Major-General Henry Slocum fought the most important battle of his military career at Bentonville on March 19, 1865. Away from Slocum’s battle, Federal columns began the morning continuing the advance towards Goldsboro from several directions. By day’s end, events at Bentonville prompted changed orders and an alternate plan for March 20th. Allow me to approach these movements in terms of the times they occurred, so as we might consider how the situation at Bentonville altered the lines of march:
Far to the south, Major-General Alfred Terry’s column continued marching along the railroad line, reaching Naunouga Creek. Around mid-day from Magnolia station, Terry sent notice to his lead division, under Major-General Adelbert Ames, “Artillery firing has been heard in a northwest direction from here last night and this morning.” Terry asked Ames to push his march. Terry himself road forward to Faison’s Depot and then sent an update to Sherman, forecasting his infantry would reach Mount Olive the next day. Terry also mentioned railroad workshops and engines on the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad which might ease some of the supply issues. Terry’s would not be the only column moving to the sound of the guns on the 20th.
The Fifteenth Corps moved by the Goldsboro Road that morning, and had to contend with a terrible crossing of Falling Creek. At around 11:30 the lead division, Major-General John Smith’s Third Division reached Falling Creek Church. Major-General Oliver O. Howard, establishing the Right Wing’s headquarters at that advanced post. What Howard assessed did not please him. The Fifteenth Corps was badly strung out along the road. So he ordered a halt while the column caught up.
But he was not going to keep all his arms idle. Howard promptly dispatched the 7th Illinois Mounted Infantry, lead by his recently escaped scout Captain William Duncan, to the State Bridge (or Neuse Bridge). Howard dispatched another mounted column under Lieutenant-Colonel William Strong toward the north to seize Cox’s Cross-Roads. Lastly, concerned about the firing he heard to the west, Howard sent Major Thomas Osborn to inform Slocum that if assistance was needed, the Left Wing could call upon the Fifteenth Corps. Specifically, Osborn was to release the last division in the march, that of Major-General William Hazen, if Slocum required.
These three officers accomplished mixed results. Upon Duncan’s arrival at the bridge, the Confederates fired the bridge. Osborn met Sherman while on the way to Slocum, only to have Howard’s orders countermanded. And Strong ran into Confederate cavalry just a few miles north of the church. To reinforce Strong, Howard first added the 10th Iowa Infantry, then the rest of Colonel Clark Wever’s brigade. That force drove the Confederates off Cox’s Cross-Roads. Wever setup a strong defensive position that evening.
Meanwhile to the south, the Seventeenth Corps advanced beyond the Wilmington Road, with Major-General Joseph Mower’s Division in advance. The trains of both the Right and Left Wing continued with their escorts in the rear of the infantry that morning. Brigadier-General William Woods (not to be confused with Major-General Charles Woods, commanding the First Division, Fifteenth Corps), reported reaching “Beaman’s Cross-Roads at 4 o’clock this morning.” Then by 7 a.m., the trains of the Fifteenth Corps were crossing the Big Cohera River, behind Seventeenth Corps.
At Kinston, Major-General John Schofield had to hold Major-General Jacob Cox for another day as rations and supplies were accumulated for the Twenty-Third Corps.
Around 2 p.m., Sherman arrived at Falling Creek Church and met with Howard. Sherman assured Howard that Slocum only reported meeting cavalry and all was in hand. Shortly after arriving at Falling Creek Church, Sherman wrote to Schofield, urging him to “extend the railroad as fast as possible, and I expect you to move toward Goldsborough even if it be unnecessary, as I don’t want to lose men in a direct attack when it can be avoided.”
Meanwhile, a message arrived from the Left Wing, stating Slocum “convinced that the enemy are in strong force” to his front. Specifically, Slocum noted “Johnston, Hardee, Hoke and others present.” This and another message from Slocum caused Sherman to pause. After explaining the positions of the Right Wing, Sherman cautioned Slocum, “If you hear firing to the front not explained by your own acts you must assault and turn the enemy, for it will not do to let him fight us separately.”
Sherman then ordered direct action, with a flurry of directives going out between 4:30 and 5 p.m. Countermanding his earlier overruling of Howard’s orders regarding Hazen’s division. General John Logan sent orders directly to Hazen, “Major-General Slocum needs aid quick.” Hazen commenced a night march of twenty miles to report to Slocum the next morning.
Howard sent orders to Major-General Frank Blair, Seventeenth Corps:
General Sherman has concluded to concentrate here. Please mass your trains close where they are, and move up here with at least two divisions disencumbered…. Please start at 3 a.m. to-morrow.
With that, Blair recalled Mower and began reorganizing his column.
To Major-General John Geary, escorting that 1,000 wagon train from the Twentieth Corps, Sherman ordered, “Rush your train. Leave one brigade and move with two others to General Slocum to-night.” A similar order came from the Twentieth Corps commander, Major-General Alpheus Williams, informing Geary, “We have in front the whole of Johnston’s command, and have had very serious fighting all day. Send your ambulances, putting all sick in wagons.” Similar orders went to Major-General Absalom Baird, Third Division, Fourteenth Corps, escorting that corps’ train.
Sherman also directed, at 5 p.m., Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry to remain with Slocum, though he confided to the cavalryman, “I cannot think Johnston would fight us with the Neuse to his rear.”
To Schofield, Sherman amended his earlier notice, informing the Center Wing commander instead “You must secure Goldsborough and fortify.” The Twenty-Third Corps already had marching orders to start movement at 6 a.m. on the 20th. Sherman’s plans were to have the Left and Right Wing converge at Cox’s Bridge, but that would wait until the emergency in front of Slocum was resolved.
At 8 p.m. that evening Slocum sent a report to Sherman. That note arrived at Falling Creek Church around 2 a.m., informing Sherman, “I feel confident of holding my position, but deem it of greatest importance that the Right Wing come up during the night to my assistance.” There was some celebration among the Federals around the church at that early morning hour.
Slocum had held. This would allow the Right Wing to turn and confront the Confederates. With nearly three times the numbers that General Joseph E. Johonston could muster, Sherman had the opportunity to deliver a knock-out blow. But to do so, he had to put his plans to resupply and refit around Goldsboro on hold for a few days.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 899, 903, 904, 907, 908, 909, 910, and 911.)