The first day in the battle of Bentonville had gone the Confederate’s way. Knocking the Federal Left Wing on its heels, General Joseph E. Johnston’s attack came up short of eliminating that force… well short. But Johnston launched his March 19, 1865 attack at long odds knowing a lot of luck was needed. At the close of the day, he still held the upper hand and could maneuver away. But instead he stayed put. No just for the 20th, but the 21st as well. Johnston would mention the need to “cover the removal of our wounded” in a report to General Robert E. Lee on the 21st. While that justification holds partly, unstated were more likely reasons – forcing Major-General William T. Sherman to concentrate and hoping that Sherman would attempt “Kennessaw” outside Bentonville.
Sherman was indeed concentrating his armies, but he was decidedly against another “Kennessaw.” With two divisions each from the Fourteenth and Twentieth Corps, along with the battering from the 19th fresh in his memory, the last thing on Major-General Henry Slocum’s mind was an offensive. He had the Left Wing entrench along a line centered on the Morris Farm. Slocum would be ready in case Johnston renewed the attack on the 20th, but would hope for timely arrival of reinforcements.
As detailed in the second post yesterday, in the late afternoon of March 19, Sherman issued a series of orders directly to subordinates to converge in support of Slocum’s Left Wing. Already moving at the early hours on the 20th were Major-General William B. Hazen’s Division from Fifteenth Corps, to report to Slocum without delay. Marching through the night, Hazen made twenty miles distance from his afternoon camp to report to Slocum at dawn on the 20th. After a brief rest, the troops moved up on the right of Fourteenth Corps.
Also moving in the early morning hours, Major-Generals John Geary and Abaslom Baird left one brigade each to mind the trains of the Left Wing and pushed the remainder of their respective divisions to Bentonville. Geary marched eight miles and arrived at 4:30 a.m. Baird didn’t get orders to move until 5 a.m. that morning, but pressed his two brigades to link up by mid-morning. While Geary’s men would be in reserve the rest of the battle, Baird’s division would be heavily engaged on March 20th.
But it was the Right Wing that Sherman most wanted at Bentonville. Preliminary movement started as ordered at 4 a.m. with the divisions on the move an hour later. The Fifteenth Corps, under Major-General John Logan, lead the wing. Logan arranged his march with Major-General Charles Woods’ division (minus a brigade under Brigadier-General William Woods, escorting the Corps’ trains), followed by those of Major-Generals John Corse and John Smith. Following the Fifteenth Corps was the Seventeenth Corps. This force moved with only ordnance wagons and ambulances, leaving the rest of the trains in a temporary depot in the vicinity of Falling Creek.
To prevent any Confederate force from reaching the Right Wing’s rear, Logan had Colonel Clark Wever’s brigade (from Smith’s division), supported by a section of artillery, to attack Cox’s Bridge. Wever’s objective was not to capture the bridge, but to ensure it was destroyed. Opposing Wever was a brigade of North Carolinians under Colonel John N. Whitford. Smith later reported:
After a sharp skirmish for one hour our men penetrated the swamps and thickets, and, obtained a good position, succeeded in driving the enemy to the other side of the river. The enemy used artillery freely, having four guns in position, completely covering the bridge and narrow road leading to it. Our guns could not be used with effect, as we could not get a position in range for them. At 7:45 a.m. we had possession of the bridge and completed its destruction, which had already been commenced by the enemy, who fired it as they retired to the opposite bank.
Everyone was happy with Cox’s Bridge destroyed.
Logan turned the rest of Woods’ division west along the road to Bentonville. Within a few miles, the Federals ran into cavalry from Butler’s Division, that day under the command of Brigadier-General Evander M. Law. While Law worked to delay the march, they lacked the strength to stop the Fifteenth Corps. At 9:50 a.m., Law reported to Johnston, “The enemy’s infantry and artillery is advancing rapidly from the direction of Cox’s Bridge. He is now about two miles from Flower’s House.” Law suggested infantry might check the Federal advance.
The mechanics behind Law’s observation lay in the tactics applied by the Fifteenth Corps that morning. Right Wing commander Major-General Oliver O. Howard directed Logan to use only skirmishers to push the cavalry. So the Federal fight with Law was one of constant flanking, repositioning, and flanking. This had the effect of eliminating any delays while regiments and brigades formed on line. But to pull it off, Logan had to recognize when his skirmishers met the main Confederate line, and then quickly deploy his infantry in battle line. Otherwise, he invited one of those dreaded “feed his command into battle piecemeal” actions. Nothing better than having an “ace” to play in a difficult situation. Logan’s ace in this case was Second Brigade of Woods’ Division, under Colonel Robert F. Catterson.
Among the seven regiments, small though they were, that made up Catterson’s command all but one carried repeaters – either Spencer or Henry rifles. This firepower allowed Catterson’s skirmishers to overwhelm an enemy force with a flurry of fire. The advantages and disadvantages of repeating arms was on full display that morning. Though able to drive Law’s cavalrymen, some of the Federals burned through ammunition quickly, as Catterson noted in his report:
Six companies of the Ninety-seventh Indiana were thrown forward as skirmishers, rapidly driving the enemy about three miles, when it was relieved by the Sixth Iowa, which drove the enemy briskly to within about three miles of Bentonville, where he made a determined stand. The ammunition of the Sixth Iowa having become exhausted it was relieved by the Forty-sixth Ohio. During its deployment the enemy was discovered turning the left of my skirmishers, having already gained their rear. The One hundredth Indiana was hurried forward to check this move, and they accomplished their work with dispatch and marked gallantry. During this time the Forty-sixth Ohio moved forward on double-quick, driving the enemy from his strong barricade of rails in splendid style. I immediately moved the brigade forward to the position thus gained, and fortified it, at the same time advancing my skirmishers half a mile, when it was halted, and in this position I awaited further orders.
Catterson’s brigade cleared a path through to the Flowers House. And behind them the Fifteenth Corps deployed. In response to Law’s report, Johnston moved Major-General Robert Hoke’s Division back from in front of the Fourteenth Corps to face east against the Right Wing. This move prompted some of the Fourteenth Corps to push forward towards Hoke’s old position. And at the same time Hazen’s Division moved forward on their right. Late afternoon, Hazen came in contact with the left of Woods’ division. At that point the Federals had one solid front – south of and east of Johnston’s. You Easterners, with a mind to Gettysburg, will notice some irony here. Howard arrived on March 20 to relieve Slocum.
With some pressure released as Hoke’s Division repositioned, Slocum moved forward to regain some of the ground contested on the 19th. With that, Baird’s Division ended up in the fields around the Cole Farm. And just as happened the day before, that became a “hot spot” under Confederate artillery fire. Elsewhere, Kilpatrick felt out for the Confederate flank and portions of the Twentieth Corps gained the ground lost on the Federal left flank the day before. Presence of Federal skirmishers forced Johnston to refuse his right.
By sunset, Johnston had retracted his position to face Federals on three sides, forming a salient. The only way out of that salient was a lone bridge across Mill Creek. A risky, dangerous position to hold. Good military sense called for Johnston to withdraw in the night. That’s what Sherman expected. Writing to Slocum that evening, Sherman expressed:
Johnston hoped to overcome your wing before I could come to your relief. Having failed in that, I cannot see why he remains and still think he will avail himself of night to get back to Smithfield. I would rather avoid a general battle if possible, but if he insists on it, we must accommodate him.
Sherman called for Slocum to clear a good road to the east, which would allow him to set his line with the Right Wing. Sherman wanted his back to the Weldon Railroad and Goldsboro.
Major-General Alfred Terry’s column made good progress that day, reaching a point just south of Falling Creek. Sherman probably could not have planned this any better. Not only were Terry’s men in position to cover the Right Wing’s trains, they were within range of Cox’s Bridge. Sherman ordered Terry to proceed there to meet Slocum’s pontoon train and effect a crossing.
At Kinston, the much delayed advance of the Twenty-Third Corps began that morning also. Schofield headquartered at Rockford that evening, about half the distance to Goldsboro. Sherman did not expect any opposition at that point. After describing the situation at Bentonville, Sherman laid a contingency plan for Schofield, “if you hear nothing to the contrary, join a part of your forces with General Terry’s and come to me wherever I may be.”
At day’s end on the 20th, Johnston and Sherman occupied lines of solid earthworks opposing each other in a manner seen the previous spring at points in Northern Georgia. For Johnston, this was a gamble of sorts. A roll of the dice with the decision to stay one more day. Sherman did not indulge the temptation to strike. He was happy to give Johnston the “golden bridge” escape. Sherman’s focus was on resupplying his command for the next leg of the campaign. However, that view was not shared by all of Sherman’s subordinates. And that difference lead to more action the following day and a large “might have been” to play out at Bentonville.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 259, 321 and 1055; Part II, Serial 99, pages 919, 922, and 1443.)