In the second week of April, 1865, for the third time in seven months Major-General William T. Sherman started his army group out of camp into a marching campaign. The movement out from the Goldsboro, North Carolina area differed somewhat from that of the movements out of Atlanta and Savannah. This time, instead of aiming for a point on the map, the soldiers were marching directly against a Confederate foe. The aim of the next leg of Sherman’s March was General Joseph E. Johnston’s force… the last major Confederate field formation east of Alabama.
The order of movement evolved somewhat between April 5 and the time of execution. When Special Field Orders No. 48 was issued on April 5, few details of the victory at Petersburg and the fall of Richmond were in Sherman’s hands. So the objective of movement at that time was described as “to place this army with its full equipment north of Roanoke River, facing west, with a base for supplies at Norfolk, and at Winton or Murfreesborough on the Chorwan, and in full communication with the Army of the Potomac….” The scheme of maneuver had the armies advancing to skirt around Raleigh and march almost due north to concentrate around Warrenton, North Carolina.
This arrangement was overtaken by the news from Virginia.
On April 7, Sherman refined the orders. Instead of a general northward movement, the army wings would focus on Smithfield as the initial march objective, then Raleigh. The movement would be typical of those made by Sherman during the marches, and arranged to allow supporting columns to flank any opposition encountered:
The Left Wing, of Major-General Henry Slocum, had the center of the advance, and would march up the roads on the left bank of the Neuse River. Sherman asked Major-General Oliver O. Howard’s Right Wing to move initially to Pikeville, then sweep west to support the Left Wing in front of Smithfield. The Center Wing, under Major-General John Schofield, would advance on the right bank of the Neuse River, through the old Bentonville battlefield, in position to make a flanking movement at Smithfield, if necessary. Major-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Cavarly Division was to move on the left of Schofield, but reach out to the railroad behind Smithfield. To Kilpatrick, Sherman added, “… you may act boldly and even rashly now, for this is the time to strike quick and strong.”
Above all, Sherman felt the need, as expressed to Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant on April 8, to keep the pressure on Johnston’s Confederates, knowing his superior was doing the same to Lee’s army:
I will follow Johnston, presuming that you are after Lee, or all that you have left to him, and if they come together we will also. I think I will be at Raleigh on Thursday, the 13th, and shall pursue Johnston toward Greensborough unless it be manifest that he has gone toward Danville. I shall encourage him to come to bay on or to move toward Danville, as I don’t want to race all the way back through South Carolina and Georgia. It is to our interest to let Lee and Johnston come together, just as a billiard layer would nurse the balls when he has them in a nice place.
On the same day, in a message to Major-General Montgomery Meigs, Sherman added, “I will push Joe Johnston to the death.” Of course, Sherman’s assessment was again overtaken by events the next day. But his objective, Johnston’s army, remained the same regardless of events on April 9 in Virginia.
Preliminary movements began on April 10, as depicted on the map below:
The main effort of the first leg of this movement lay with the Left Wing. All others oriented off Slocum’s advance on Smithfield. Slocum placed the Twentieth Corps,by then commanded by Major-General Joseph Mower, with Major-General Alpheus S. Williams returning to command First Division in that corps, on the River Road. The Fourteenth Corps advanced on a road near the North Carolina Railroad.
Mower met some opposition on the 10th at Moccasin Swamp. Major-General Jefferson C. Davis’ Fourteenth Corps briefly fought with Confederate cavalry near Boon Hill. Major-General James Morgan’s Division (Second Division, Fourteenth Corps) lost two killed and five wounded. Otherwise the advance made good time and covered between ten to fifteen miles.
Supporting the Left Wing, the 23rd Corps of the Center Wing concentrated at Goldsboro to wait for the roads to clear. The Tenth Corps, south of the Neuse moved up to a point opposite Cox’s Bridge, on the road to Bentonville. Kilpatrick’s cavalry reached Mill Creek that evening with no incident.
The Right Wing’s movements were much delayed on the morning of the 10th, as the Left Wing had the right of way on roads in Goldsboro. Still the corps made good time. The Seventeenth Corps reached Whitley’s Mill by nightfall. The bridge over Little River there was partly destroyed by Confederates. But, as at so many other river crossings along the march, the Federals were quick to repair the bridge.
The Fifteenth Corps reached Lowell Factory on the Little River and found a bridge there. Major-General John Logan, under orders, had detached the 1st Division of the corps, under Major-General Charles Woods, to conduct a feint march through Nahunta Station on the Weldon Railroad. Woods encountered Confederate cavalry just south of that point, but drove them out without much pause. Skirmishing continued west of Nahunta but Woods again cleared the road. By day’s end, Woods reported the Confederate force which had camped around the station numbered 1,500, but had posed no significant delay or inflicted any casualties upon the Federals.
On the Confederate side, these advances were expected but at the same time overwhelming. Confronting such wide ranging lines of march, the Confederates could not make a meaningful stand at Smithfield. So Johnston withdrew on the 10th. Cavalry would contest the Federal advance, but the infantry was husbanded for a hopeful stand elsewhere.
In possession of Lowell Factory, Logan inquired as to its disposition that evening. Howard related that inquiry to Sherman, who responded on the morning of the 11th:
You need not have the Lowell Factory destroyed. I will wait our reception at Raleigh to shape our general policy. You may instruct General Logan to exact bonds that the factory shall not be used for the Confederacy. Of course the bond is not worth a cent, but if the factory owners do not abide by the conditions they cannot expect any mercy the next time.
The march for the 11th continued with the concentration around Smithfield:
Continuing with the feint on the right of the advance, Woods’ division moved toward Beulah that morning. At the causeway over Great Swamp, the Federals met Confederate cavalry. The Rebels attempted to burn the bridge, “and they would have succeeded had it not been for Colonel [Joseph] Gage’s command; his men, after driving the rebels off, soon cleared the bridge of the burning rails….” Woods continued to spar with the Confederates up to Beulah and beyond. Reaching Folk’s Bridge at 11 p.m., Woods found 1,500 Confederates on the other side and the bridge destroyed. The Confederates were uncovered by other elements of the Fifteenth Corps, but Woods was not able to cross until 4 p.m. due to the need to rebuild the bridge.
The rest of the Fifteenth Corps had another delayed march. The bridge at Lowell Factory proved to0 weak to hold up the military traffic. So Logan ended the day with his corps astride the Little River until alternatives were found. As for the rest of the Right Wing, the Seventeenth Corps reached Pine Level on the 11th without major incident.
The Left Wing reached Smithfield around noon on the 11th. First elements entering the town were Third Division, Fourteenth Corps. They fought through several barricades setup by Confederate rear guards, but were able to secure the town by mid-afternoon. The bridges over the Neuse were destroyed, so the Federals went to work laying pontoons to facilitate the next day’s march.
For the Center Wing, the 23rd Corps stopped about eight miles short of Smithfield that evening, following the Left Wing’s advance. The Tenth Corps faced terrible roads, but reached a point just beyond Bentonville by nightfall.
Further to the right of the advance, Kilpatrick reported camping on Middle Creek that evening. His march was somewhat delayed by Confederate actions, though no fighting was reported. Due to burned bridges over Black Creek, Kilpatrick made a wide advance around, nearly to Elevation, to reach a point opposite Smithfield. “My command is not sufficiently well up, owing to the long march and bad roads, to make a successful dash on the enemy’s columns, even if I was within striking distance.” So much for bold and rash action.
While Federal troops were entering Smithfield that day, to the west in Raleigh Johnston received word of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Sherman would not receive word until the next morning. April 12 would see the continuation of military operations. But both commanders saw the writing on the wall. Though marching and fighting would continue, it was not at the pace seen a year, or even a month, earlier between these two armies. There was an exit ramp somewhere beyond Raleigh that everyone wanted to take.
(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, page 249; Part III, Serial 100, pages 102, 123, 129, 165, and 171.)