Sherman’s March, March 19, 1865: A battle begins at Bentonville

For the Federals on the march, the Carolinas Campaign had, by the second half of March 1865, taken on a daily cycle.  Between major objectives – Columbia, Cheraw, Fayetteville – the days started with foragers departing to both scout ahead and gather supplies.  The designated lead division for the day would form and march out of camp.  Usual procession was the trail division from the day before would pass through camp to assume the lead.  That division might, at some point in the day, face a Confederate picket or other force.  But more likely the greater effort would be to repair a crossing point over some creek, river, or swamp.  If any sizable Confederate force appeared in front of the march, that lead division would “develop” the situation by forming at first the lead regiment.  If needed, a brigade to form.  But likely by the time a second brigade formed, this “development” would locate the Confederate flanks.  At that point the Rebels would depart, having accomplished their requirement to delay the march.

This pattern, generally speaking, was repeated so often that Federals became complacent.  With the exception of Averasborough on March 16, 1865, no large Confederate force had made a stand.  And even at Averasborough, one might argue that the “development” tactic worked… just that it required more than a corps to “develop” the Confederates out of their works.

For March 19, 1865, the lead division for the Fourteenth Corps, and thus the Left Wing, was the First Division of Brigadier-General William Carlin.  The lead brigade was that of Brigadier-General Harrison Hobart.  Days after the battle, Hobart described the start of the day:

On the morning of the 19th, at 7 o’clock, the brigade marched from camp in advance of the division on the Goldsborough road, and at 10 a.m. we met the enemy posted behind a line of rail-works which extended for some distance on each side of the road on which we were moving.

Ahead of Hobart, foragers sparred with Confederate cavalry, screening that first line of works.  And, true to habit, Hobart did what the Federals had done at dozens of other points along the march – deployed to develop the position.  Except that this time, the position was too large to develop with just a brigade… a division… or even an entire corps.  The Confederates were arriving, just that morning, in front of Hobart’s advance in greater numbers than seen anywhere else on the campaign.  The Battle of Bentonville commenced.

I could try to break down this battle in a phase-by-phase format.  But I don’t think that would do justice to the action.  Bentonville should be the subject for someone’s “Battle Blog,” akin to Harry’s Bull Runnings or Bret’s Beyond the Crater.  Until someone takes up that row, I think the Bentonville Historic Site’s website is the best resource page for the battle on the internet.  The site includes an excellent set of maps, drawn by Mark Moore.  You might start with the map covering those initial stages of the battle, while Carlin developed the Confederate line.

There are three other phases of the fighting on the 19th that draw me in as I consider the battle.  How can one NOT be attracted to the last great charge of the Army of Tennessee?  Perhaps it is the “westerner” in me, but the thought of men who’d charged from Shiloh to Franklin, through three years of war, making one last go… well it brings up a lot of sentimental thoughts.  When this assault started in mid-afternoon, Lieutenant-General William Hardee in front, so many proud, yet depleted, legions marched forward.

The Confederate attack swept away Carlin’s division (and Carlin would spend the rest of his life trying to shift blame, though nobody seemed to blame him).  And the Rebel wave isolated the division of Brigadier-General James D. Morgan on the Federal right.  Morgan’s stand is worth a thousand words by itself, as it is somewhat a “stand” reminiscent of those made by the Army of the Cumberland at points like Stones River and Chickamauga.

But where my sentimental thoughts take root again is on the left flank of this line.   The Twentieth Corps arrived as the Army of Tennessee’s charge ran out of momentum.  As any Gettysburg student knows, the Twentieth was made up of the old Eleventh and Twelfth Corps.  So arriving on the field that afternoon, looking into the aftermath of a route, were men who’d experienced their own disasters at earlier points in the war.  And this time, they formed and stood ground.  The 26th Wisconsin was swept off the field by “Stonewall” Jackson at Chancellorsville.  And that regiment could not hold back the Confederate tide on July 1, 1863 that rolled up the Federal lines north of Gettysburg.  But on March 19, 1865, the 26th was part of Brigadier-General William Cogswell’s brigade that counterattacked, most capably, to stabilize the Federal lines and aid Morgan’s cut off division.  Just one regiment I could call out with similar stories to tell. If we say the Army of Tennessee made its last charge only hours earlier in the day, then might we also say the Army of the Potomac (in the form of the Twentieth Corps) made its final holding action as result?

Major-General Henry Slocum deserves some criticism for decisions, or indecisions, made on March 19th (and similar criticism should be heaped on Sherman to be fair).  But Slocum did make several good, sound decisions that day, particularly in the later phases.  Slocum’s Left Wing took heavy blows that day, but did not break.  Late in the afternoon, the last Confederate attacks of the day went up against the Twentieth Corps line.  In front of the Morris Farm, on some of the only suitable ground for artillery, four Federal batteries… again, units with storied war records by this point … deflected the Confederate attacks.  The last attacks were met with double canister.   Once again, as had occurred at many battlefields during the Civil War, a Federal artillery concentration had thwarted a Confederate advance.  This was among the last of such (arguably the last).

At any rate, those are the points that I move to when thinking about Bentonville.  Not saying those are the key points on which the battle turned, rather the “thinking points” that I wonder through when considering the battle.   I’ll follow up later today with a look at the operational movements off the battlefield as the campaign unfolded.