Battles of Bentonville and Fort Stedman; Siege of Mobile; Lincoln’s Second Inauguration: March 1865
March 1865 in the Civil War
William T. Sherman’s army was approaching North Carolina after rampaging through South Carolina and U.S. Grant continued to tighten his grip on Petersburg, Virginia. All signs indicated the end of the war was near, but the Confederacy was not yet prepared to call it quits despite the odds, which were near impossible as the winter of 1865 came to an end.
The Shenandoah Valley had been relatively quiet over the winter after extensive fighting in the fall of 1864. General Jubal Early still had a small Confederate army in the valley, and General Philip Sheridan was determined to eliminate it as a threat before making his way to Petersburg. On March 2nd, Sheridan routed Early at the Battle of Waynesboro, killing or capturing nearly the entire Confederate force of roughly 1500 men. It was the last significant action in the Shenandoah. Sheridan then made his way east to Petersburg, destroying railroads and canals on the way over there.
On March 4th, President Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as President of the Unite States for the second time. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln called on the nation to finish the war and bring peace and reunification to the nation, something he was looking forward to and planning for. Lincoln concluded his brief address with these words:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
That day, John Wilkes Booth, one of the most famous actors of the time and an almost fanatical supporter of the Confederacy, stood in the crowd on a balcony behind and
slightly above the president. Also attending the inaugural address were Booth associates and fellow Confederate sympathizers David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Powell. They were part of a small band of dubious characters Booth had assembled for the purpose of kidnapping Lincoln. On March 17th, Booth attempted to kidnap Lincoln near The Old Soldiers Home, a second of the president’s located a few miles from the White House. Lincoln was to have visited a nearby hospital, but changed his plans and did not travel there.
Meanwhile, Sherman’s army began entering North Carolina in the first week of the month. But Sherman’s army wasn’t the only Federal force in the state. Major General Jacob Cox advanced west toward Goldsboro from New Berne on the coast, and engaged Confederates at Kinston on March 7th-10th. Cox was to proceed to Goldsboro for an eventual linkup with Sherman.
General Joseph E. Johnston, recently restored to command, had the unenviable task of stopping Sherman and any other northern armies, but the Rebels did put up resistance There was a large cavalry fight at Monroe’s Crossroads on March 10th. Lieutenant General William Hardee and his corps attacked Sherman’s left wing under Major General Henry Slocum at the Battle of Averasborough on March 16th. The largest battle of the campaign began three days later near Bentonville, where Johnston hoped to stop Sherman before he reached Goldsboro.
On March 19th, Slocum encountered a Confederate division under Major General Robert Hoke outside of Bentonville. Slocum sent in two divisions to take care of that he thought was some cavalry and artillery. Johnston then unleashed an attack, driving back the two Federal divisions. Federal reinforcements and counterattacks stopped the Confederate assault late in the day after intense fighting.
There was only light action the next day as the Federal Right Wing under Major General Oliver Howard arrived as reinforcements. On March 21st, Major General Joseph Mower attacked the Rebel left flank and successfully made it to the rear of Johnston’s army before Confederate counterattacks stopped the Federal advance. Mower was ordered to retreat and Sherman did not attack again. If he had, he might have destroyed or captured much of Johnston’s army. Sherman later admitted he committed a tactical error in not following up.
Johnston retreated that night, ending the battle. The Confederacy had about 2600 total casualties, the Union around 1500. The Battle of Bentonville was the last major fighting of the Carolinas Campaign. Sherman then occupied Goldsboro on March 23rd.
The Port of Mobile, Alabama had been closed to blockade runners since the Battle of Mobile Bay back in August 1864, but the city itself had not been taken. On March 25th, 32,000 Union troops under Major General E.R.S. Canby arrived at the city and began siege operations. Elsewhere in Alabama, a large Union cavalry force under General James H. Wilson left Tennessee and rode towards Selma. Wilson skirmished with Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates in northern Alabama in late March. Besides Mobile Bay, there had been relatively little action in Alabama during the war, but with much of the rest of the South under Union control or at least without a Confederate military or government presence, Federal forces were going after what little was left.
Another state with little fighting was Florida. On March 6th, two regiments of United States Colored Troops (USCT) attacked a Confederate defensive line near Natural Bridge in the Florida panhandle near the state capital of Tallahassee. The Confederates were able to repulse the assault, and the Federals retreated. The action did keep Tallahassee from falling into Union hands.
Along the Petersburg siege line in Virginia, General John B. Gordon launched a predawn attack on March 25th against Union defensive works at Fort Steadman east of Petersburg. At first, the attack was successful, as the Rebels overran Fort Stedman, but determined Federal counterattacks recaptured the fort and drove the Confederates back to their old lines. The Confederates suffered nearly 2700 casualties in the attack, men they could ill afford to lose.
On March 27th, President Lincoln, Generals Grant and Sherman (who had traveled from North Carolina via ship to confer with Grant), and Admiral David Porter met in conference aboard the sidewheel steamboat River Queen near Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia. For two days, they discussed military strategies to finish the war; Grant believed that one final campaign was needed. It was the first and only time these four leaders ever got together.
On March 29th, Grant ordered infantry and Phil Sheridan’s cavalry to attack the Confederate right with the intent to finally force Lee out of his entrenched lines. Lee sent two divisions under General George Pickett to reinforce the right. Heavy rains briefly slowed the Union effort somewhat, but the final campaign Grant envisioned was underway as March drew to a close, and April 1865, one of the most important months in American history, began.