The Battle of Bentonville was fought March 19–21, 1865, in Bentonville, North Carolina, near the current town of Four Oaks, as part of the Carolinas Campaign of the American Civil War. It was the last major battle to occur between the armies of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. In light of overwhelming enemy strength and the relatively heavy casualties his army suffered in the battle, Johnston surrendered to Sherman little more than a month later at Bennett Place, near Durham Station. Coupled with Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender earlier in April, Johnston's surrender represented the effective end of the war.
During the late winter and early spring of 1865, Sherman's Union
army cut a swath of destruction through South Carolina
, a logical continuation of the previous fall's March to the Sea
. On March 8
, Union soldiers crossed into North Carolina as a collection of Confederate
units attempted to concentrate and block their path. Sherman divided his command into two parts, a Left Wing commanded by Maj. Gen.Henry W. Slocum
and a Right Wing commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard
. The two wings marched separately toward Goldsboro
beginning on March 13
. Confederate reconnaissance revealed this disposition, and Johnston attempted to concentrate his entire army on Slocum's wing before it reunited with the rest of the Union column. The Confederate attack commenced on March 19
, as Slocum's men marched on the Goldsboro Road, one mile south of Bentonville.
Slocum was convinced he faced only enemy cavalry, not an entire army. Therefore, he initially notified Sherman that he was facing only cursory resistance near Bentonville and did not require aid. But, in the afternoon, Confederate infantry loomed out of the woods along the Goldsboro Road and drove the Union left flank back in confusion. Confederates under Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill
filled the vacuum left by the retreating Federals and began enfilading
the Union troops remaining along the front. After a heated engagement, Union reinforcements arrived and checked Hill's assault. Fighting continued after nightfall as the Confederates tried without success to drive back the remaining Union line.
Slocum had called for aid from Sherman during the afternoon attacks, and Johnston, knowing he would soon be heavily outnumbered, used his left flank to cover his only available retreat path over Mill Creek. Howard's wing arrived on the field late on the afternoon of March 20 and extended Slocum's right flank. Only light skirmishing occurred on this day.
On March 21, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower launched an unauthorized attack on the Confederate left flank, which was defending Mill Creek Bridge. Mower's men managed to come within one mile of the crossing before Sherman peremptorily ordered them to pull back. In his memoirs, Sherman admitted that this was a mistake and that he missed an opportunity to end the campaign then and there, perhaps capturing Johnston's army entirely. Among the Confederate casualties was Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee's 16-year-old son, Willie. Hardee had reluctantly allowed his son to attach himself to the 8th Texas Cavalry just hours before Mower's attack.
During the night, Johnston withdrew his army across Mill Creek and burned the bridge behind him. Sherman took little notice and did not pursue the Confederates, but continued his march to Goldsboro. The Confederate army had failed in its last chance to achieve a decisive victory over the Union army in North Carolina.
The site of the battle is preserved as Bentonville Battlefield, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996.
- National Park Service battle description
- Hughes, Nathaniel Cheairs, Jr., Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston, University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
- Broadwater, Robert P., Battle of despair : Bentonville and the North Carolina campaign, Macon, Ga : Mercer University Press, c2004.