March 21, 1865 might have gone down as an anti-climactic day at the close of the Battle of Bentonville. General Joseph E. Johnston said he wanted to recover his wounded as the justification for staying one more day in front of Sherman. More likely, he hoped that Sherman might attempt an assault on the works. And aside from that, so long as Johnston remained at Bentonville (though his stay was limited logistically), he interrupted the Federal’s march schedule. Major-General William T. Sherman was more concerned about logistics and the need to keep to his appointed schedule for the march towards Virginia. That morning Sherman issued a six paragraph field order with every portion focused on logistical or transportation matters. Sherman wanted to move, but was not willing to invite an open battle to do so.
The last day at Bentonville started as another day of heavy skirmishing and probing. Heavy rains fell that day, adding to the reluctance to do much fighting. Both sides were content to just keep a hold on the other.
That is until around mid-morning. Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps held the far right of the Federal line. Blair decided to move Major-General Joseph Mower’s First Division, from the reserve position occupied the afternoon before, to extend that right flank. Mower asked if, while conducting this move, he might send out a reconnaissance to locate the Confederate left flank to best establish the lines. Such made sense, as it would clear up any ambiguity along the lines. But in that approval, Blair gave Mower a lot of rope to play with. Furthermore, Blair did not let his superiors know, or perhaps didn’t know himself, what Mower intended to do.
Mower had only two of his brigades that day – First Brigade under Brigadier-General John Fuller and Third Brigade under Brigadier-General John Tillson. The Second Brigade was in the rear, detailed to guard the trains. With that force, Mower proceeded out past the right-most division of Brigadier-General Manning Force. Let me again reference the excellent maps from the Bentonville Battlefield Historic Site’s web-page. Mower’s charge is “Map 5” in their set. The two brigades initially met only Confederate cavalry. But even before they made contact, Confederate generals had recognized the lightly held flank and were ordering forces, placed under Lieutenant-General William Hardee, to the area. But those would not arrive in time to block Mower’s men from ripping open the Confederate left and forcing Johnston to abandon his headquarters.
Of all the participants, Fuller seems to have left the best account of the action by way of after-action reports:
I have the honor to report that during the action of the 21st instant my brigade formed the right of the line. Five companies of the Eighteenth Missouri were ordered to cover the road upon which we had marched; the remaining companies (four) formed the right, the Twenty-seventh Ohio the center, and the Thirty-ninth Ohio the left of my line, comprising an aggregate of about 600 men, besides the regiment serving as skirmishers, the Sixty-fourth Illinois, covering the front and right flank of the brigade. In advancing we soon encountered a swamp, impassable for horses, where we crossed, and compelling us to move slowly. As we emerged into an open field one of General Mower’s staff brought an order to “double-quick.” This was immediately repeated, and the whole line passed over the field at this step. About this time the enemy used some artillery against us, and as we reached the opposite woods the major-general ordered a halt. This order was repeated by my staff, also by one of General Mower’s staff officers along a portion of the line, and also by my bugler, but the men, who had caught sight of an abandoned caisson, were cheering so as to render it impossible to hear the orders, and continued to run forward till they reached the enemy’s intrenched line, from which he ran at full speed. Here the major-general rode to the front of my brigade and in person ordered the line again to advance, whereupon we passed over the enemy’s intrenchments and occupied the crest of the hill beyond. The alignment was then rectified, and I, in obedience to the major-general’s orders, moved by my left flank, following the Third Brigade.
Soon after we halted, and sharp firing was heard from the skirmishers along our front and also to my left. Captain Reynolds, commanding the skirmishers, reported cavalry moving to our right, and soon after he reported that infantry also was moving in that direction. I thereupon faced the Eighteenth Missouri to the right to better cover that flank. Directly after I received an order to send a regiment to the left, but, as I saw by this time the enemy’s line of infantry moving on our right, I deemed it hazardous to risk the movement, and reported that fact to a staff officer of the major-general. A second order, however, came for the regiment, and I moved the Thirty-ninth Ohio a few yards in compliance, when another staff officer, seeing the situation, countermanded it in General Mower’s name, and the regiment was again faced to the front. About the same time I directed the right of the line to swing back, so as to present a strong front to the right flank. As this movement was taking place the enemy attacked. A portion of the line was thrown into confusion, as the regiments which were swinging could not be immediately halted. They were speedily rallied, however, some on the slope and the rest at the works which had been thrown up by the enemy near the base of the ridge. In spite of the temporary confusion our right oblique fire was so sharp as to halt the enemy’s line and cause him to retire. Our skirmishers immediately reoccupied the hill, and drove such of the enemy as were still lingering over the crest. During this movement–as was verified the following morning–the skirmish line of the Sixty-fourth Illinois advanced to within 200 yards of General Johnston’s headquarters, inducing the rebel commander and his staff to make a rapid movement to the rear. After the enemy had withdrawn I moved my command by the left flank through the swamp to a position near the open field, passing in rear of the Third Brigade, where we intrenched.
Fuller’s men were deep behind Confederate lines and in a position to threaten the line of retreat. But they were also isolated from the Federal line. When informed of Mower’s position, Major-General John Logan ordered supporting attacks all along the line. (Major-General Oliver O. Howard was furious at Blair for allowing Mower to move that far forward to begin with, and at the same time angry that Sherman did not authorize a full assault to take advantage of the situation.) But with a mile gap between Mower and the other Federal units, those still left the division isolated. What could have been a decisive action to cut off Johnston’s line of retreat turned into a “last stand” scenario in the making for Mower. Terrain, tenacity, and luck worked to allow Mower to withdraw that afternoon.
Fuller reported the loss of 5 killed, 30 wounded, and 19 missing from his brigade. Overall, Mower lost 166 killed, wounded, and missing. The closing action at Bentonville, a reconnaissance in force with somewhat dubious authorization, had been costly. And for years to follow, the generals would debate “what could have been” and lost opportunities at Bentonville.
(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 395-6.)