While the last charge and counter-charge of the Battle of Bentonville played out on March 21, the other two columns in Major-General William T. Sherman’s army group made march progress.
Going with commander’s names on the map to simplify the annotations today.
Most important for Sherman’s plans, Major-General John Schofield moved forward to secure Goldsboro. Schofield reported that afternoon, “I have the honor to report that I occupied Goldsborough this afternoon with only slight opposition.” Schofield was ready to move to support Sherman at Bentonville, and was preparing to lay a pontoon bridge over the Neuse River, but the reason given for waiting was the need to decipher Sherman’s orders. It seems the cipher clerk was in the rear of the advance.
One “sidebar” I should mention here in the discussion of Twenty-Third Corps’ advance on Goldsboro. Major-General Jacob Cox’s column consisted of two divisions of the corps, plus a division formed of replacements and soldiers returning from leave. These were all bound for the four corps moving with Sherman. Instead of having those soldiers wait at some holding area, Cox organized them into provisional battalions. For the advance on Goldsboro, those were grouped into a division under the command of Brigadier-General George S. Greene… yes Mr. Culp’s Hill, himself. Greene was seriously wounded in the Battle of Wauhatchie in October 1863. After a long recovery, Greene arrived just in time to serve as a volunteer staff officer during the fighting at Wyse Fork. Cox then put Greene in command of the provisional troops for the advance on Goldsboro. In his journal for March 20, Cox noted, “He is an old West Point officer, having graduated in 1828 (the year I was born), and having been out of service for a long time until the beginning of the war.” The age difference was actually larger than Cox reported, as Greene graduated with the class of 1823! Second in his class of 35 cadets.
Major-General Alfred Terry’s two divisions, constituting the Tenth Corps, reached Cox’s Bridge on the 21st. Sherman ordered Terry to wait for the Left Wing’s pontoon bridge and then secure a bridgehead. Reaching Cox’s Bridge at 7 p.m., Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Moore’s pontooniers went to work. By 11 p.m. that night, they had a bridge 260 feet in length across the Neuse. Brigadier-General Charles Paine, commanding Third Division of Terry’s corps, crossed Second Brigade under Brigadier-General S.A. Duncan and formed the required bridgehead.
Other movements outside the battlefield on March 21 included the transit of the Right Wing’s wagon train to the east. Sherman directed a depot be established east of the railroad and use a crossing somewhere around Jericho. Only late in the day did the Left Wing’s trains move towards their appointed depot in the vicinity of Cox’s Bridge.
Throughout the night of March 21 and early morning hours of the 22nd, the two sides kept up artillery and skirmish line fire. Federals noticed the intensity from the Confederate side diminishing after 2 a.m. At daylight elements of the Fifteenth Corps pressed forward to find empty works in their front. Colonel Robert Catterson’s brigade, the “skirmishers” of the First Division, advanced to the Mill Creek bridge:
On the morning of the 22d my skirmishers again moved forward at daylight and found the enemy’s works evacuated. Two companies of the Twenty-sixth Illinois, supported by the remainder of the regiment, were moved forward as skirmishers on the road leading to Bentonville, and reached the bridge across Mill Creek, near that place, in time to extinguish the flames (the enemy having fired it), and in a very few moments after the enemy’s rear guard had crossed. I immediately crossed with my brigade, and skirmishing again commenced, we driving our opponents in wild confusion beyond Hannah’s Creek. The bridge over this stream was also on fire, and was saved only by the fearless daring of my men, who rushed forward and extinguished the flames. At this point I received orders to recross Mill Creek and take a position covering the bridge.
Catterson’s pursuit, against Confederate cavalry as a rear guard, was the last action in the battle of Bentonville. Sherman was content to let General Joseph E. Johnston to retire. Sherman’s chief concern, as it was during the previous days, was refitting the army for the next appointed movement to Virginia.
Toward that end, Sherman ordered the Left Wing to retire from the field towards Cox’s Bridge. Though a short eleven mile march across ground controlled by the Federals, this was no easy task. Major-General Jefferson C. Davis wrote,
Owing to the exceedingly miry ground on which the troops were encamped, rendered impassable to artillery and wagons by the recent rains, the trains and artillery were slow in getting into the road, and Cox’s Bridge was only reached by the rear of the column by night….
Major-General Alpheus S. Williams made less progress with the Twentieth Corps and camped south of Falling Creek that evening.
That afternoon, the 1st Missouri Engineers set a pontoon bridge across the Neuse opposite Goldsboro near the railroad bridge. At dusk on the 22nd, Shermans’ logistical woes were being resolved. Sherman had two bridges over the Neuse (three if one counts the bridge at Kinston). He had Goldsboro. A railroad ran from outside Kinston to Morehead City. Another railroad from Faison to Wilmington was being repaired. All manner of supplies were waiting at the depots for issue to the long marching troops of the Army of the Tennessee (Right Wing) and the Army of Georgia (Left Wing). Sherman now promised some rest for those weary troops.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 259, 436, and 934; Part II, Serial 99, page 942.)