours before, fell in the charge led by his father.”

With years between him and the battle, Sherman admitted in his memoirs, “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 [still a couple of days away], before engaging Johnston’s army, the strength of which was utterly unknown.”

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

With that, the battle drew to a clumsy end. “At night,” wrote General Johnston in his memoirs, “all the wounded that could bear transportation had been removed; so that we had no object for remaining in a position made very hazardous by the stream behind us, rendered unfordable by recent rain. The army was therefore ordered to cross Mill Creek by the bridge at Bentonville before daybreak of the 22nd.”

The next day, Sherman’s forces would begin entering Goldsboro, where he would find General Schofield’s command. There, they would finally rest.1



  1. Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p390-391; 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. []

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