On April 12, 1865, a telegram from Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant arrived to inform Major-General William T. Sherman about General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Sherman congratulated Grant and added, “The terms you have given Lee are magnanimous and liberal. Should Johnston follow Lee’s example I shall of course grant the same.”
As Sherman’s army group advanced on Raleigh, North Carolina, that city was not his primary objective. It was a waypoint to be met, for sure. But his real objective was General Joseph E. Johnston’s army. Sherman wanted to corner Johnston, much as had been done to Lee three days earlier. Sherman stressed that objective in instructions to Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick, sent late-night on April 11. After warning Kilpatrick to use standard map references (for location reporting), Sherman went on to describe the location of Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton’s force:
I don’t think Hampton has 2,000 cavalry with him, and this is your chance. I will push all the column straight on Raleigh. I don’t care about Raleigh now, but want to defeat and destroy the Confederate army; therefore you may run any risk. Of course, don’t break the railroad except to the rear (west) of Johnston, as we want the rails up to Raleigh. General Wilson has taken Selma and is threatening Montgomery. He has whipped Red Jackson twenty-seven miles from Selma, and at Selma knocked Forrest all to pieces. Rebel papers report Forrest wounded in three places; Abe Buford to defend Montgomery with citizens; Dick Taylor ran westward from Selma; many cooped up in Mobile.
All of this designed to prod the cavalry commander to bold action!
Sherman’s plan for April 12 was to advance the Left Wing, Major-General Henry Slocum, on the direct roads to Raleigh. The Right Wing, Major-General Oliver O. Howard, would advance on the east side of the Neuse River but prepare crossing points to flank any Confederate position. And the Center Wing, Major-General John Schofield, would actually advance to the left and behind the Left Wing, prepared to flank any opposition. Kilpatrick was instructed to fall upon the retreating Confederates and disrupt their withdrawal. A very typical marching arrangement for Sherman, matching patterns seen from Georgia all the way to North Carolina.
To make this advance possible, five of Sherman’s corps had to cross the Neuse River. Only the Tenth Corps and the Cavalry Division, on the far left, were over that watercourse. One more river to cross.
The Left Wing had two pontoon bridges across at Smithfield by morning. Major-General Joseph Mower advanced the Twentieth Corps on the lower bridge, while Major-General Jefferson C. Davis crossed the Fourteenth Corps on the upper bridge. The Left Wing met only fleeting rear guards during the advance of the day. Sherman accompanied the Twentieth Corps to setup headquarters at Gully’s Store.
The Right Wing had more trouble with maps than Confederates on April 12. Scouting the lead of the advance, the 29th Missouri (Mounted) Infantry reached Battle’s Bridge. Colonel Joseph Gage reported the bridge there destroyed but, “The river at that point is about thirty yards wide,” and the roads were good for the advance. The problem for the advance lay in an inaccuracy of the Federal maps. Howard reported to Sherman around mid-day, “The roads are different from map. Watson’s Mill is at Pineville, and General Logan reports but one road from Folk’s Bridge across.” To ease the congestion of two corps passing through Pinveville, Major-General John Logan doubled up the Fifteenth Corps and chose a fork of the road to the right. Major-General Frank Blair’s Seventeenth Corps would manage with side roads where possible.
The Twenty-third Corps of the Center Wing advanced to Turner’s Bridge on April 12. The march was more administrative than tactical. On the far side, the Tenth Corps reported encountering some Confederate cavalry, but otherwise the advance was conducted at an easy pace. The Center Wing then reformed south of, and to the rear of, the Left Wing.
Perhaps the most interesting note of the day from the Center Wing was a circular issued by Major-General Jacob Cox, Twenty-third Corps:
Since we left Goldsborough there has been a constant succession of house burning in rear of this command. This has never before been the case since the corps was organized, and the prospect of speedy peace makes this more than ever reprehensible. Division commanders will take the most vigorous measures to put a stop to these outrages, whether committed by men of this command or by stragglers from other corps. Any one found firing a dwelling-house, or any building in close proximity to one, should be summarily shot. A sentinel may be left by the advance division at each inhabited house along the road, to be relieved in succession from the other divisions as they come up, those left by the rear division reporting to the train guard and rejoining after the next halt.
To the left of the Federal advance, Kilpatrick’s cavalry swept forward, but not quite as Sherman desired. Kilpatrick reported,
I have had some hard fighting t0-day, from Swift Creek to this point on the railroad, six miles from Raleigh. I have intercepted Hampton and am now driving him in toward the river. I hope to either capture or force him across the river.
Kilpatrick noted the Confederate force was in full retreat. He asked permission to advance into Raleigh, but “I can do no better than drive directly in his rear as he marches nearly as fast as I do.” Sherman would give Kilpatrick permission to press into Raleigh, but preferred Johnston “go toward Greensborough” and thus asked Kilpatrick to “cut across the rear of his column, right and left.” The potential of the situation seemed to elude Kilpatrick. At the same time, reports from the Confederate cavalry do not indicate any great “pressing” as Kilpatrick described.
Instead, the main worry of Hampton’s was the passage of a delegation from the North Carolina Governor, Zebulon Vance. Early in the day, Vance informed Lieutenant-General William Hardee that he planned to send emissaries to Sherman proposing a suspension of hostilities. Vance was playing with several loose ends. While proposing a truce “touching the final termination of the existing war,” to the Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, Vance assured his intentions were note “to do anything subversive.”
Vance’s delegation went by train out of Raleigh that afternoon. It was first intercepted by Hampton’s cavalry. And then overtaken by Kilpatrick’s cavalry. From there, the train rolled on to Sherman’s headquarters. Sherman’s conversation with the delegation ran late into the evening, and he detained them overnight. They would depart the next morning, under flag of truce, to Raleigh with Sherman’s counter-proposal.
Vance’s aim in all this was to preserve the safety of Raleigh, lest it be treated as Milledgeville or Columbia. But his efforts were largely overtaken by events. As the Confederates withdrew, looting and lawlessness broke out in the city. The number of provost troops detailed were insufficient. Vance himself fled west, leaving the state capitol to be ransacked. So Sherman’s response to him arrived the next morning to find no recipient.
In the Federal camps that evening, Special Field Orders No. 54 was read. This was the official announcement of Lee’s surrender on April 9th. Sherman closed that with encouragement to his troops, “A little more labor, a little more toil on our part, the great race is won, and our Government stands regenerated after four long years of bloody war.”
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page …; Part III, Serial 100, pages 172, 178, 180, 183, 186-7, 188-9, 792.)