Following the destruction of Columbia, South Carolina, on February 17, 1865, Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman continued his Carolinas Campaign moving into North Carolina. Sherman divided his forces to make it appear that Union forces were advancing to Charlotte, North Carolina. However, the bulk of the troops, led by Major General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, marched east toward Fayetteville. Sherman planned to secure Fayetteville and then move northeast toward Goldsboro. There, he planned to link up with the two Union armies already fighting over North Carolina’s coast. If his strategy worked, Sherman would secure the bridges in Fayetteville and trap Confederates on the western side of the Cape Fear River. If Union troops did not arrive first, they would be in position to attack the Confederates crossing the river.
The Confederates knew the war was coming to an end, and Confederate General Joseph Eggleston Johnston focused his efforts on defending North Carolina, Johnston hoped to gain as many victories as possible to secure better terms for the eventual surrender. Sherman’s feint split his forces into two isolated wings. Johnston hoped to defeat one wing of the Union forces to cut down on the overwhelming odds.
Between March 1, 1865 and March 10, 1865, the Federals advanced into North Carolina and toward Fayetteville. During the march, Federals and Confederates constantly skirmished. On March 8, 1865, General Kilpatrick captured numerous Confederates after attacking the rear of General William Joseph Hardee’s retreating column. Learning that General Wade Hampton’s cavalry was approaching from the rear, Kilpatrick positioned his troops on three roads with the hope to capture Hampton. However, bad roads and weather prevented Kilpatrick from succeeding.
On March 8, Hampton and General Matthew Butler joined forces with General Joseph Wheeler. Previously Hampton and Wheeler operated independently. Hampton took charge as the commanding officer although he shared the same rank as Wheeler. To avoid aggravating a delicate situation, Hampton limited his commands to Wheeler.
On March 9, Kilpatrick camped at Green Springs, an open field just south of Monroe’s Crossroads, and intended to surprise Confederates racing to Fayetteville. However, General Butler’s cavalry were heading to Green Springs. The night was pitch black with heavy rain, but Butler’s scouts discovered Union soldiers were near after finding horse tracks only partially filled with water. Aware of approaching Union soldiers, Butler captured a group of about thirty Union cavalrymen without firing a single shot. General Kilpatrick was with a second group of riders but escaped with his staff. Further reconnaissance informed Confederates of the Union camp and after capturing a Union scout, they learned specific details regarding the whereabouts of the camp and Kilpatrick’s headquarters.
Just before midnight, General Smith Dykins Atkins approached Butler’s force from the rear. Atkin’s saw Butler was between his own men and Kilpatrick’s. In an effort to reconnect with Kilpatrick, Atkins retraced his steps to find a way around Butler but ended up stuck in a swamp until after dawn. He was unable to inform Kilpatrick of the proximity of the Confederates.
General Wade Hampton decided to launch a surprise attack at daylight on the morning of March 10. Due to confusion, Kilpatrick’s force failed to establish a picket line in the rear allowing Butler and Confederate scouts to acquire intelligence on the camp. General Hampton who formulated the plan while further scouting efforts confirmed the location of prisoners and provided further details about the location of Kilpatrick’s headquarters. Wheeler’s force was scattered with many just arriving after a long night of riding. It was decided that Butler would lead the main charge. Butler and his men would attack the camp from the north in the early morning hours. Wheeler’s men would attack from the center and south and cut off the Union escape. Butler, Wheeler, and General William Wirt Allen all formulated separate plans to capture Kilpatrick. Just before the assault began, Hampton gave command of the assault to General Wheeler as a gesture of good will.
About 5:30am on March 10, the Confederates attacked the Union camp while the Union soldiers still slept. The Confederates initially overwhelmed and routed the Union troops, released Confederate prisoners, and secured the Union’s artillery. Kilpatrick’s headquarters was taken, but Kilpatrick avoided capture. Confederate Captain Bostick rode up to Kilpatrick as the general exited the headquarters in his nightclothes and asked for the whereabouts of the general. When Kilpatrick realized he was not recognized, he pointed to another, exclaiming, “There he goes on that horse!” Bostick pursued the rider and Kilpatrick jumped on the nearest horse and escaped. Butler’s force secured the release of nearly 130 Confederate prisoners. Some were accidentally shot, but many prisoners picked up arms or jumped on horses and joined in the assault. However, misfortune struck Wheeler’s regiment and they were unable to cut off the Confederate retreat. The group attacking from the south became stuck in the swamp. As a result, Kilpatrick and his cavalrymen escaped. The Confederates did not pursue and instead took time looting the camp.
Realizing the Confederates were not pursuing, Kilpatrick and his officers organized the Union troops who escaped. Kilpatrick led a counterassault on the camp. The Confederates were unprepared for the quick counterattack. The Confederates – officers and soldiers – were scattered and separated from their units. Butler saw the confusion and sent a courier to dispatch his reserves, but the reserves were not in the correct location. Wheeler’s trapped division finally emerged from the swamp and entered into battle. Wheeler sent a courier to summon his reserves, but they were also not in the planned location. Hampton gathered up both sets of reserves and led them into the battle himself. Union reinforcements arrived and the fighting intensified. A Union artillery officer retook the forgotten artillery and fired on the Confederates. The Confederates charged and disabled the cannons but at great cost. Federal forces then repelled the concentrated Confederate attacks and retook the cannons.
Hampton, concerned that the Union infantry would soon arrive, ordered the Confederate cavalry to withdraw. Hampton’s timing was impeccable. Shortly after withdrawing, Brigadier General J. G. Mitchell’s brigade arrived to support Kilpatrick. Hampton escaped with Union prisoners and supply wagons and moved to Fayetteville. The casualty reports from the battle are confusing and conflicting. Kilpatrick, known for exaggeration, reports that about one hundred Union soldiers were captured, General Wheeler reported taking over three hundred and fifty prisoners, and General Johnston’s report claimed the number was around five hundred prisoners. Both the Union and Confederate forces claimed victory.
The conflict opened the road to Fayetteville for the Confederates, and the battle prevented Union troops from progressing toward Fayetteville on March 10. Kilpatrick, worried that the Confederates might return, stayed close to Sherman’s reinforcements, allowing the Confederates to arrive at Fayetteville first. Some skirmishing ensued on March 11 when Union scouts assaulted the Confederate troops in Fayetteville, but the scouts were repulsed. The Confederates withdrew across Cape Fear River before the arrival of the main Union force and destroyed the bridges. Fayetteville formally surrendered to Sherman’s forces, but the Confederate soldiers escaped and Sherman was unable to get his force across the Cape Fear River until March 15. The engagement at Monroe’s Crossroads provided the Confederate infantry the time needed to cross to the eastern side of the Cape Fear River by delaying the advance of the Union forces and allowed the Confederates time to regroup and establish a defensive position at Bentonville. The Battle of Bentonville was the last major conflict of the Civil War.
The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads has remained in the memory of the local community. Shortly after the battle, locals began marking the Union and Confederate mass graves. In 1921 the Army marked Union mass graves that held a number of unidentified soldiers. When it was determined that Confederate soldiers were also buried there, a Confederate marker was added as well. In 1996 the U.S. Army created a monument dedicated “To the American Soldier” on the battlefield at Monroe’s Crossroads. Today Fort Bragg and the U.S. Army protect the battlefield site of Monroe’s Crossroads and have kept alive the memory of the battle through monuments and by helping the National Park Service publish books to honor the sacrifices of the soldiers.
Kenneth Belew, with an introduction by Kenneth Belew and Douglass D. Scott, Cavalry Clash In the Sandhills: The Battle of Monroe’s Crossroads, North Carolina, a battle staff ride study 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, Midwest Archeological Center, Lincoln, Nebraska 1997 and the Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida.
John G. Barrett, Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1956). 117-134.
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina, (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1963). 301-317.
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.
Mark L. Bradley, Last Stand in the Carolina’s: The Battle of Bentonville. (Campbell: Savas Woodbury Publishers, 1996) 81-104.