Sherman’s March, March 17, 1865: “I moved towards Bentonville but six miles” – the other day lost at Averasborough

I closed yesterday mentioning that Major-General William T. Sherman in effect lost two days due to Lieutenant-General William Hardee’s delaying action at Averasborough.  The first of those days was/is apparent just looking at the progress of the Left Wing on the road to Averasborough on March 16, 1865.  To illustrate the second lost day, we must look at the movements on March 17:

NCMarch_March17Sherman

The four “light” divisions (technically “unencumbered” is the best way to describe them, but “light” saves me on word count!) of the Left Wing continued movement towards Averasborough that morning.  As predicted, Hardee had withdrawn.  Brigadier-General William Ward’s division moved up to Averasborough to clear any rear guard.  Behind them, the Cavalry Division, then Second and First Divisions, Fourteenth Corps (in that order) moved on the Goldsboro Road.   After Fourteenth Corps passed, the Twentieth Corps picked up the line of march.  This arrangement setup the dispositions of the Left Wing into the 18th and 19th, and thus had an effect on the first phases of the battle of Bentonville.  The Fourteenth Corps spent three hours rebuilding the bridge over Black River.

Upon crossing the Black River, the cavalry turned north towards Elevation with the mission to screen the movement.  This had some slight effect on Hardee’s retreat towards Smithville, but only to force Hampton to deploy his cavalry in order to counter the Federal screen.  As had happened since Monroe’s Crossroads, the Confederates held ascendency in this covering force activity.  Hampton could report where Sherman was going.  Kilpatrick could not detect where the Confederates were moving.

The infantry continued forward past Black River to reach Mingo River.  A detail from the Fifteenth Corps moved on the bridge over that river from the east side, but found the Fourteenth Corps arriving at the point in mid-afternoon.  After repairing the bridge there, the light divisions of the Left Wing went into camps across the Mingo River.  Total march for the column was about eight miles that day.  But it was made largely without interference from Confederates.

So the Left Wing’s combat formations made eight miles that day.  What of the Right Wing and the trains of the Left Wing?   Likewise, their movements were short, and for once not all due to mud and weather.  At the start of the day Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s orders were effected to bring the various columns of the Wing closer.  The worry was that Seventeenth Corps in particular was too far south to support if the Confederates made a stand.  So Major-General Frank Blair’s men turned north before reaching the Great Cohera River, to reach Beman’s Crossroads on the Fayetteville-Goldsboro Road.  Before turning, Blair released the 9th Illioins Mounted Infantry to escort the refugee train to Clinton.  While this released Blair of a major encumbrance of his column, it also, unfortunately, deprived him of a valuable resource – his “cavalry” in the form of the 9th Illinois.

The Fifteenth Corps concentrated at Jackson’s (or Jenk’s in some reports) Crossroads.  The elements arriving at that point moved north on the road towards Averasborough.  Major-General John Logan dispatched a regiment to secure the Mingo River bridge (mentioned above) under the assumption that the Left Wing might need support at Averasborough.   One of Logan’s three “light” divisions moved up the Averasborough road a mile from the intersection, and was prepared to march quickly to the north. Word of Hardee’s withdrawal had not trickled down.  And this governed the Right Wing’s movements.

Waiting for the Fifteenth Corps to clear the roads, Major-General John Geary held the trains of the Left Wing until 5 p.m. that day.  The 1,000 wagon train then moved a few miles across South River.  Behind him, Major-General Absalom Baird caught up and crossed the river with Fourteenth Corps’ trains.  Major-General Charles Woods’ troops escorting the Fifteenth Corps’ trains moved through Beman’s Crossroads  and thence to join the Corps camps (for simplicity, not completely drawn out on the map above).

Howard would record for the day’s movements,

… being yet uncertain as to the result of the engagement of the day before, I moved forward toward Bentonville but six miles. General Logan’s command went into camp at Jackson’s Cross-Roads and General Blair reached Beaman’s Cross-Roads. My command was then upon the averasborough road so that I could march thither, if necessary….

Other than the novel use of “tither” in an official report, what stands out is Howard’s caution at a point where he faced no Confederate opposition. In the map above, I’ve circled Bentonville and Cox’s Bridge on the Neuse River.  Those were important waypoints on the path to Goldboro – Sherman’s primary objective. It was within the range of possibilities for the Fifteenth Corps to have reached Bentonville on March 17.  And from that point, Cox’s Bridge was an easy march for the 18th.  Once at the Neuse, Sherman’s columns would be at the figurative “ten yard line.”  On the Neuse, Sherman’s men were within range to call upon the Twenty-third Corps and might easily deal with anything left in Goldsboro.  But Howard’s delay on March 17 meant the Right Wing would not reach the Neuse in force by the 18th.

With that, we should also consider the larger picture in regard to elements moving to join Sherman:

NCMarch_March17

(I know… you might want to open this in another window and use “download” button and “view all sizes” option to see in full detail.)

On March 15, Major-General Alfred Terry dispatched Divisions under Major-General Adelbert Ames and Brigadier-General Charles Paine, from the Tenth Corps, marching north out of Wilmington.  On March 17th that column reached the railroad town of Washington.  (Small blue arrow at the bottom of the map).

Meanwhile, Major-General Jacob Cox, with the withdrawal of General Braxton Bragg’s force, had occupied Kinston with the Twenty-Third Corps (and attachments).  Major-General John Schofield was also there to ensure this most important column proceeded on to Goldsboro and had a railroad line opened to that point.  On the 17th, Schofield reported to Sherman:

I am straining every nerve to get the railroad completed and supplies for you here.  It will be done by the 20th. Your demonstration against Raleigh has caused the enemy to withdraw, nearly, if not quite all his troops from Goldsborough.  I could have easily taken that place before now, but for the matter of supplies.

Interpreting “here” in Schofield’s note, that was Kinston, where he was writing. Not Goldsboro, where Sherman was planning the link up.  As Schofield related, he had issues with supplies himself.  Not quantity of supplies, but transportation of supplies.  Schofield’s men had left their wagons and horses behind in Tennessee.  Now they were tied to the railroad.  And “There are only four engines and eighty cars on this road yet.” Attempts to use transports on the Neuse River proved difficult due to the currents and shallows.  Instead, Schofield proposed that Sherman send his wagons to Kinston to expedite the resupply of the marching columns.

On the other side of the map, as Sherman moved closer to link up with Schofield, General Joseph E. Johnston forces were not quite so scattered.  Bragg, as noted above, fell back to Goldsboro.  Hardee was moving towards Smithfield, where Johnston was headquartered.  Far off the map, but on the railroads, the remainder of the Army of Tennessee was moving from Raleigh.

With those movements in mind, consider the “yellow” circles on the second map above.  In addition to the waypoints at Bentonville and Cox’s Bridge, Sherman also needed the Neuse Bridge at Goldsboro.  These were, as related above, achievable objectives for Sherman’s forces – particularly the Right Wing – within a couple of days.  But the need to hold up the advance because of Averasborough broke that time line.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 205; Part II, Serial 99, page 880.)

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