When two opposing armies come into close proximity, the most important piece of critical information the respective commanders require is the location of the enemy forces. Cavalry and other intelligence gathering resources would be strained to gather such details. General Joesph E. Johnston was straining his resources at this time 150 years ago. At 10 p.m. on the evening of March 17, 1865, he sent a message to Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton, carried by none other than Lieutenant Wade Hampton, IV, the general’s son. This message availed on the cavalry commander to provide,
… all the information you have of the movement and position of the enemy, the number of their columns, their location and distance apart, and distance from Goldsborough, and give me your opinion whether it is practicable to reach them from Smithfield on the south side of the river before they reach Goldsborough.
Senior generals are allowed to use run-on sentences. Civil War historians, too.
The text of Hampton’s reply was lost somewhere between 1865 and the 1890s, when the Official Records were compiled. What we do know is that shortly after receiving Hampton’s assessment, Johnston cut orders to move his forces towards a crossroads marked on the rather faulty maps as Bentonville. At early hours on the 18th, Johnston’s columns were in motion. Lieutenant-General Braxton Bragg turned southeast on what was supposed to be a short twelve mile march to Bentonville. Major-General Robert Hoke’s division moved out of Smithfield, followed by Lieutenant-General A.P. Stewart and the 4,500 or so effectives that remained of the Army of Tennessee. The only major obstacle to Confederate movements that day were poor maps which caused delays to Hardee’s march. By day’s end, all were concentrating at Bentonville behind a screen line established by Hampton.
Major-General William T. Sherman, on the other hand, did have a good picture of what Confederate forces were doing. He marched with the Left Wing’s infantry on the 18th. Once again leading the march, the Fourteenth Corps had Brigadier-General James Morgan’s Second Division in front. Behind the Fourteenth Corps, the Twentieth Corps moved on the same road. The Cavalry Division back-tracked and fell into the line of march.
Shortly after dawn, the foragers of Morgan’s division ran into Confederate cavalry supported by artillery. “The First and Second Brigades were deployed in two lines, with a regiment from each as skirmishers; were ordered to advance,” Morgan recorded. This display prompted the Confederates to retire. This was the familiar pattern, seen throughout the campaign with the exception of Averasborough – when the Federals deployed and developed the line, the Confederates withdrew. To some degree the Federals were lulled into a false sense of invincibility given this pattern.
At 2 p.m., Sherman wrote to the Right Wing commander, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, to detail which roads the columns were to use while closing on Goldsboro. Sherman assessment of the situation was mixed:
I think the enemy is concentrated about [Smithfield] and I cannot make out whether Goldsborough is held in force or not. I think it probable that Joe Johnston will try to prevent our getting Goldsborough.
Sherman added something that Johnston would agree with, “Our map is evidently faulty.” And I would add, that the map used as a base for my maps (such as above) reflects a lot of those faults. One of the reasons it was chosen.
At 4 p.m., Sherman came up to give Morgan orders to halt his advance. Morgan went into camp with strong pickets facing Hampton’s cavalry. Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick picketed the roads to the left flank of the march that day. But Kilpatrick only reported that Hardee appeared to be in retreat towards Smithfield. At around that time, Sherman reconsidered his assessment of Johnston’s dispositions. Again writing to Howard, Sherman felt Johnston, being a creature of habit, was concentrating to defend Raleigh. “I know that he will call in all minor posts, which embraces Goldsborough.” So Sherman planned to press forward and effect a linkup with Major-General John Schofield and much needed supplies. For the 19th, the Left Wing would move towards Cox’s Bridge while the Right Wing advanced towards the Goldsborough (or Neuse) Bridge.
The Right Wing’s advance was moderated by the need to remain in proximity to the Left Wing and the poor road conditions. The Seventeenth Corps reached Troublefield’s Store that day. The Fifteenth Corps went into camps at Benton’s Cross-Roads, some half dozen miles south of the Left Wing. Behind these forces, the trains of both wings moved with great labor across the streams and rutted roads. Major-General John Geary, escorting Twentieth Corps trains, recorded:
The road was in its worst condition. Crossed several streams and encamped one mile and a half east of Rainer’s Mill on Seven-Mile Creek; distance eight miles and a half, all of which I corduroyed, using as pioneers in advance of the train Pardee’s brigade, the Michigan Engineers, and five companies of the pontoniers.
But despite the road difficulties, Sherman’s forces were actually quite concentrated, relative to other stages of the campaign. Both commanders underestimated the marching distances needed for their columns while underestimating the separation of their adversary’s forces.
Looking at the larger picture of what was moving in North Carolina:
Major-General Alfred Terry’s two divisions made progress on their march, reaching Island Creek without incident. The other portion of Schofield’s soon to be “Center Wing” remained at Kinston. For the day, Major-General Jacob Cox noted that steamers finally arrived “bringing 100,000 rations.” Again, the problem with the Twenty-third Corps’ advance was not so much a lack of supplies, but getting those supplies forward. The column at Kinston lacked wagons. The railroad was still short of Southwest Creek, on the south side of the Neuse. In time, this would be resolved. But for the moment, Cox was looking forward to the juncture with Sherman in order to acquire wagons to support his column that was supposed to open Sherman’s supply lines… see what a tangled web logistics really is?
March 18th closed with two very large “army groups” positioned in very close proximity. Movements that day had setup the next morning and the opening shots of the battle of Bentonville.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98; pages 485, 693, and 934; Part II, Serial 99, pages 885, 1415.)