In March 1865, General William T. Sherman’s army entered North Carolina after marching through South Carolina with little opposition. Sherman’s plan was to continue north and join Ulysses S. Grant’s forces which were engaged in siege operations at Petersburg, Virginia. General Joseph E. Johnston was given the task of assembling an army from various Confederate units in the area and trying to stop Sherman’s advance. Johnston’s force included the remants of the Army of Tennessee, which had been decimated at the Battles of Franklin and Nashville in late 1864, plus units under Generals Braxton Bragg and William Hardee.
On March 19th, the left wing (14th and 20th Corps) of Sherman’s army, under the command of Major General Henry Slocum, was marching towards, Goldsboro, North Carolina. The 14th Corps was in the lead, and came under attack by Johnston’s Confederates outside of the small town of Bentonville. Slocum thought he was facing some cavalry, and not Johnston’s nearly 22,000 man army. Slocum attacked, but was driven back; he then deployed his force into defensive positions to hold off the Confederates until reinforcements arrived.
Slocum placed Brigadier General James D. Morgan’s three brigade division on the Federal right. One of Morgan’s brigades under the command of Brigadier General Benjamin Fearing was ordered to make a
counterattack in the center of the Union lines while the other two prepared to defend the right flank. Major General Robert Hoke’s division vigorously attacked, eventually surrounding the two Federal brigades on three sides, but Morgan’s men continued to stand their ground and held their position through intense fighting. Morgan was finally reinforced by the arrival of a 20th Corps brigade under the command of Brigadier General William Cogswell, and the Confederate attack on the right was stopped.
Reinforcements and counterattacks finally checked the Confederate advance and ended the day’s fighting . More Union troops arrived the next day, but Johnston remained in his defenses and did not retreat. The next day (March 21st) a Federal attack led by Major General Joseph Mower on the Confederate left flank finally drove the Rebels from the field.
Morgan’s stubborn defense was an important factor in keeping the 14th Corps from being crushed by the Confederates before reinforcements could arrive. Here’s Morgan’s account of his division’s actions at the Battle of Bentonville, excerpted from his official report on his division’s action in the Campaign of the Carolinas:
March 17, at daylight this morning received reports from each brigade that the enemy had abandoned their works in our front and that our skirmish line now occupied them. At 8.30 a.m., following the First Division, moved forward on Goldsborough road to Black River. By order from corps headquarters took a road to the left; crossing Black River went into camp two miles east of Mingo Creek, marching eight miles. March 18, moved at 5.30 a.m. on Goldsborough road. The foragers of the command found the enemy in our front, and drove them to and across Bushy Swamp, where they took up a strong position and opened with artillery. The First and Second Brigades were deployed in two lines, with a regiment from each as skirmishers; were ordered to advance. The appearance of strong infantry lines was sufficient to turn the enemy to the rear about. General Sherman coming up, by his direct order the command was halted; at 4 p.m. received orders to go into camp, crossing one brigade to the east side of the swamp. Strong pickets were thrown out, having learned that Wade Hampton, with a large cavalry force, was in our immediate front. Our march to-day, twelve miles. March 19, moved at 8.30 a.m., following First Division, Second Brigade leading, marching five miles, when, just after 11 a.m., received orders to move forward two of my brigades to the assistance of General Carlin; arriving in rear of his line was directed to deploy one of my brigades and move to the right, and feel forward for the right of General Carlin’s line and form thereon. The Second Brigade, General Mitchell commanding, was intrusted with the execution of this order and was soon promptly in the position indicated. The Third Brigade, General Fearing commanding, was ordered to form in rear of the right of the Second Brigade in close columns of regiments. The Seventy-eighth Illinois, of Second Brigade, was ordered forward as skirmishers, and a company from One hundred and twenty-fifth Illinois, of Third Brigade, was ordered to the rear and right across a swamp near the right flank of main line. The advanced skirmishers soon reported the enemy in front and in works, and that they were moving to our right. A staff officer was at once dispatched to corps commander with this information, and a request that I might order up the First Brigade (left with the trains), which was granted. This brigade, upon reaching the ground formed on the right of the Second Brigade, in two lines, its right resting upon the swamp before mentioned, and the Sixtieth Illinois, deployed
as skirmishers, relieving a regiment of Third Brigade (One hundred and twenty-fifth Illinois), sent previously to the right in support of Seventy-eighth Illinois. This was the disposition of my division previous to the battle of Troublefield’s Swamp: The First and Second Brigades deployed in two lines, my right resting on an almost impassable swamp, and on that account not refused, and Lieutenant-Colonel Miles, Third Brigade, First Division, on my left, the Third Brigade in reserve in two lines, the general direction of the line nearly at right angles with the Averasborough and Goldsborough road; the ground, a low swamp, impassable for artillery. I therefore did not order forward my battery; but it did good service on the left of the road, where the ground was higher and more open. Good log-works were rapidly thrown up in front of both lines, and had much to do with the success of my command later in the day. About 2.30 p.m. received orders to relieve Lieutenant-Colonel Miles (Third Brigade, First Division). Before this order could be executed firing was heard upon my left and rear, and the corps commander coming up at that moment informed me that the center and left had been broken, and that the enemy had gained the rear and was moving toward the trains, and by his order the Third Brigade changed front to the left, and forming nearly parallel to the road, moving out promptly and gallantly, was soon lost sight of in the thick swamp. I immediately sent Captain Wiseman, my assistant adjutant-general, to General Mitchell to at once refuse his left and I would send to his support his second line. This cool and gallant officer had already anticipated my order. His second line was at once ordered to form on and support his left. The march of the Third Brigade being nearly perpendicular to my line every step they took uncovered the gap between their right and the left of Second Brigade. The second line of the First Brigade was then ordered to the left and form on left of Second Brigade. My whole division was drawn out into a single line, and the question now was could we hold it.
The results show that brave soldiers do almost anything they resolve to do. The works of the First and Second Brigades were never given up, although attacked in front, flank, and absolutely in the rear, and had to fight in their own works in reverse. The Third Brigade had no works; their duty was, if possible, to check the enemy; when first struck their right gave way and some little confusion ensued, but changing front to the rear upon the left rallied and held their ground firmly. Their brave commander, Brevet Brigadier-General Fearing, being severely wounded, refused for a long time to leave the field, but finally, at the earnest solicitation of his officers, consented to do so, turning the command over to Lieutenant-Colonel Langley, One hundred and twenty-fifth Illinois, being the second time this meritorious officer has taken charge of this brigade in battle. Later in the day General Cogswell’s brigade, First Division, Twentieth Corps, moved forward most beautifully upon the right of the Third Brigade, driving the enemy and recovering nearly all the lost ground. General Mitchell’s brigade never lost an inch, although several times charged upon by the enemy. General Vandever’s brigade on the right was at one time surrounded; one fact will show this. After the center and left was broken the enemy commenced massing troops on their left and made a heavy charge upon my extreme right. This charge was repulsed and General Vandever ordered a counter-charge, which was gallantly made and the enemy driven back to his works, taking several hundred prisoners, the Fourteenth Michigan taking a battle-flag. While this was being done the enemy from the rear gained the second line of works of this brigade. A face about and a charge to the rear was made and another battle flag was captured by the Fourteenth Michigan; both of these flags are now in the possession of that regiment, and I most respectfully request that the regiment be allowed to retain them. Night only put an end to this severe and unequal contest. The enemy had been defeated in his attempt by sheer force of numbers to crush and drive us from our position. I have to regret the loss of about 400 brave men (the enemy’s loss was at least double that number), among them several officers–Brevet Brigadier-General Fearing, commanding Third Brigade, severely wounded, also Lieutenant-Colonel Pearce, of the Ninety-eighth Ohio. A more particular list will be found in brigade reports herewith forwarded.
When all do well it is unjust to discriminate. I am under great obligations to Generals Vandever, Mitchell, and Brevet Brigadier General Fearing, for the prompt and skillful manner with which theyhandled their respective commands, and their coolness and bravery in action. My staff, as usual, were active and prompt in discharging their respective duties. Lieutenant Scroggs, assistant commissary of musters, was wounded in trying to rally stragglers. Captain Wiseman, my assistant adjutant-general, succeeded in rallying some 500 men of the First Division late in the day. During the night but little firing on skirmish line.
March 20, at daylight foragers commenced coming up and joining their commands. During the morning the Third Brigade, having been relieved from their position on the left of General Cogswell’s brigade, returned to their former position in reserve. During the early morning the enemy were reported moving to our right. At 11 a.m. they commenced moving to our left; at 12 m. skirmish line of First Brigade entered the enemy’s works. An advance was at once ordered and the enemy found in a more refused line and behind strong works. Skirmishing continued during the day. About 3 p.m. skirmishers from the Seventeenth Corps came up and formed on my right, and soon after from General Hazen’s division, Fifteenth Corps. My lines were changed from a northeast to nearly a northwest front, all the brigades in line, General Hazen’s Fifteenth Corps on the right and General Catlin’s division on my left. March 21, skirmishing continued during the day, and lines were somewhat advanced and strengthened. 22d, at daylight received reports from each brigade that their skirmishers had possession of the enemy’s works and were pushing forward. Moved at 9 a.m., marching six miles; went into camp near Cox’s Bridge. March 23, marched at 8.30, crossing Neuse River; passing through Goldsborough, went into camp two miles north of town, on the west side of Weldon railroad, thus ending the campaign.
In closing this report I would not be doing justice to my command or myself did I fail to mention the general good conduct of my command. A campaign extraordinary in its duration and its length of march in midwinter through a country noted for its broad rivers, bad roads, and almost impassable swamps; and in addition to these natural difficulties the elements were against us, it having rained almost continually. All these difficulties have been met and overcome with a cheerfulness, promptness, and determination truly astonishing. Whether it was making a road, long and forced marches, wading swamps, or fighting the enemy, no such thing as fail was known, but confidence and success was the watchword. To my brigade commanders–Generals Vandever, Mitchell, and Fearing–I am under special obligations for their zeal and promptness in executing orders, and for the skillful and soldierly manner in which they have handled their respective commands. My own personal staff, as usual, have performed all their duty.
As in my former reports I respectfully but earnestly urge the promotion of all that are entitled to it from their present staff positions. I regret that I have to except any one from praise and credit, but I have some men in my command–and I am sorry to say, if not assisted, at least encouraged, by a few officers (I hope for the name of the service very few)–who have mistaken the name and meaning of the term foragers, and have become under that name highwaymen, with all their cruelty and ferocity and none of their courage; their victims are usually old men, women, and children, and negroes, whom they rob and maltreat without mercy, firing dwellings and outhouses even when filled with grain that the army need, and sometimes endangering the trains by the universal firing of fences. These men are a disgrace to the name of soldier and the country. I desire to place upon record my detestation and abhorrence of their acts….
Very respectfully, your obedient servant,
JAMES D. MORGAN,
Brigadier-General, Comdg. Second Div., Fourteenth Army Corps.
Lieut. Col. A. C. McCLURG,
Chief of Staff, Fourteenth Army Corps.
Although Sherman later admitted that he should have followed up Mower’s attack on the 21st, in the end it made little difference. The Battle of Bentonville was the last major action in the Campaign of the Carolinas, and Johnston did not go to the aid of the besieged Confederate army at Petersburg. Johnston surrendered to Sherman on April 26th near Durham Station, North Carolina.
The Battle Of Bentonville: Last Stand In The Carolinas
by Mark L. Bradley
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume XLVII, Part 1
“Sherman’s March from Savannah to Bentonville” by Henry W. Slocum. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War Volume 4