The 15th of March 1865 was the day designated by Major-General William T. Sherman for the lead columns of his army group to move out on the roads from Fayetteville. “Light march order” was the formation for a third of the force. Sherman expected trouble on the roads ahead. And the men didn’t march far before running into Confederates.
The Right Wing advanced on roads leading to Beaman’s (or Beman’s on some maps) Crossroads. The Fifteenth Corps order of march was Fourth, Second, then Third Divisions, in the prescribed light march order. The First crossed the Cape Fear River that morning and camped just beyond the river. A change in instructions, Right Wing Commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard had the Fifteenth Corps wagons to move with a detachment from First Division (instead of following the Seventeenth Corps).
In the vanguard, Major-General John Corse’s Fourth Division ran into Confederates at South River:
… I moved on the Goldsborough road to South River, where the enemy was developed on its opposite bank, made up of cavalry and a few pieces of artillery posted in a strong position, and the bridge over the main channel rendered impassable by the removal of the planking. Throwing forward a line of skirmishers to engage the enemy, I succeeded in moving a force to the left and commenced crossing, the men being compelled to ford the swamps, a distance of 200 yards, but passing the channel of the river on boats floated down and made fast for that purpose. Before this movement could be completed and the enemy assaulted, as was my intention, night had set in, the intense darkness of which, accompanied by torrents of rain, compelling the men to grope their way with great caution through the boggy swamp (covered with three feet of water), and making it nearly midnight before a lodgment was made on the opposite bank….
Reaching the far side, the men found the Confederates had withdrawn. But Fifteenth Corps had infiltrated across another river.
Further downstream the Seventeenth Corps moved rapidly on a parallel road leading through Blockersville. Major-General Frank Blair again sent the 9th Illinois Mounted Infantry as a flying column, this time to capture the South River bridge on his road. Finding the sixty-foot bridge burnt, the Illinois men skirmished hard with Confederates on the opposite bank. When Federal artillery arrived, the Confederates withdrew. Major-General Joseph Mower then moved his First Division over the river and setup camp beyond, leaving behind his trains. Blair’s other two divisions also remained on the west bank that evening. With the rains, they needed a bridge of 500 feet just to get to the river. That was built overnight to facilitate movement the next morning.
Blair’s column now included the Right Wing’s pontoon bridges, the Wing’s wagon train, and the refugee column. To best secure the refugees, that column would follow the Seventeenth Corps to Clinton, North Carolina, before heading to Wilmington.
The Left Wing was also in motion that day. At the rear, Fourth Division, Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Absalom Baird was the last unit out of Fayetteville that afternoon. They’d waited for First Division, Fifteenth Corps and the Cavalry to clear the bridges. Before leaving Fayetteville, Baird “destroyed 2 iron foundries of some importance, 4 cotton factories, and the printing establishments of 3 rebel newspapers.” Baird would take-up the rear of the Left Wing, guarding the Fourteenth Corps’ trains and Wing’s pontoons.
The rest of the Fourteenth Corps had to wait for the Twentieth Corps and the Cavalry division to pass up the road north toward Raleigh. They only got to Kyle’s Landing by evening. Leading Twentieth Corps that morning was Third Division (who’d sent a patrol up the day before). Mid-day, First Division, Major-General Nathaniel Jackson, took the lead. Late in the afternoon, the Cavalry Division passed through and became the vanguard. Major-General Alpheus S. Williams wrote,
I encamped in the afternoon, amidst a pouring rain, between Silver Run and Taylor’s Hole Creek. Kilpatrick’s cavalry passed to the front and reported a strong infantry skirmish line. Hawley’s brigade was sent forward after dark to support the cavalry.
Brigadier-General William Hawley’s men were in camp at 7:30 a.m. when ordered up. The men didn’t reach Kilpatrick’s cavalry until late that evening. Well after midnight, they took position in the center of the cavalry line.
To the rear and right of the Left Wing advance, Major-General John Geary had charge of the Twentieth Corps’ trains. Geary expended great effort to clear and corduroy the roads on the main road leading towards Bentonville using Graham’s Bridge. He sent out a foraging detachment to secure the bridge over South River, to no avail. They also found Confederates in positions on nearby Maxwell’s and New Bridges. But by nightfall the Confederates fell back, leaving destroyed bridges. That evening, Geary posted artillery at Graham’s Bridge and had half of his wagons up in camp. The rest were strung out along the muddy, worn-out road.
Thus far in the movements through the Carolinas, Sherman had feinted with his Left Wing, while using the Right Wing to deliver the punch. No small secret that Sherman favored the Army of the Tennessee, that being his old command. The movement out of Fayetteville continued this practice, with the Left Wing running a feint towards Raleigh. In this case, the Confederates were in force waiting to receive the feint with a trap of their own.
Major-General William Hardee had selected some good ground on which to fight a delaying action. If that worked, he would buy time for a larger concentration of Confederate troops.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 340-1, 551, and 585.)