"Our Last Battle": An Account of the Battle of Bentonville

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By Sgt. Walter A. Clark, Co. A "Oglethorpe Infantry," 63rd Georgia Infantry, Smith's Brigade (led by Capt. J. R. Bonner), James A. Smith's (Cleburne's old) Division, Cheatham's Corps, Army of Tennessee. From his memoirs, Under the Stars and Bars; or, Memories of Four Years Service with the Oglethorpes, of Augusta, Georgia.


OUR LAST BATTLE​

During the Confederate Reunion in Atlanta, Ga., in 98, a man with kindly eyes and grizzled beard approached me with extended hand and said, "Do you know me?" His face seemed familiar, but I was forced to confess that I could not exactly place him. "Do you know where I saw you last?" I was compelled to admit that I was still in the dark as to his identity. "Well," said he, "it was behind the biggest kind of a pine." "Now I know you, Sam Woods," said I. That pine supplied the missing link in my memory and furnished likewise a link in the present sketch.​
By 10 a. m., March 19th, the day after our arrival at Bentonville, we were in line of battle, fronting a large part of Sherman's army. Our regiment depleted by sickness and death and capture and possibly "French leave" as we came through Georgia, had only a hundred men in its ranks—the Oglethorpes only nineteen. We had no field officer and, as I remember, only one captain, one lieutenant and an orderly sergeant for the ten companies. At one stage in the fight that followed the orderly sergeant was the ranking officer in the regiment.​
Soon after taking our position, near the extreme right of the line, an assault was made by the enemy and was repulsed. About midday Gen. Bate, commanding our corps, gave the order to advance. In our front and gently sloping upwards for three hundred yards was an old field dotted with second growth pines, and two hundred and fifty yards beyond its highest point on the descending slope lay the Federal breastworks awaiting us. Closing in to the left as we advanced, we passed over the bodies of the enemy who had been killed in the assault and whose faces, from exposure to the sun, had turned almost black.​
Reaching the top of the slope we came in view of the Federal line and if our eyes had been closed our ears would have given us ample evidence of the fact. The rattle of the Enfields and the hiss of the minies marked the renewal of our acquaintance with our old antagonists of the Dalton and Atlanta campaign. Down the slope we charged until half the distance had been covered and the enemy's line is only at hundred yards away. The "zips" of the minies get thicker and thicker and the line partially demoralized by the heavy fire suddenly halts. Frank Stone is carrying the colors (Cleburne's division flag—a blue field with white circle in the center) and he and I jump for the same pine. It is only six inches thick and will cover neither of us fully, but we divide its protective capacity fairly. Fifteen or twenty feet to my left there is an exclamation of pain and as I turn to look Jim Beasley clasps his hand to his face as the blood spurts from his cheek.​
My cartridge box has been drawn to the front of my body for convenience in loading as well as for protection and as I look to the front again a ball strikes it, and strikes so hard that it forces from me an involuntary grunt. Frank hears it and turns to me quickly. "Are you hurt?" I said I believed not and proceed to investigate. The ball passing through the leather and tin had struck the leaden end of a cartridge and being in that way deflected had passed out the right side of the box instead of through my body.​
Thirty or forty feet to the right the gallant color-bearer of the First Florida, whose heroism at Franklin has already received notice in these records, is making his way alone towards the breastworks at half speed, with his flag held aloft, fifty yards in front of the halted ranks. Inspired by his example or recovering from the temporary panic, the line moves forward again, and the enemy desert their breastworks and make for the rear at a double-quick. Leaping the entrenchments, a hatchet, frying pan and Enfield rifle lie right in my path. Sticking the pan and hatchet in my belt, I drop my Austrian gun and seizing the Enfield I see across the ravine a group of the enemy running up the hill. Aiming at the center of the squad I send one of their own balls after them, but the cartridge is faulty and fails to reach its mark. We pursue them for half a mile and the disordered ranks are halted to be re-formed.​
Capt Hanley, formerly of Cleburne's staff, calls for volunteer skirmishers and John Kirkpatrick is first to respond. Turning to me he says, "Come on Walter." The writer is not advertising for that sort of a job, but the call is a personal one and not caring to let the boys know how badly scared I am, I step out of the ranks. Will Dabney, though laboring under a presentiment that be was to be killed that day, joins us, as do others whose names are not recalled. Deploying and advancing through the woods we are soon in range of the minies again. Lieut. Hunter, a little to our left, is struck and tumbles forward on his head. Will calls out to me that Hunter is killed, but he is mistaken. The lieutenant regains his feet and finds that the wound is confined to his canteen. Advancing further I find a lady's gaiter and a glass preserve dish dropped by the enemy and probably stolen from some Southern home. Capt. Matt Hopkins, of Olmstead's regiment, picks up a book similarly dropped, but does not carry it long before a minie knocks it from his hand.​
The line of battle follows in our wake but before it reaches us a ball strikes John Miller, passing directly through his body, and he turned to the color-bearer and said, "Frank, I'm killed." Frank replied, "I hope not John." The line presses on and John lies down under the pines to die. In a little while Frank is disabled by a wound in the side and turns the colors over to Billy Morris. The regiment reaches the position occupied by the skirmish line and under heavy fire we are ordered to lie down. Sam Woods and the writer seek the shelter of a large pine and while kneeling together behind it a minie passes through Sam's hand and thigh and he limps to the rear.​
Advancing again, we are halted just before night by a pond or lagoon in our front. A friendly log lies near its edge and we lie down behind it. A Federal battery open on us and the color-bearer of Olmstead's 1st Ga. regiment is knocked six or eight feet and disembowled by a solid shot as it plows through the ranks. As the litterbearers are carrying off another wounded man from the same regiment he begs piteously for his haversack, which has been left behind. They are under fire and refuse to halt. One of the Oglethorpes, in pity for the poor fellow, leaves the protection of his log and running up the line secures the haversack, takes it to him, then hastens back to his position.​
Night comes on, the firing ceases and the fight is ended. We have driven the enemy more than a mile, have captured a number of prisoners and have suffered comparatively little loss. Of the 19 Oglethorpes only one has been killed and three wounded, though thirteen others bear on their bodies, clothing or equipment marks of the enemy's fire, some of them in three or four places. Frank Stone, in addition to the wound in his side and a hole through his sleeve, has a chew of tobacco taken off by a ball that passes through his pocket. John Kirkpatrick has his canteen ventilated, Sol Foreman and Will Dabney find the meal in their haversacks seasoned with minies instead of salt, and the writer, in addition to the demoralization of his cartridge box, finds a hole in his haversack and thirteen in his folded blanket, all probably made by a single ball. Relieved from our position in the line by Harrison's regiment, by the aid of torches we find John Miller's body and near it a naked arm taken off at the elbow by a cannon ball. Placing them on a blanket, John Kirkpatrick, Will Dabney, the writer and another comrade carry them nearly half a mile to an open field and give them as decent burial as we can.​
War's casualties, alas, are not all counted on the battlefield. From dread suspense that comes between the battle and the published list of slain and wounded, from the wearing agony of a separation that seems so endless, and the weary watching for footsteps that never come again, they fall on gentle hearts in lonely homes far removed from the smoke and din of musketry and cannon, not suddenly, perhaps, but sometimes just as surely as if by deadly missile on the firing line. John was an only child and far away in his Georgia home his stricken parents rendered childless by his death, mourned in their loneliness for "the touch of a vanished hand" until broken hearted they, too, were laid away in the narrow house appointed for all the living.​
On the following day [actually describing events over the next two days] the remainder of Sherman's army came up and two divisions secured a position in our rear, but were driven back. A regiment of Texas cavalry made a successful charge in this engagement, holding their bridle reins in their mouths and a navy pistol in each hand. A gallant son of Gen Hardee went in with them as a volunteer and was killed in the charge. Our division was not engaged, there being only skirmishing in our front. Harrison Poster and Billy Morris were on the picket line and under a misapprehension of an order of Gen. Bate, who was riding over the line with his crutches strapped to his saddle, they advanced to a point within close range of the Yankee trenches. Subjected to a heavy fire, they took refuge behind a pile of rails. While lying there Billy was struck in the face and the pain of the wound led him to think that he was severely hurt. An investigation, however, showed that a minie ball had shattered a rail and had driven a splinter into the flesh. There was renewed skirmishing on the 21st, but as a company our last gun had been fired. Johnston, finding his force of less than 20,000 men too small to cope with Sherman's entire army, evacuated his position on the 22d and retired to the vicinity Of Smithfield.​
 

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