In January 1865, General William T. Sherman’s army left Savannah Georgia and marched north into the Carolinas. Cut off from traditional supply lines, Sherman’s men relied on their ability to forage and capture supplies. Sherman marched into South Carolina toward the capital of Columbia. Along the way, much of the state’s infrastructure (including railroads, government buildings, and personal houses) was destroyed. By February 11, 1865, the southern half of South Carolina lay in ruin. Union General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry was particularly notorious for the destruction left in its wake. “Bummers,” troops that would temporarily desert their posts and go on unsanctioned foraging missions, were responsible for a majority of destruction.
As Sherman approached Columbia, he ordered the destruction of militarily strategic structures and the preservation of private property. Unable to defend the city, General Wade Hampton was forced to abandon Columbia. On February 17, 1865, Sherman took control of the city and his men began looting. The city was filled with liquor and highly flammable cotton. The initial cause of the fire is unknown and debated by historians, but evidence supports that some of the barrels were burning before Sherman’s arrival.
Sherman claimed the town was already on fire when he arrived and blamed Hampton for the fire. Hampton believed Sherman was responsible for the conflagration. While no evidence supports either General ordering the burning, it was likely caused by rogue Union soldiers and retreating Confederates. Fires cropped up all day throughout the city despite efforts to control it. Some organized rogue Union soldiers, who wanted to punish the south, started fires throughout the night at locations where rockets were fired into the air. Pillaging was rampant against Sherman’s wishes, and Sherman spent much of the night protecting citizens, putting out the fires, and arresting disorderly soldiers. Three hundred and seventy soldiers were placed under arrest, two were killed, and thirty wounded. Sherman himself ordered the arrest of a drunken private and had the man shot when he resisted arrest. By the end of the night, most of the central section of Columbia was burned to the ground. On February 20, 1865, Sherman’s troops left Columbia and began the march toward North Carolina.
Bummers continued to devastate the road to North Carolina despite efforts made by Union commanders to mitigate the destruction. After leaving Columbia, a large number of refugees trailed Sherman’s army, slowing the advance and creating a greater need to acquire food. The actions of the bummers inflamed relations between the Union and Confederacy. Confederate troops began capturing and murdering foragers by hanging the prisoners and leaving the bodies out on display. Sherman reproached Hampton for the harsh actions but also began taking measures to keep his men in line.
Sherman entered North Carolina on March 3, 1865 and initially feinted that the army was heading toward Charlotte, North Carolina, but instead moved east toward Fayetteville. Cavalry skirmishes continued as Kilpatrick ran into resistance from General Wade Hampton. On March 10, Kilpatrick let his guard down and Hampton launched a surprise attack known as Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads. After initially being routed, the Union soldiers counter attacked and reclaimed the camp. At the end of the battle, both sides claimed victory. The battle successfully slowed the advance of Union troops on Fayetteville. Confederate troops were the first to arrive at Fayetteville and successfully retreated across the Cape Fear River.
Meanwhile to the east, General John M. Schofield, under Sherman’s command, marched from Wilmington to Goldsboro. On March 8, Braxton Bragg’s Confederate forces under the command of General Robert F. Hoke ambushed Schofield near Wyse Fork. Hoke overwhelmed the Federals and captured nearly 900 Union officers and soldiers. Schofield withdrew to Wyse Fork and set up a defensive position. Braxton Bragg ordered another attack on the Union forces. On March 10, 1865 the Confederates attacked again, but this time Schofield was prepared and repulsed the attack. The Confederates were forced to retreat. Schofield then proceeded to capture Kinston and continued marching to Goldsboro, where he would unite with Sherman and his troops.
Sherman reached Fayetteville on March 11 and took command of the city. The destruction of the bridge over the Cape Fear River angered Sherman and delayed his advance. While preparations were made to cross the river, Sherman sent the wounded soldiers and all the southern refugees to Wilmington. Fayetteville was treated harshly for the destruction of the bridges, the armed resistance when Union soldiers first arrived, and because the city was the location of a federal arsenal before the war. Upon leaving the city, Sherman ordered the destruction of specific structures within Fayetteville. However, much more was destroyed than initially ordered.
Sherman then marched toward Goldsboro. The Confederates, unsure if the Union was moving to Raleigh or Goldsboro, divided their forces. The Union cavalry clashed against the Confederate infantry at the Battle of Averasboro on March 15 and 16, 1865. The battle delayed the Union push but resulted in a Confederate retreat. Hampton’s cavalry was vital in delaying the Federals long enough for General Joseph E. Johnston to move the Confederate infantry from Raleigh to Bentonville. The Battle of Bentonville was fought between March 19 and March 21, 1865. Initially unaware that the Confederacy had moved its main force to the field, Sherman left only one wing of his army to deal with the cavalry and continued to move toward Goldsboro. By March 20, Sherman learned of the battle and moved his troops to Bentonville. After harsh fighting, the Confederate troops once again retreated. On March 23, 1865, Sherman arrived at Goldsboro and united his forces with two other Union armies thus completing the primary goal of the Carolinas Campaign.
At Goldsboro Sherman altered the foraging system used in Georgia and the Carolinas. General Schofield, who first arrived at Goldsboro on March 21, placed guards around the city to prevent looting and destruction. As a result, Goldsboro fared better than many cities in Sherman’s path. The provisions confiscated by the bummers were turned over to officials and the foragers were placed back in ranks. Discipline and order was restored. On March 25, Sherman left Goldsboro and met with Grant in City Point, Virginia. By March 30, Sherman was back in Goldsboro organizing the army for the final push.
In Virginia during early-April 1865, Grant conquered Virginia by taking Richmond and Petersburg. Sherman, wanting to be a part of Lee’s surrender, marched to Raleigh to battle General Johnston. Johnston, who was at Smithfield, moved his forces to guard Raleigh against attack. The Confederate cavalry mounted resistance on the road from Goldsboro to Raleigh and slowed the Union advance with small skirmishes. On April 11, Sherman learned of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House (April 9, 1865). On April 12, North Carolina Governor Zebulon Baird Vance sent commissioners to visit with Sherman and discuss the end of hostilities. After delays caused by interference from both Confederate and Union forces, the message reached Sherman. The delay prompted Raleigh’s evacuation before Sherman’s reply reached the city. On April 13, 1865 Sherman captured Raleigh and wrote letters expressing his desire for Vance to return to the city. Skirmishing continued between the Union and Confederate cavalry on April 13, but the City of Raleigh was not held accountable.
Sherman met with General Johnston on April 17 and 18 at Bennett’s Farm just outside of Durham’s Station, North Carolina. Sherman and Johnston reached a peace agreement and the remaining Confederate forces officially surrendered. Sherman’s terms gave a blanket pardon to everyone in the Confederacy and recognized the local governments. As a result, Sherman’s terms were rejected in Washington, and Sherman came under fire for overstepping his authority. When news of the rejection reached the south, Johnston disregarded orders given by Confederate President Davis to continue fighting. Much of Johnston’s army already deserted after the initial surrender. Sherman and Johnston met again on April 26 and renegotiated the terms of surrender. Washington accepted the terms, ending hostilities in the South.
Alan Axelrod, Generals South Generals North: The Commanders of the Civil War Reconsidered. (Lyons Press: Guilford, Connecticut, 2011) 211-225.
John G. Barrett, Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1956).
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1963).
Sharyn Kane and Richard Keeton, Fiery Dawn: The Civil War Battle At Monroe’s Crossroads, North Carolina, prepared for the U.S. Army, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida, 1999.
Kinston-Lenoir County Tourism. The Battle of Wyse Fork: History and Driving Tour. North Carolina Civil War Trails.
Mark L. Bradley, Last Stand in the Carolina’s: The Battle of Bentonville. (Campbell: Savas Woodbury Publishers, 1996).