After evacuating Fayetteville, Lieutenant-General William Hardee setup a defensive position north of the city along the road to Raleigh. Hardee’s line had flanks protected by the Cape Fear and Black Rivers, where the two were just a couple miles apart and through which the plank road to Raleigh passed. The line, actually a defense in depth, was maned by troops who had spent most of the war around the Charleston defenses. Behind them was the village of Averasborough. At the high level, Hardee’s position was much like similar stances made earlier in the campaign – easily by-passed and insufficient in strength to force the Federals to action. But down to the tactical level, Hardee’s stand was in the idea place to cause Major-General William T. Sherman pause and thus gain some time for Confederate forces.
As mentioned yesterday, Sherman’s columns moved out of Fayetteville with the Left Wing advancing four divisions in light march order to the north as a feint against Raleigh. It was this feint, under Major-General Henry Slocum, which would run into Hardee’s delaying action. The Left Wing had, for most of the Carolinas Campaign, not faced any serious opposition from the Confederates. March 16, 1865 would be a sharp contrast for those men in the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps.
But before diving into the action at Averasborough, consider the other moving pieces in the Federal columns that day:
Sherman’s concept of movement was to keep the Right Wing, with at least three unencumbered divisions, within range to support the Left Wing should trouble arise. This, and the need to cover several trains of wagons, caused the Federal march to break down into divisional columns. And it is important to understand that the movement of these divisions governed the overall pace of march (not just on the 16th, but for the week to follow).
On the far right of the march, the Seventeenth Corps escorted its own trains, the Right Wing headquarters’ trains, the Wing’s pontoon train, and the consolidated column of refugees. Having forced a crossing over South River the day before, First Division of the corps maintained its position. The Fourth Division moved up to Big Swamp and laid a 180 foot bridge. Lead elements of that division proceeded to Owensville by night. Otherwise the focus of the corps was getting all the vehicles across South River and Big Swamp, keeping a compact column, and facilitating a longer march the next day. Hopes were to turn the refugee column off towards Wilmington on the 17th.
The Fifteenth Corps’s movements were a bit more complex. Of the three “light” divisions, Fourth Division under Major-General John Corse continued its advance on the Goldboro Road, some six miles, to reach Little Cohera Creek. Again, after a brief skirmish with Confederates, Corse effected a crossing. Behind Corse, the Second and Third Divisions took a road to the left off the Goldboro Road to reach the Fayetteville-Bentonville Road. This turn was accomplished to clear the way for the Left Wing’s trains. But it also points to, for lack of a better description, the traffic control problems arising behind South River where the trains of three corps were stacking up on a couple of roads.
The Fifteenth Corps trains, guarded by Major-General John Woods’ First Division, proceeded on what was by then the muddy and well worn Goldsboro Road to gain crossing of South River that evening.
On the Bentonville Road, Major-General John Geary had the 1st Michigan Engineers repair the South River bridge that day. Geary had other portions of his command work to close up all the wagons assigned to his protection. “My train was very long, containing over 1,000 vehicles, and to ensure its safety I picketed strongly all the roads and other approaches from the left.” Geary had charge of all of Twentieth Corps’ wagons, the Cavalry Division wagons, and the majority of the Wing’s headquarters wagons. Added to Geary’s column that day, the pontoons for the Left Wing arrived at South River. Closing up behind Geary, and adding to the traffic, was the division of Major-General Absalom Baird with the trains from the Fourteenth Corps. All this rolling stock had to pass over one bridge across South River (Black River is a tributary to that stream, putting in perspective where the fighting was occurring further north at Averasborough).
But Geary did not push the trains over the South River that day. With the action at Averasborough, he held the column to within supporting range of the light divisions, should they become more heavily engaged. Late in the evening, Geary received orders to send empty wagons and ambulances to the light divisions to transport wounded, along with “twenty wagon loads infantry ammunition, six of artillery ammunition, two brigade cattle herds, and all the rations possible from the corps supply train.” Such was a measure of the intensity of fighting at Averasborough.
Now with this “traffic jam” considered, circle back to the morning hours and Slocum’s front. As related yesterday, on the evening of March 15, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick found the Confederate lines along the Raleigh Plank Road and called for support. Brigadier-General William Hawley’s brigade from the First Division, Twentieth Corps, moved up to support the cavalry. And on the morning of the 16th, when initial cavalry probes ran into the Confederate infantry again, it was Hawley’s brigade which moved up to press the rebel lines. But Hawley did not gain much, “The enemy being found strongly intrenched and with artillery I deemed it prudent to await the arrival of more troops before pressing them too hard.”
Behind Hawley, Third Division, Major-General William Ward, of the Twentieth Corps moved up. Three brigades from that division deployed to Hawley’s left starting around 9 a.m. Meanwhile, the other two brigades from Brigadier-General Nathaniel Jackson’s division dressed to the right of Hawley. But this infantry line took time to shake out.
While this was going on, Sherman came up in person to observe. He suggested Kilpatrick move up cavalry to help develop the situation. The response from the cavalry chief was “how?” While the cavalrymen would turn good service that day, their leader was notably unable to do what a good cavalry leader should do in this such situation – develop the enemy lines. As such, much time was spent by the Federal infantry groping to find some purchase on the Confederate line. Kilpatrick would simply report, “After thoroughly reconnoitering the enemy’s entire position I decided it was not prudent to attack, and sent back for infantry reinforcements.” Sherman would conduct the battle of Averasborough himself, almost in spite of the presence of Kilpatrick and Slocum.
The “development of the position” which Sherman desired was actually gained by the artillery. Major John Reynolds brought up the artillery of the Twentieth Corps up behind Ward’s Division:
Batteries I and M, First New York Artillery, and C, First Ohio Artillery, took position in an orchard to the left of the road, about 500 yards from the enemy’s line. They soon silenced [the Confederate] artillery, blowing up one limber, killing all the horses, and driving the cannoneers from their piece.
With that going on, Sherman personally ordered the left-most brigade, that of Colonel Henry Case, of Ward’s Division forward through a swamp.
As we pressed forward we encountered a skirmish line of the enemy on the interior edge of the swamp, which we speedily drove back, killing two on the line, and, passing the swamp, found ourselves in a ravine. I immediately advanced to reconnoiter and found that my brigade was exactly on the right of their works.
Case returned to his men and ordered a charge at the double quick. This, coupled with an advance on the Confederate front, caved in the first line of defense at Averasborough. As the Federals moved through the Confederate fortifications, they captured and turned two artillery pieces.
The Federals then faced an even more formidable line, with some 8,000 Confederates to include some of Major-General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry. Again, the Federals worked to develop the line. Sherman ordered up the Fourteenth Corps to file into the left of the Twentieth Corps. But the space allowed only Brigadier-General James Morgan’s Second Division of the Fourteenth to get into position. Morgan was able to press the Confederate skirmishers back to their works.
Sherman outnumbered Hardee at this point in the battle. But Sherman lacked the space to maneuver or employ all his forces. Heavy rains that picked up as the afternoon drug on was turning all the field into a sea of mud. And after fighting all morning, the Federals were in need of resupply. The battle of Averasborough fell off to heavy skirmishing before nightfall.
Under cover of the night, Hardee withdrew, having succeeded in his task of delaying Sherman for a day. But he’d lost over 800 casualties. The 1st South Carolina Heavy Artillery, men who’d defended Charleston for so many long months, suffered 215 of that total.
The Left Wing counted 682 casualties, of which 533 were wounded. That, going back to Geary’s halt for the day, explained why empty wagons were diverted to the battlefield as ambulances. Although Hardee would give Sherman the battlefield the next day, the effect was not only a one day delay on the battlefield, but additional hours as wagons were redirected and countermarched to support the divisions engaged on March 16. I’d personally weight the scales closer to “two days” lost because of Hardee’s stand at Averasborough.
NOTE: I’ve given a brief examination of the tactical action at Averasborough, choosing to allocate space to explain how the other portions of Sherman’s forces moved and adjusted position during the day. Sort of fits more into the “march” theme I have been pursuing. Civil War Daily Gazette has a post offering more of the battle details. Also see the battle’s resource page on the Civil War Trust’s site.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 637, 693, 789, 847, and 862.)