Over March 23-24, 1865, Major-General William T. Sherman ordered movements to close the Carolinas leg of the Great March. I’m mixing definitions there a bit, as “Great March” was somewhat a post-war term applied by the veterans as they recalled the roads from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. On the other hand, at the time, operationally speaking, Sherman saw the march through South Carolina up to Goldsboro as the first phase in a larger movement to reach the trenches outside Petersburg. We often forget, as we know how the movie ends, the high-level objectives in mind as the month of March closed. Sherman was not so much concerned about crushing General Joseph E. Johnston at Bentonville, but rather keeping that force out of his way for the next march north to Virginia.
First priority for Sherman was to refit those four hard-marching corps which had tracked up from Savannah to Goldsboro. To accomplish this, he planned to have the Left and Right Wings camp around Goldsboro where they would draw supplies off the railroads – both to Wilmington and New Bern, when both were repaired. The Cavalry Division would camp near Mount Olive where forage appeared to be plentiful. The Twenty-third Corps would move back to Kinston where it would be responsible for guarding the railroad line back to Morehead City. And the Tenth Corps (Major-General Alfred Terry) would camp around Faison’s Depot to cover the railroad to Wilmington. That general disposition of the force, now constituting three wings with Major-General John Schofield taking the “Center Wing,” would be in effect for several weeks through the middle of April.
The Fourteenth Corps crossed the Neuse the day before, being the lead of the Left Wing. The Twentieth Corps took a little more time to move up. One delay was the movement of the Fifteenth Corps across their line of march. Though there were two pontoon bridges at Cox’s Bridge, the passage of three corps (plus the trail of the Tenth Corps) meant a lot of feet had to compete for time on the roads.
The Right Wing departed the works at Bentonville with the Fifteenth Corps in the lead. Major-General William B. Hazen’s division crossed the Twentieth Corps’ line of march, but the remainder of the Right Wing waited for the Left Wing formations to pass. By the end of the day, the Right Wing camped around Falling Creek Post-office. Well in advance, empty wagons of the Right Wing closed the depots south of Kinston to retrieve much desired supplies. Lieutenant-Colonel Ephraim Joel, Seventeenth Corps quartermaster, reported:
The road I came on is very good, and I will send the train back on the same road loaded with five days’ rations for the corps, and one-quarter of clothing at this point, which amounts to 600 hats, 3,000 blouses, 3,000 pants, 600 cavalry pants, 7,500 shirts, 3,000 drawers, 9,300 shoes, 1,800 boots, 4,500 stockings, and a few other articles of no consequence. The above is hardly enough for one division, but Colonel Conklin assures me I can get all the stores I want, consequently I will remain here until I do receive them. The railroad bridge is not finished across the river at this point. Stores will be slow in coming to the front. You will please order all the wagons to be emptied and sent at once to this point. I will see they are loaded with something. I will have all the wagons here loaded before I go to bed to-night, to be ready to start at daylight to-morrow morning. I have just heard that a large mail will be here some time during the night. I will retain wagons and send it as soon as I can.
For the soldiers on the march, good news was shoes and mail were soon to arrive. But until the railroad was repaired, moving those supplies depended upon the wagon trains.
While the Right and Left Wings moved, Terry advanced the remainder of the Tenth Corps across the Neuse and into position to cover the crossing. Around mid-morning, Terry sent a warning about Confederate cavalry which had crossed about two miles above Cox’s Bridge. Though a small force, and with plenty of Federal troops on the roads, Terry was concerned, “these people may get around them and do some mischief.” Howard sent word to hold movements that afternoon while the Confederates were located. The cavalry in question were likely from Brigadier-General Evander Law’s command who’d been posted along the River Road on the left bank of the Neuse. From these patrols, Lieutenant-General Wade Hampton could report accurately the movement of the Federal forces.
In somewhat contrast to the work done by Confederate cavalrymen, Terry would inquire “Can you tell me where General Kilpatrick is?” After covering the withdraw of the Right Wing, Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s force made for Mount Olive as ordered. Though we might fault Kilpatrick for being out of position – again. But the fault was just as much Sherman’s for directing the cavalry out of the way in the first place. At any rate, the Right Wing’s “organic” cavalry, consisting of mounted infantry regiments, were employed to screen movements.
General Johnston remained near Smithfield on March 23rd. He also faced a logistic problem that took precedence over continued movement for his command. Returns for his patchwork concentration (sometimes identified as the “Department of the South” or “Armies of the South”) indicated some 13,363 men, effective total. Those included the Army of Tennessee (Lieutenant-General A.P. Stewart), Lieutenant-General William Hardee’s Corps, and Department of North Carolina Troops (General Braxton Bragg).
Johnston first needed to draw upon the depots further up the railroad lines to resupply his force. General P.G.T. Beauregard, Johnston’s second in command, was resourceful, but lacked resources. Beauregard acquired some 30 wagons from the state to aid movement. But the pressing matter was prioritization of the railroad assets. Johnston’s back was now up against the depots which supplied General Robert E. Lee’s army in Virginia. Any disruption of the railroads would be felt on the lines outside Petersburg. Sort of a logistical conundrum.
At 1:30 p.m. on the 23rd, Johnston reported the outcome of the battle of Bentonville to Lee. “Troops of Tennessee army have fully disproved slanders that have been published against them,” Johnston could boast. But the overall reality was Johnston had failed to inflict any serious injury on Sherman. Nor could Johnston conceive a means to do such damage in the future:
Sherman’s course cannot be hindered by the small force I have. I can do no more than annoy him. I respectfully suggest that it is no longer a question whether you leave present position; you have only to decide where to meet Sherman. I will be near him.
To this blunt assessment, Lee responded:
I am delighted at the conduct of Tennessee army. I hope you will be able often to repeat your blow and finally shiver enemy. Still we must meet the question. Where, in your opinion, can we best meet Sherman?
Beyond Lee’s question was a practical one. Could the Army of Northern Virginia shake free of the Federals around Richmond-Petersburg? Well, on this same day, Major-General John B. Gordon recommended a surprise attack on Federal lines at a point called Fort Stedman. Lee would approve this plan. I don’t think that was just coincidence. You see, by this time in the war EVERYTHING was related.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part II, Serial 99, pages 973, 974, and 1454.)