After Confederate General William J. Hardee delayed Union general William Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign at the Battle at Averasboro, Union forces marched on to Goldsboro for supplies. Meanwhile, C.S.A. General Joseph E. Johnston maneuvered his men into what would be, writes historian Mark A. Bradley, “the Southern Confederacy’s final hurrah.”
The Battle of Bentonville lasted from March 19-21, 1865, two and a half weeks before Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox and three and half weeks before Johnston surrendered at Bennett Place. The last major battle of the Carolinas Campaign involved approximately 80,000 men (60,000 Union troops and 20,000 Confederate troops). When the battle noise abated and the smoke cleared, the number of dead, wounded, and missing numbered 4,143 (1,527 Union casualties and 2,606 Confederate casualties). The battle showcased the fiercest land fighting in North Carolina, and according to one account, “some of the most furious fighting that happened in that bloody war.”
For at least three reasons, Union commanders were surprised at Bentonville. Throughout the campaign, Johnston had been cautious and acted on the defensive. At Bentonville, he displayed an uncharacteristic boldness, yet the superior Union numbers prevented a decisive Confederate victory. On March 18, Hampton’s cavalry maneuvers distracted Union commanders, who underestimated the size of the Confederate force as a trap was being laid for them. During the ensuing bloody and rainy days at the Battle of Bentonville, Confederate troops fought extraordinarily valiantly.
Various commanders participated in the battle. Under Johnston’s command were Lt. General Alexander P. Stewart, Major General Robert F. Hoke, and Major General Daniel H. Hill; Braxton Bragg, and Wade Hampton. Under Sherman’s command were Major General Henry W. Slocum, Brigadier General William P. Carlin, and Major General Oliver O. Howard.
Sherman had executed a logistic masterpiece in his March to the Sea and in his Carolinas Campaign—except for Bentonville. There the general made two major mistakes. One, as Sherman later admitted, he failed to support General Joseph Mower properly on the last day of battle. Two, he allowed Johnston’s disorganized force to escape. After the battle, Sherman traveled to Goldsboro, as he explained to General Grant, to find clothes and supplies—namely shoes—for his beleaguered men. (Sherman must have noticed the numerous shoeless Confederates at Bentonville). O.O. Howard later remarked concerning Sherman’s performance: “Strategy was his strongest point. Take him in battle and he did not seem to be the equal of Thomas or Grant.” It must be remembered, however, that Johnston, and his lieutenants Hardee and Hampton, performed remarkably well. Sherman’s worst day might have occurred on Johnston’s best day.
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 1963); Mark L. Bradley, The Battle of Bentonville: The Last Stand in the Carolinas (Mason City, IA, 1996) and This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place (Chapel Hill, 2000); William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2006) and North Carolina Through Four Centuries (Chapel Hill, 1989); Steven E. Woodworth, Nothing But Victory: The Army of Tennessee, 1861-1865 (New York, 2005).