With Atlanta burned and Sherman’s March to the Sea cutting the Confederacy in half, Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia mired after months of debilitating trench war around Petersburg and Richmond, and the Army of Tennessee devastated to less than 8,000 effectives, the Confederacy reeled toward military defeat.
In response to Lee’s order to gather all remaining forces to confront Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union forces heading toward North Carolina, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston issued the appropriate orders but declared, “It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman.”
Yet in the ides of March of 1865, Johnston and his men would try.
On Johnston’s orders, Gen. William Hardee used terrain to block or at least slow down the Union advance, or, as he would write later, “to ascertain whether I was followed by Sherman’s whole army, or a part of it, and what was its destination. …”
Halting his men several miles south of Averasboro, N.C., Hardee blocked this narrowest swath of land between the Cape Fear and Black rivers, bringing all of his 7,000 soldiers into a 2-mile-wide space that would cramp Gen. Henry Slocum’s advancing 15,000 Union effectives. With Hardee’s flanks protected by the rivers, advancing Yankees faced a dense maze of underbrush cut by creeks, swamps, and deep ravines. Hard rains soon added more disadvantages, rendering the few fields knee-deep in water.
It worked … at least for a while. Coming darkness ended the fight, and Hardee ordered campfires across his front to cover his evening withdrawal to join Johnston.
Harkening back to the Revolutionary War
Yet there was something special about this battle. In stunning similarity, Gen. Daniel Morgan had employed nearly the same tactics during the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Cowpens, fought 180 miles to the west in January 1771. Both Morgan and Hardee commanded seasoned veterans, but filling their ranks were inexperienced troops in retreat before an aggressive, victorious foe. And, both generals had used these green troops as their first line of defense, blunting the enemy’s attack until they could retire to stronger defensive lines. History had repeated itself … up to a point.
Hardee commended his men for “giving the enemy the first serious check he has received since leaving Atlanta.” Yet Averasboro, while not a defeat, was certainly no stunning Confederate victory, and more and more, unlike their victorious Revolutionary ancestors, Southern soldiers felt fate’s clock ticking.
Although Hardee had stalled Slocum’s advance at Averasboro, the right wing of Sherman’s army under command of Gen. Oliver Howard had pushed on toward Goldsboro, the strategic junction of the Atlantic & North Carolina and Wilmington & Weldon railroads.
In North Carolina’s largest Civil War battle, Bentonville would also be the South’s last large-scale tactical offensive, with almost 30,000 soldiers from every state in the Confederacy, plus Kentucky, wearing the gray. Sherman’s 60,000 men in blue marched from 14 Union states, and also included the 110th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, formerly the 2nd Regiment Alabama Volunteers, African Descent.
On March 19, Slocum discovered Johnston’s entrenched Confederates blocking his advance at Bentonville. Heavy skirmishing erupted from both sides until Johnston seized the initiative in late afternoon. Union counterattacks and intense fighting in the swampy woods south of the Goldsboro Road blunted the Confederate offensive and only sporadic skirmishing occurred the next day.
But on March 21, Johnston still held his position.
Sporadic firefights sputtered along the entire front as a rainstorm moved in. In the afternoon, Union Gen. Joseph Mower led two brigades around the Confederate left flank, attacking Mill Creek Bridge in Johnston’s rear.
A series of frantic Confederate counterattacks halted Mower’s advance and saved the South’s only line of retreat. Union losses numbered 1,527, while Confederate casualties, mostly captured, exceeded 2,600.
Sherman, after regrouping and resupplying his army at Goldsboro, started for Johnston’s army near Raleigh.
With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, few options remained for the South and, on April 18, Johnston signed an armistice with Sherman at the Bennett House, near Durham Station, formally surrendering the surviving remnants of his army on April 26, 1865.
Today, extraordinary artifacts await visitors in the Averasboro Civil War Museum. One display includes the uniform and sword of Col. Thomas J. Purdie. It was Purdie’s 18th North Carolina Infantry that had discharged the “friendly fire” that mortally wounded Gen. Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville.
On March 18, the battlefield presents a program on Resisting Sherman: A Confederate Surgeon’s Journal and the Civil War in the Carolinas, 1865, a book edited by a direct descendant of the author. The Fayetteville Area Transportation and Local History Museum has a continuing exhibit, Cumberland County Goes to War.
On March 20–21, the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site will host “The Ground Trembled Under Our Feet,” a dramatic artillery demonstration on the 151st anniversary of the battle. While the visitor center’s display of battlefield artifacts and interpretative maps bring the battle close, hiking the quarter-mile trail along the Union breastworks, touring the Harper House and reconstructed slave quarters, and pondering the nearby Confederate mass grave ensure a memorable day at the Tar Heel State’s premier Civil War battlefield.
The Bentonville historical marker is at the northbound I-95 rest stop near Fayetteville. A 130-mile Civil War Trail includes more than two dozen Civil War-related sites in the area.
Averasboro Battlefield: averasboro.com
Bentonville Battlefield: nchistoricsites.org/bentonvi/bentonvi.htm
Dunn Co. Tourism: dunntourism.org
Fayetteville Tourism: visitfayettevillenc.com