Sherman’s March, March 14, 1865: “I do think it is Johnston’s only chance to meet this army “

One more day of “partial rest” for Major-General William T. Sherman’s men on March 14, 1865, as everyone prepared for the next leg of the march.  Main activities for the day involved staging the commands for movement. To Major-General Oliver O. Howard, Sherman explained his intent for the next phase.  He planned a feint on Raleigh, and wished to cut the road near Smithfield to support that appearance.

To this end the cavalry will move to-night across the bridge, beginning at 3 a.m., and will push to-morrow up the plank road to about Averasborough, Slocum following up with four disencumbered divisions to near the forks of the road, moving his trains by a cross road toward Bentonville. The next move will be the cavalry to Elevation, and Slocum will cross Black River. The next move will bring Slocum to Bentonville, and Kilpatrick, supported by a division of infantry, will make a dash for the railroad.

Sherman wanted Howard’s Right Wing to support the Left Wing closely.  But beyond that:

I want you to be as near in support as possible. I do think it is Johnston’s only chance to meet this army before an easy junction with Schofield can be effected. I would like you to have four divisions free to move rapidly to the sound of battle in the direction of Mingo Creek and Elevation, and, at any event, to make a junction by head of column with Slocum at Bentonville.

Key to supporting Sherman’s intent, both the Left and Right Wings needed to form light marching columns in the advance, so as to quickly respond if – when – General Joseph Johnston moved to oppose the march.


The Federal arrows on today’s map are somewhat crowded and imprecise.  For the Right Wing, Seventeenth Corps moved out on the Wilmington Road to give room for the Fifteenth Corps assembling into camps over the Cape Fear River.  The Fifteenth Corps had orders to use both pontoon bridges while crossing.  But this brought some unexpected delays.  The Fourth Division crossed the lower bridge that afternoon, taking about half the corps’ trains. But the other three divisions had to wait for the Left Wing’s trains to clear the upper bridge.  The Second and Third Divisions crossed during the afternoon and evening of the 14th, but the First Division had to wait until the 15th.

On the east side of the river, Major-General John Logan took time to organize the corps for the next march.

The further movement from this point was to be made with unencumbered divisions, men to be supplied with five days’ rations.  All of our supply train and a portion of ordnance train was to move by another and lower route directly on Everettsville.  The organization of the train was effected before moving from the Cape Fear River, and the First Brigade, First Division, with a regiment each from the Second and Fourth Divisions, under command of Brevet Brigadier-General Woods, was assigned as a guard for the train.  All the ambulances and twelve ordnance wagons with the headquarters and regimental teams, accompanied the troops.

The Left Wing made similar movements and dispositions.  Fourteenth Corps prepared First and Second Divisions for light marching order.  But Third Division remained in Fayetteville on guard.  In town, Major-General Absalom Baird had orders to destroy all mills in vicinity of Fayetteville, save one that would be sufficient to sustain the people of the city.

The Twentieth Corps also prepared two divisions for light marching to come.  To probe the Confederates ahead, Third Brigade, Third Division, under Brigadier-General William Cogswell, made a reconnaissance on the road leading out from Fayetteville.  One scouting column went on the Goldsboro Road, reaching Great Creek.

The other, moving north on the road to Raleigh, met more resistance.  Lieutenant-Colonel Philo Buckingham, 20th Connecticut Infantry, in command of that column had orders to proceed to Taylor’s Hole Run.  Buckingham was “not to attack in line of battle” but to use skirmishers only.  After only a few miles march, Buckingham ran into the advance guard of the Confederate line.  As the skirmish line deployed, the Confederates fell back to the next creek.  The Federals repaired a bridge near a mill on that creek and proceeded forward, cautiously.  This setup a series of bounds where the Federals would locate a Confederate picket force, deploy skirmishers, then watch their opponents fall back.  At Silver Run, the Confederates deployed an artillery piece and gave a good fight, as Buckingham later reported:

After quite a spirited skirmish the enemy was driven back to the cross-roads to within a quarter of a mile of Silver Run. Here, finding the force of the enemy had been increased and that he was making quite a determined stand, I sent forward four companies from the One hundred and second Illinois Volunteers to re-enforce and extend my line of skirmishers, at the same time sending one company from the Thirty-third Massachusetts Volunteers out toward the left and rear of my skirmish line to guard a road which led from my left toward the right of the enemy, so as to prevent a flank attack in that direction. After these dispositions were made I ordered an advance, and the enemy was soon driven back across Silver Run Creek and took refuge behind earth-works, in which I discovered artillery in position and a force sufficient to occupy works a mile or more in extent.

Buckingham proceeded forward again, but sensed he was up against a superior force.

After skirmishing with him quite briskly for nearly two hours, and finding I could not dislodge him without using my whole force, and that I had not more than time to reach camp by a seasonable hour, I withdrew my force in good order and, unmolested by the enemy, marched back to camp, which I reached about 9 p.m., having marched in all about twenty miles, skirmished with the enemy about three hours, and driven him nearly four miles into a strongly intrenched position.

Officers who lead reconnaissance missions are allowed to write run-on sentences.  But in all seriousness, there are a couple points we should consider from Cogswell’s reconnaissances.  First, consider the details of Buckingham’s report.  We often read about skirmishing on such reconnaissance operations.  But let the events pass as we rush through the pages to the big battles.  The report speaks to similar actions taken at hundreds of other points during the Civil War.  And Buckingham, an experienced officer, did exactly what he was supposed to do – didn’t get in over his head and demonstrated the discipline required for such duty.

Secondly, this was the infantry making this probe, not the Federal Cavalry.  Maj0r-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s command was still in Fayetteville that day.  Why wasn’t Kilpatrick up to conduct this reconnaissance?  After all, this is what the cavalry does.  Well, Kilpatrick’s command was still recoiling from Monroe’s Crossroads.  And at the same time, Sherman displayed a reluctance to push the cavalry out on similar missions – as the covering force – again.  Instead, Kilpatrick’s troopers would cross the Cape Fear River the next day to pick up a position supporting the Left Wing.

But before we start counting the measure of Kilpatrick, remember there was a thumb on the scale which factors here.  Good subordinates operate as a direct reflection of their superior’s intents.  In this case, before we rate Kilpatrick in terms of accomplishing cavalry missions, we must ask if Sherman assigned Kilpatrick such missions.  One can argue that Sherman’s desire to use the cavalry in certain ways prevented Kilpatrick from exercising those traditional cavalry operations.  But was that because Sherman couldn’t trust Kilpatrick to perform those missions?  Or because Sherman didn’t understand cavalry (and how to direct them on those missions)?  Or a little of both?

Now in communication with other commands in North Carolina, Sherman issued marching orders.  Major-General Alfred Terry was to make a light march of his own out of Wilmington.  When that column joined the main force, Sherman would provide them with wagons, hoping supplies would be abundant at or near Goldsboro.

Finding the Confederates had left Kinston, Major-General John Schofield ordered a crossing of the Neuse River.  The critical task for Schofield was not so much to gain territory, but to repair the railroad.  Orders went out to General Jacob Cox:

You will please detail from your command 1,000 men with from 200 to 300 axes to cut railroad ties and distribute them along the track.  They will commence where the road strikes the Neuse and work southward towards New Berne.  Let the work be commenced early in the morning and pushed with vigor.  The ties are to be cut from eight to nine feet long, seven inches thick, and with faces not less than five inches broad.  They are to be distributed along the railroad at the rate of one tie to every two feet of track.

The advance of the supply line, and thus the element most critical to Sherman’s success, would be measured in two feet increments.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 233 and 836; Part II, Serial 99, pages 822 and 837.)


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