March 16, 1865 (Thursday)
Through the darkened rain marched the division of Col. William Hawley. It was five long miles to the advanced position held by Judson Kilpatrick’s cavaliers, themselves in the face of an untold number of entrenched Rebels, just this side of Averasborough, North Carolina. The Confederates under William Hardee had taken for themselves a fine position, with both flanks resting upon unfordable rivers. Fearful of attack, Hawley had been ordered forward and encamped for the night less than a mile from the enemy’s works.
They formed in the dawn, a skirmish line stretching the length of the enemy’s, and advanced. They drove pickets before them, and pushed back the thin forward line of the Rebels to their main line of battle.
“After thoroughly reconnoitering the enemy’s entire position,” wrote Kilpatrick, “I decided it was not prudent to attack, and sent back for infantry re-enforcements.” Hawley agreed, noting the artillery in his report.
Lt. Col Fielder Jones, however, saw things differently. He commanded the 8th Indiana Cavalry, holding the right flank of Kilpatrick’s line. In the advance, Jones “charged him vigorously” and claimed to have routed an entire Confederate brigade.
“Had our infantry then pushed forward,” Jones bitterly lamented in his report, “it is my firm believe that we could have captured the enemy’s works, artillery, and many prisoners, without the firing of a shot. As it was, they cavalry alone took several prisoners and drove the rebels in the wildest confusion into their works. Had there been solid ground I should have taken their works with cavalry, but the rains of the previous night had made the country one vast mire, which checked the impetus of our charge, and gave the enemy time to reform behind their works.”
Taking into account the saturated ground, Jones dismounted his men. In the meantime, as Kilpatrick waited, the Rebels reinforced their right flank, pouring what they could into Jones’ horseless troopers.
“I soon found that I was fighting several times my number,” Jones continued, “and ordered my lines to reconnect with the infantry. The enemy seeing my movement, and judging it to be a retreat, charged me in great force. We immediately came to ‘about face,’ and gave two or three volleys from our Spencers, and made a counter-charge, causing the foe to quickly seek shelter in his woods.”
In the waiting for reinforcements, Jones’ regiment faced down several attacks from the Rebels, until finally the infantry arrived – nearly two divisions led by Alpheus Williams. He had received Kilpatrick’s plea at 7:30am, and ordered General William Ward forward. Ward, with most of three brigades, relieving most of the cavalry, as well as Col. Hawley’s infantry brigade.
Ward thought perhaps the Rebel right was open, not fully anchored upon the Cape Fear River. To that end, Ward buttonholed a brigade helmed by Col. Henry Case, which had been about to attack on the right. With orders now to fall back and sweep all the way around to the Federal left, Case faded with his four regiments behind the other two brigades.
When Case thought he was left enough to hit the Rebel right flank, he halted and deployed. “I ordered the brigade forward,” told Case, “but soon found from the sound of the enemy’s artillery that I was not yet far enough to the rear of the enemy’s line; hence I moved my whole command, skirmishers &c., by the left flank about 500 yards still farther to the left, and then resumed my advance toward the enemy, but soon encountered a swamp tangled with thick undergrowth, which greatly impeded our progress.”
Slowed, but not beaten, Case slogged his way forward until he came upon the enemy’s skirmishers, which they drove back, killing two. Coming out of the swamp, they found themselves in a ravine, giving them a moment to pause and collect themselves. Case himself strode forward to reconnoiter the unseen ground before him. Cresting the small ridge, he saw a perfect sight. The Confederate right was perpendicular to his own, about 300 yards away and unsuspecting. Case readied his men, and ordered them forward at the double-quick.
“The men sprang forward with alacrity, with a deafening yell, and the moment they emerged from the thicket in sight of the enemy they joined in a destructive fire upon their ranks at a distance of not more than 150 yards. So sudden and so desperate was the charge that the enemy, completely taken by surprise, fled precipitately in the utmost confusion, not even rallying for a moment until they reached the second line of their works.”
Case consumed scores of prisoners and two pieces of artillery, and halted only briefly to turn the guns on their previous masters. The rest of Williams’ men, seeing their enemies melt away before them, gave chase, with Case’s brigade joining in, waiting for the others to catch up.
When General Williams saw the feat of Case’s little brigade, he ordered his entire line forward. “The enemy attempted to make a stand in a second line,” Williams reported, “but without success. He was pursued rapidly as the miry nature of the ground would permit for about a mile, where he was found more strongly intrenched behind swampy and partly overflowed ground, with this flanks apparently resting upon the protected swamps of Black River and a small marshy creek tributary to the Cape Fear River. His position covered the Bentonville road. The rebel skirmishers were rapidly driven into their works, which evidently covered a larger force that the two divisions of his corps.”
Williams halted the Twentieth Corps and waited for the Fourteenth, which was delayed due to the condition of the roads. It was not until the late afternoon that they went into position, the rain falling again in torrents. By the time they were ready to attack, no attack could be made. Further, unknown through the glome, the Rebels slipped away, retreating through Averasborough.
Immediately before ordering his retreat, Confederate General William Hardee sent this message to his commander, Joe Johnston:
“The enemy have made repeated attempts to carry my lines and turn my flanks, but have been repulsed in every attempt. I shall retire toward Smithfield tonight. General [Wade] Hampton says the enemy h ave crossed Black River at several places, and urges me to move rapidly to prevent being intercepted. Have you any force you could move from Smithfield to Elevation?”
When Johnston gave his reply, he mentioned neither Smithfield nor the village of Elevation, but instead hinted that Hardee might want to think about falling back all the way to Raleigh.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p422, 585-586, 600, 637, 784, 789-790, 862, 868, 1074, 1130; Part 2, p1401. [↩]