March 19, 1865 (Sunday)
General Sherman rose early. His orders for the day’s march had gone out last night, and he suspected a clear road ahead. In this, he was mistaken, and in his ignorance, he departed from the Left Wing of his army and rode casually for the Right, moving along parallel roads ten or so miles away.
The day’s march was started as planned. For John Slocum’s Left Wing, this meant that the Fourteenth Corps again took the lead, with the Twentieth to follow. Even from the start, the march was contested. This was, however, only cavalry before them. A Union prisoner, escaped from Rebel captors, was brought to Slocum, telling the general that Joe Johnston’s Confederates were all up near Raleigh. Southern deserters all spoke the same tidings. And even with the boom of artillery, Slocum remained certain that cavalry only lay ahead.
As General Jefferson C. Davis lead the Fourteenth Corps, he noticed that “the enemy’s pickets yielded their ground with unusual stubbornness for cavalry troops.” But the prisoners they took proved to be cavalry, and so he continued on, ordering forward William Carlin’s Division, which was formed on either side of the road. Skirmishers were thrown forward and advancing.
“These companies, being deployed, I at once charged the enemy, driving him from his works through the woods and undergrowth beyond and across a large field east of Cole’s house to his main line, a distance of more than a mile.” wrote Harrison Hobart, commanding the brigade on the right side of the road. Once they were abreast of the house, Hobart’s men dug in, extending their barricades through this field, in which the house sat in the center, and through the woods to their left. Meantime, the artillery dueled.
Sherman had made it about six miles from the Left Wing when he heard the sounds. However, one of Slocum’s staff bearing a message from the wing commander, assured him that “his leading division (Carlin’s) had encountered a division of rebel cavalry, which he was driving easily.” Satisfied that this was fact, Sherman continued toward the columns on the right.
But as soon as Slocum’s brigade on the left of the road swept the Rebel works, gobbling up prisoners as they went, it was learned that cavalry was not the only force on the field that morning. “Prisoners and deserters captured by this movement,” recalled General Davis, commanding the division, “gave ample information of the fact that Johnston’s whole force was rapidly being concentrated in our front with intention of giving battle.”
Slocum was warming to this idea when a prisoner was brought to him. “He informed me that General Johnston had, by forced marches, concentrated his army in my front; that it was understood among the rebel soldiers that this force amounted to 40,000 men; they they were told that they were to crush one corps of Sherman’s army.” With this information and but a corps at the ready, Slocum “concluded to take a defensive position and communicate with the commanding general.” With the message away, Slocum began to place his two corps in the field.
All of Carlin’s Division, including Hobart’s brigade, was shifted to the left of the road, taking positions around the Cole House. The right of the road was occupied by James Morgan’s division. Turning to Alpheus Williams, commanding the Twentieth Corps, Slocum ordered him to fall in on the right of Morgan, greatly extending the line beyond the Rebel left flank.
But the order was soon countermanded. The enemy seemed poised for an assault, and Williams was to drop everything and bring it all to the front. “All the troops moved rapidly,” reported General Williams, and by 2pm, they began to fall into line. Word came that an enemy force was swelling on the left flank, and Williams ordered his men to fall in parallel to the road over which they were marching.
This position, behind and perpendicular to the established line, was thinly held by a single line of troops from Benjamin Fearing’s brigade, of Morgan’s Division, still arriving on the scene when the Rebels commenced their assault. And before either Fearing or any of Williams’ Corps could be fixed, as Baird told it, “it was evident that the forces on our right and left were being crushed and driven back in confusion.”
As General Slocum tells it: “Not more than one-half of his [Williams’] command was in position, however, when the enemy left his works in strong columns and attacked Buell, driving both him and a portion of Robinson’s brigade [from Williams’ Twentieth Corps] back, and capturing three pieces of artillery.” But all was not lost. Since only half of Williams’ Corps had been up and thrown back, fully half was still falling in, now as reinforcements. “General Williams,” wrote Slocum, “had succeed in getting a sufficient force in position to check his advance.”
With the Rebel assault halted, Slocum and Davis had time to shift troops into a new line, much refused on the left. With a little luck and enough troops on hand, the two corps were formed into an unbroken fixture. “The enemy was repulsed at all points along our line,” Slocum added, “but continued his assaults until a late hour in the evening.”
Much seemed to be going well for Joe Johnston on this day. But much could have been better. William Hardee, whose corps had arrived late to the field, was not able to attack until 3pm – after the initial Confederate assault was driven back. According to Confederate Cavalry general, Wade Hampton: “About the time the head of Hardee’s column appeared, a very heavy attack was made on Hoke’s division.” This was the Union counter-attack, which drove back the assaulting Rebels.
Again, according to Hampton, General Bragg, commanding the assaulting corps, again, “fearing he could not maintain his ground, applied for reinforcements. General Johnston at once determined to comply with this request, and he directed Hardee to send a portion of his force to the support of Hoke. This movement was in my judgment the only mistake committed on our part during the fight….”
Counter to Hampton, Johnston did not see it that way. With his attack driven back, he had to divert from the original plan, and send Hardee in more or less unprepared. “He then made the charge with characteristic skill and vigor,” wrote Johnston of Hardee. “Once, when he apprehended the difficult, Hardee literally led the advance. The Federals were routed in a few minutes, our brave fellows dashing successively over two lines of temporary breastworks, and following the enemy rapidly, but in good order.
“A mile in the rear the Fourteenth rallied on the Twentieth Corps in a dense growth of young pines. In this position the Federal right rested on a swamp and was covered by intrenchments. Our troops continued to press the enemy back, except on the left, where we were held in check by the intrenchments just mentioned. Their progress was very slow, however, from the difficulty of penetrating thickets in line of battle.”
This went on until 6pm, when Johnston seemed to think that the Federal force had been “greatly increased.” Though it was not so, the Rebels had beaten themselves bloody against the unmovable Federal force. It must have seemed as if there were more Yankees than before. It was finally dark that drew the battle to a close.
“After burying our dead,” recalled Johnston, “and bringing off our own and many of the Federal wounded, and three pieces of artillery… we returned to our first position.”
Johnston now concluded: “The impossibility of concentrating the Confederate forces in time to attack the Federal left wing while in column on the march, made complete success also impossible, from the enemy’s great numerical superiority.”
General Slocum’s message about Johnston’s entire Rebel army being planted before him finally reached General Sherman, and an officer at hand recorded this in his diary:
“At about half past nine, one of General Slocum’s aids came up at a dashing pace, and, throwing himself from his horse, asked for General Sherman. We all gathered round, and listened attentively, as he told the particulars of the battle. The commander-in-chief would have made a good subject for Punch or Vanity Fair. He had been lying down in General Howard’s tent, and hearing the inquiry for him, and being of course anxious to hear the news of the fight, he rushed out to the camp-fire without stopping to put on his clothes. He stood in a bed of ashes up to his ankles, chewing impatiently the stump of a cigar, with his hands clasped behind him, and with nothing on but a red flannel undershirt and a pair of drawers.”
“I sent back orders for him to fight defensively to save time,” wrote Sherman in his memoirs, “and that I would come up with reénforcements from the direction of Cox’s Bridge, by the road which we had reached near Falling-Creek Church. The country was very obscure, and the maps extremely defective.”
He explained that: “By this movement I hoped General Slocum would hold Johnston’s army facing west, while I would come on his rear from the east. The Fifteenth Corps, less one division (Hazen’s), still well to the rear, was turned at once toward Bentonsville; Hazen’s division was ordered to Slocum’s flank, and orders were also sent for General Blair, with the Seventeenth Corps, to come to the same destination.”
The next morning, Sherman would begin his march.1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 47, Part 1, p 25, 423-424, 434, 448-449, 452-453, 534, 587; 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. [↩]