Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wicked Yankee Abroad - The Battle of Bentonville, NC

Well, I was really outside of New England this week. Instead of exploring Yankee history, I was on a long road trip visiting relatives in Florida. However, driving from Cape Cod to Florida did allow me to experience some pieces of history I generally do not get a chance to. Although time was a factor, so I could not spend days stomping around the south, my wife and I did make a stop at a Civil War battlefield while traveling through North Carolina. I lucked out in this instance because this battle actually had a Yankee connection. As I was to learn, one of the most Wicked Yankees of them all, General William Tecumseh Sherman, once blazed his way through this particular area of North Carolina. In that time, he participated in a conflict which would help decide the fate of the Carolinas, the Battle of Bentonville.

From November to December of 1864, a Union Army led by General William Sherman burned and destroyed its way from Atlanta to Savannah Georgia. Sherman’s army not only destroyed military targets but was also aimed at crippling southern industry and civilian infrastructure. They burned civilian property and destroyed southern railroad in an attempt to cripple the south physically and psychologically. In a letter to General HW Halleck, Sherman justified his tactics of total war.
"We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies. I know that this recent movement of mine through Georgia has had a wonderful effect in this respect. Thousands who had been deceived by their lying newspapers to believe that we were being whipped all the time now realize the truth, and have no appetite for a repetition of the same experience."
In short, Sherman wanted to make sure that the south lost their morale and their will to fight against the Union. In addition, he wanted to ensure that the people of the Confederacy could never again gather the support necesarry to rebel. For his actions, I believe Sherman is disliked throughout the south.

General William Tecumseh Sherman
After the capture of Savannah, Sherman was ordered by Ulysses S. Grant to transport his army to Virginia in order to end Grant’s stalemate with Robert E. Lee. However, within the Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman, Sherman records a letter he sent to Grant in December of 1864. Sherman believed that transporting his army north by sea would disrupt the morale and unity of his men. He believed his armies could do more by destroying Confederate railroads in a march through the Carolinas. Sherman expressed to Grant that he wanted to end the war as quickly as possible. He guessed that Robert E. Lee would remain in Richmond, but also believed he would be able to handle Lee if he ever left the Confederate capital. If not, he also knew Grant would then pin Lee’s army between them.

General Ulysses S. Grant
Commander of the Union forces

Robert E. Lee
Commander of the Confederate Forces

On March 8 of 1865, Sherman’s army crossed into North Carolina, their goal was to reach Goldsboro by passing through Fayetteville. Sherman knew that Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was gathering rebel forces in the Carolinas to stop the advance of the Union army. In reaching Fayetteville on March 11, parts of Sherman’s army encountered and skirmished with several Confederate leaders.
General Joseph E. Johnston
As Sherman’s army destroyed Confederate weapons, railroads, and fortifications, The General continually expressed resentment for the people of the Carolinas. In his letters to Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Sherman states that the people of the Carolinas should never again be trusted to amass weapons at their own discretion.

After just participating in a serious battle at Averysboro, Sherman believed that Johnston would not make any serious opposition. However, while five miles outside of Bentonville on March 19, Sherman was notified that a division of his army commanded by General Henry Slocum had just encountered the combined forces of General Joseph E. Johnston’s army. Sherman sent command to Slocum to fight defensively until Sherman could arrive with reinforcements.

According to General Johnston’s Narrative of Military Operations Described During the Late Wars Between the States, Johnston overestimated the distance between the two wings of Sherman’s army. He believed it would take about a day’s march to combine Sherman’s forces. This would prove to be incorrect. However, on the first day of battle, the Confederates were successful in holding the advance of the Union army.

According to Sherman’s memoirs, he and General Johnston spent the next day deploying their armies. Johnston’s army was formed into the shape of a "V" enveloping the village of Bentonville. Sherman’s forces, already split into two wings, engaged both sides of the Confederate force. As a heavy rain began, both armies prepared for battle.
Looking out over the battlefield from the Confederate side
According to Johnston, he knew that he was vastly outnumbered. He spread his forces thin to match the Union front in order to appear as an equal force. About noontime March 21, Sherman ordered the whole rebel line to be engaged in a strong skirmish fire. In his memoirs Sherman admits that he should have immediately begun a general battle. However, he also admits that he misjudged how strong Johnston’s forces were. While in reality, Sherman commanded around 60,000 men, Johnston led around only 21,000.
Examples of equiptment and weapons used at Bentonville
Courtesy of the Battle of Bentonville Visitor's Center
Confederate soldier's equiptment at Bentonville
Courtesy of the Battle of Bentonville Visitor's Center
Although the Confederates were successfully holding their position, Johnston began to understand he and his army were in danger. Therefore, before daybreak on March 22, he ordered that his forces retreat across the creek to their rear. Sherman detected the retreat too late. In addition, seeing the roads now clear to Goldsboro, he failed to follow and engage Johnston because he was still unsure of the strength of the Confederate forces.

Sherman reported that his loses over three days of battle were around 1,604. According to Johnston, over the course of three days 223 confederates were killed, 1,467 were wounded, and 653 were either missing or captured. The site North Carolina Historic Sites, lists the Federal loses at 1,527 and Confederate loses at 2,606. Although Johnston might not have known it, this battle would be his last chance to stop Sherman’s army in North Carolina. In addition, this was Sherman’s best chance to defeat and capture most of Johnston’s combined forces. Thus, hastening the end of the Civil War.

This 19th Century farmhouse was used as a battefield hospital

A row of unmarked graves of Confederate soldiers from Bentonville
However, according to Sherman’s own writing, he was very focused on capturing Goldsboro, hoping that he could continue to cripple any supply lines supporting General Lee in Richmond. He believed this would either force Lee's surrender or force him to march out of Richmond to confront the Union army. Ultimately, he believed his actions were bringing the war to a close as quickly as possible. In addition, he believed his tactics would destroy the morale and combat capabilities of the southern people for years to come.

As for Johnston, he knew that he was greatly outnumbered in Bentonville. In his narrative, he does not speak about defeating Sherman at this point. Rather, he and his army were fighting just to maintain a standstill. Retreat was his best option and definitely saved lives at that point.

The Civil War ended only a few months after the action at Bentonville. After Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9 1865, General Johnston and General Sherman met at a small farm in North Carolina. After Johnston's surrender Sherman issued ten days of rations to the starving Confederate soldiers who had once been enemies. Both men carved out moderately successful lives following the war and seemed to have earned a respect for each other. They maintained contact through friendly letters and even occasionally met for dinner. It is said that Johnston would not hear an unkind word said about Sherman in his presence.

When General Sherman died in New York City in February of 1891, General Johnston served as a pallbearer at the military procession following his funeral. It was reported to be a very cold day and Johnston refused to wear his hat, presumably out of respect for Sherman. When one of Johnston’s friends, fearing that the now older General would catch a cold, ask him to wear his hat, Johnston is said to have replied, "If I were in his place, and he were standing in mine, he would not put on his hat." Unfortunately, Joseph E. Johnston did become ill and died of pneumonia about a month later.

As my wife, dogs, and I traveled north on I-95 I watched these important southern cities fly by from my window. I saw cities and landscapes that I had only really read about in history books or taught to my students when I used to teach American history. I wish we had more time to explore, but time was short. As a Yankee, I don’t often get to see Civil War battlefields. Even though sometimes the miles and hours felt long, I made an effort to remember that we were literally following in the footsteps of heroes who fought for their beliefs and for the survival of our country. I was absolutely reminded of this when I was able to visit the site of and learn about the Battle of Bentonville.


  1. The small farm that Major General Sherman and General Johnston met to negotiate the terms of surrender was the farm of James and Nancy Bennett, which stands along the Old Hillsborough Road in Durham, North Carolina. Today, the site is a North Carolina State Historic Site.

    1. Thank you for the information and for visiting. I loved visiting this Civil War battlefield. I don't get to see many. Researching Bentonville has definitely increased my interest in the subject. Next time I pass through the area I'd love to see the Bennett farm.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.