Visit to Bentonville - Largest NC battle, last-ditch Confederate offensive

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
This past week, I visited the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site, an easy drive of less than an hour from where I live in Raleigh, North Carolina. The park is located at the southern end of Johnston County, not far from I-95. Efforts since the mid-1900s have resulted in preservation of a good portion of this battlefield, known as the location of the largest Civil War battle fought in NC, and the last engagement of the war where Confederate forces were able to mount an effective offensive. In spite of that, the three-day battle, 19-21 March 1865, is considered a Union victory.

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The Battle of Bentonville was a final effort by Confederate forces under Joseph Johnston to halt or slow down the progress of Sherman's Carolinas Campaign. Sherman, with something like 60,000 soldiers, intended to consolidate his forces at Goldsboro, and Johnston decided to pose an obstacle.

Hal Jespersen's map of the Carolinas Campaign shows the overall movements of both Confederate and Union forces during the campaign, and the position of the Battle of Bentonville (up there to the west of New Bern, where all the arrows kind of converge):

Carolinas_Campaign_HalJespersen.png


Sherman apparently didn't expect much resistance from Johnston, with a weary force of about 22,000 patched together from remnants of several different departments. But Johnston decided to surprise the left wing of Sherman's forces under Henry Slocum in the vicinity of the small village of Bentonville. Johnston's forces were able to do some successful fighting on the first day, but as the rest of Sherman's forces arrived, Johnston got pushed back and boxed in, and finally had to withdraw over the one remaining bridge over Mill Creek, escaping north toward Raleigh. Sherman decided not to pursue at that point, but to continue on to Goldsborough to rest and re-supply.

Most of the 6,000-acre battlefield is in private hands and is still good farming land. Agriculture and logging have disturbed much of the battlefield, but acquisitions have brought 1,867 acres under preservation, according to the American Battlefield Trust.

If you've spent much time in the North Carolina Coastal Plain, you can probably imagine what the land is like -- flattish farmland and pine woods, with creeks and swampy areas in places. Not unbeautiful, but not as varied as the Piedmont or as exciting as the Appalachians. Here are some photos I took during our tour of the battlefield, which will give you an idea of the terrain:

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NC State Historic Sites has put together a useful driving tour which takes you on a 10-mile loop around the battlefield. Tour stops along the way provide parking areas (protecting you from barreling dump trucks), and interpretive plaques with historical information, quotes from primary sources, and great maps that I haven't been able to find anywhere else. One helpful feature of the tour is that the seven stops, A-G, take you for a more-or-less chronological trip through the three days of the battle.

https://bentonvillebattlefield.oncell.com/en/battle-of-bentonville-tour-173235.html
Here are some shots from one interesting location, Tour Stop B. The stop is titled "Morgan's Stand." The stop covers much of the first day of the battle, when Confederate forces made some successful repulses of Federals in fierce fighting.

Each of the driving-tour stops is well-marked with signage. Apparently, some North Carolina boy couldn't manage to "stop" at Morgan's Stand, and careened off Harper House Road into the sign:

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The plaques at each tour stop are a great educational tool, and by the end of the tour, I found that I had gained a good overall view of how the battle unfolded over its three days. "Morgan's Stand" refers to the position held by Union Brig. Gen. James D. Morgan, whose division faced Confederate Gen. Robert F. Hoke's division at this position south of Harper House Road (then called Goldsborough Road).

20200930123348_IMG_0640.jpg


The signage explains that Federal Troops were driven south into a woodsy, swampy area that became known as the "Bull Pen," where opposing troops engaged in fighting so intense that the woods even caught fire. Here's a view from the tour stop south toward the Bull Pen. Standing there, you can tell that the land drops off beyond the edge of those trees:

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As I mentioned before, the tour-stop plaques include maps that I have not been able to find elsewhere. As you move from stop to stop, you can get a good idea of how the battle progressed throughout the three days. To understand the maps, you have to examine them closely. There is a "You Are Here" marker on each map, but you have to follow a shadowy cone shape to see what position on the map that marker actually refers to. Then you have to pay attention to the direction indicated by "Your Angle of View," which isn't always straight ahead. On top of that, the battle maps aren't always oriented toward the north. After some study, though, I was able to use this map (actually oriented toward the south) to understand the location of the Bull Pen, and to see how badly pressed the Union forces were on the first day of the battle:

BullPenMap.jpg


As I said, the series of stops on the driving tour gives you a rough idea of the chronology of the battle. Here is the marker for tour stop G, "Hardee's Counterattack," from which you can also see stop F, "Johnston's Headquarters." These two stops, by the way, are at the cross roads where the original village of Bentonville stood. One Union surgeon said the hamlet consisted of "scarcely a dozen small unpainted weather-beaten dwellings." Several of the homes there were taken over as hospitals during the battle.

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The marker below, located at stop F, explains that Gen. Johnston established his headquarters in the field directly in front. Johnston was so close to the fighting that, at one point, his headquarters were even overrun by Federal skirmishers, before the enemy was driven back by the counterattack marked by tour stop G. This counterattack drove Federal forces away from the crucial road to the north and the bridge over Mill Creek, the only way out for Johnston and his army, who manage to withdraw the night of 21 March. The Army of Tennessee retreated to Raleigh, and then beyond to Greensboro. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was surrendered only about two weeks later, and then Johnston's army on 26 April, along with all the rest of the active Confederate forces.

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This map from tour stop F, "Sherman's Headquarters," shows how dramatically the situation had changed from 19 March to 21 March, when the rest of Sherman's forces had arrived at Bentonville. You can see that the Army of Tennessee is pressed into a horseshoe line, with Federal forces pressing in nearly from three sides. The Mill Creek escape route, with heavy fighting nearby, is located at the upper left corner of the map, which is oriented to the north.

21March1865Map.jpg


Another noteworthy feature of the Bentonville Battlefield site is the Harper House, adjacent to the visitor center. The house was used as a Union hospital during the battle. The park offers tours of the house, which is equipped with displays related to its history as both a family home and as a Civil War hospital.

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Of special interest to me are the extensive earthworks which have been preserved at Bentonville. One plaque says that over 15,000 feet of remaining earthworks were surveyed there in the late 1990s. I plan to post some photos and comments in the Forgotten Forts & Places Forum later, but here is one example from the First Michigan Engineers fortifications, which can be seen near the visitor center:

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If you're visiting North Carolina -- or just passing through on I-95 -- a visit to Bentonville is well worth it! I'm sure that there are colleagues here who know the Battle of Bentonville and the Carolinas Campaign much better than I do, so I would enjoy seeing others' comments -- and corrections, if I've gotten anything wrong here.

Roy B.
 
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rli

Private
Joined
Jul 11, 2020
Location
North Carolina
Excellent post and wonderful photos, thanks. I've been there once many years ago when I was living in NY. Now that I'm living in North Carolina and could go often I don't? Makes no sense I'll have to change that. I've studied the battle some. My former reenacting unit was the 143rd NY out of Sullivan County NY. They were there with the XX Corps. Got themselves in a tight spot but luckily got out with relatively minor damage. They also played a major role on the 19th late afternoon in saving the Robinson's flank when their Commander Lt. Col. Watkins took it upon himself to move them out of the reserve and reform some of other faltering Regt's to blunt Rhett's advance.
 
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Claude Bauer

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jan 8, 2012
Thanks for sharing! Looks like you covered just about everything! Bentonville was my first big reenactment and I've been back every five years since. This year's event was postponed to 2021. Hopefully they'll be able to have it next year. It's one of the largest events on the East Coast. Always special to camp and reenact on original ground.
 

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
Looks like the remote location helped with preservation.

Good point -- it's still almost all farmland and woods. However the Battlefield Trust is concerned that development could destroy more remnants at Bentonville. It's at about the right distance to become a bedroom community for Raleigh in a few years.

Roy B.
 

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
Bentonville was my first big reenactment and I've been back every five years since. This year's event was postponed to 2021. Hopefully they'll be able to have it next year.

Some folks from my CW Roundtable had been hoping to participate. I haven't attended before. How does the Bentonville reenactment work -- how many events and at what locations? Now that I know the ground a little bit, it would be interesting to be able to picture it in my mind.

Roy B.
 
Joined
Dec 31, 2010
Location
Kingsport, Tennessee
This past week, I visited the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site, an easy drive of less than an hour from where I live in Raleigh, North Carolina. The park is located at the southern end of Johnston County, not far from I-95. Efforts since the mid-1900s have resulted in preservation of a good portion of this battlefield, known as the location of the largest Civil War battle fought in NC, and the last engagement of the war where Confederate forces were able to mount an effective offensive. In spite of that, the three-day battle, 19-21 March 1865, is considered a Union victory.

View attachment 376905

The Battle of Bentonville was a final effort by Confederate forces under Joseph Johnston to halt or slow down the progress of Sherman's Carolinas Campaign. Sherman, with something like 60,000 soldiers, intended to consolidate his forces at Goldsboro, and Johnston decided to pose an obstacle.

Hal Jespersen's map of the Carolinas Campaign shows the overall movements of both Confederate and Union forces during the campaign, and the position of the Battle of Bentonville (up there to the west of New Bern, where all the arrows kind of converge):

View attachment 376906

Sherman apparently didn't expect much resistance from Johnston, with a weary force of about 22,000 patched together from remnants of several different departments. But Johnston decided to surprise the left wing of Sherman's forces under Henry Slocum in the vicinity of the small village of Bentonville. Johnston's forces were able to do some successful fighting on the first day, but as the rest of Sherman's forces arrived, Johnston got pushed back and boxed in, and finally had to withdraw over the one remaining bridge over Mill Creek, escaping north toward Raleigh. Sherman decided not to pursue at that point, but to continue on to Goldsborough to rest and re-supply.

Most of the 6,000-acre battlefield is in private hands and is still good farming land. Agriculture and logging have disturbed much of the battlefield, but acquisitions have brought 1,867 acres under preservation, according to the American Battlefield Trust.

If you've spent much time in the North Carolina Coastal Plain, you can probably imagine what the land is like -- flattish farmland and pine woods, with creeks and swampy areas in places. Not unbeautiful, but not as varied as the Piedmont or as exciting as the Appalachians. Here are some photos I took during our tour of the battlefield, which will give you an idea of the terrain:

View attachment 376907


View attachment 376908


View attachment 376909

NC State Historic Sites has put together a useful driving tour which takes you on a 10-mile loop around the battlefield. Tour stops along the way provide parking areas (protecting you from barreling dump trucks), and interpretive plaques with historical information, quotes from primary sources, and great maps that I haven't been able to find anywhere else. One helpful feature of the tour is that the seven stops, A-G, take you for a more-or-less chronological trip through the three days of the battle.

View attachment 376910

Here are some shots from one interesting location, Tour Stop B. The stop is titled "Morgan's Stand." The stop covers much of the first day of the battle, when Confederate forces made some successful repulses of Federals in fierce fighting.

Each of the driving-tour stops is well-marked with signage. Apparently, some North Carolina boy couldn't manage to "stop" at Morgan's Stand, and careened off Harper House Road into the sign:

View attachment 376920

The plaques at each tour stop are a great educational tool, and by the end of the tour, I found that I had gained a good overall view of how the battle unfolded over its three days. "Morgan's Stand" refers to the position held by Union Brig. Gen. James D. Morgan, whose division faced Confederate Gen. Robert F. Hoke's division at this position south of Harper House Road (then called Goldsborough Road).

View attachment 376922

The signage explains that Federal Troops were driven south into a woodsy, swampy area that became known as the "Bull Pen," where opposing troops engaged in fighting so intense that the woods even caught fire. Here's a view from the tour stop south toward the Bull Pen. Standing there, you can tell that the land drops off beyond the edge of those trees:

View attachment 376923

As I mentioned before, the tour-stop plaques include maps that I have not been able to find elsewhere. As you move from stop to stop, you can get a good idea of how the battle progressed throughout the three days. To understand the maps, you have to examine them closely. There is a "You Are Here" marker on each map, but you have to follow a shadowy cone shape to see what position on the map that marker actually refers to. Then you have to pay attention to the direction indicated by "Your Angle of View," which isn't always straight ahead. On top of that, the battle maps aren't always oriented toward the north. After some study, though, I was able to use this map (actually oriented toward the south) to understand the location of the Bull Pen, and to see how badly pressed the Union forces were on the first day of the battle:

View attachment 376924

As I said, the series of stops on the driving tour gives you a rough idea of the chronology of the battle. Here is the marker for tour stop G, "Hardee's Counterattack," from which you can also see stop F, "Johnston's Headquarters." These two stops, by the way, are at the cross roads where the original village of Bentonville stood. One Union surgeon said the hamlet consisted of "scarcely a dozen small unpainted weather-beaten dwellings." Several of the homes there were taken over as hospitals during the battle.

View attachment 376927

The marker below, located at stop F, explains that Gen. Johnston established his headquarters in the field directly in front. Johnston was so close to the fighting that, at one point, his headquarters were even overrun by Federal skirmishers, before the enemy was driven back by the counterattack marked by tour stop G. This counterattack drove Federal forces away from the crucial road to the north and the bridge over Mill Creek, the only way out for Johnston and his army, who manage to withdraw the night of 21 March. The Army of Tennessee retreated to Raleigh, and then beyond to Greensboro. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was surrendered only about two weeks later, and then Johnston's army on 26 April, along with all the rest of the active Confederate forces.

View attachment 376932

This map from tour stop F, "Sherman's Headquarters," shows how dramatically the situation had changed from 19 March to 21 March, when the rest of Sherman's forces had arrived at Bentonville. You can see that the Army of Tennessee is pressed into a horseshoe line, with Federal forces pressing in nearly from three sides. The Mill Creek escape route, with heavy fighting nearby, is located at the upper left corner of the map, which is oriented to the north.

View attachment 376928

Another noteworthy feature of the Bentonville Battlefield site is the Harper House, adjacent to the visitor center. The house was used as a Union hospital during the battle. The park offers tours of the house, which is equipped with displays related to its history as both a family home and as a Civil War hospital.

View attachment 376929

Of special interest to me are the extensive earthworks which have been preserved at Bentonville. One plaque says that over 15,000 feet of remaining earthworks were surveyed there in the late 1990s. I plan to post some photos and comments in the Forgotten Forts & Places Forum later, but here is one example from the First Michigan Engineers fortifications, which can be seen near the visitor center:

View attachment 376930

If you're visiting North Carolina -- or just passing through on I-95 -- a visit to Bentonville is well worth it! I'm sure that there are colleagues here who know the Battle of Bentonville and the Carolinas Campaign much better than I do, so I would enjoy seeing others' comments -- and corrections, if I've gotten anything wrong here.

Roy B.

Richard Saffell.jpg

Richard M. Saffell: Enlisted on 9/1/1861, commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant into "F" Co. TN 26th Infantry. Promotions: Capt, Major, and Colonel of the 26th Tennessee. Soon after enlisting, he assured a brother-in-law, "I have no fears, but that the 26th TN will do their duty and if placed where the chance affords, will distinguish themselves". Richard was killed while leading his regiment at Bentonville, NC. His body was never recovered.
 

Harms88

Sergeant
Joined
Oct 13, 2019
Location
North of the Wall & South of the Canucks
Here are some shots from one interesting location, Tour Stop B. The stop is titled "Morgan's Stand." The stop covers much of the first day of the battle, when Confederate forces made some successful repulses of Federals in fierce fighting.

Each of the driving-tour stops is well-marked with signage. Apparently, some North Carolina boy couldn't manage to "stop" at Morgan's Stand, and careened off Harper House Road into the sign:

View attachment 376920

Having driven North Carolina traffic, I can confidently say that's what happens when you guys like going 10-15 over the speed limit! 😆

On a more serious note, while I don't have any images that focused on the stop signs, all were in good shape when I was there in Sep.
 

Claude Bauer

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jan 8, 2012
Some folks from my CW Roundtable had been hoping to participate. I haven't attended before. How does the Bentonville reenactment work -- how many events and at what locations? Now that I know the ground a little bit, it would be interesting to be able to picture it in my mind.

Roy B
Below are the two battles reenacted 5 years ago. As to how to that relates that to the terrain you saw, I couldn't say, but we probably used those large fields you show in your pictures. It's very sandy soil and some units were able to dig trenches pretty quickly just using hand shovels, plates and mugs.

Saturday, March 21 - "The Fight at Morris Farm" With Carlin’s division routed and Morgan’s division isolated below the Old Goldsboro Road, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum concentrated arriving units of the XX Corps on the Reddick Morris farm. Late in the afternoon, Confederate Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee launched a series of assaults on the Morris Farm position against twenty-one pieces of Union field artillery and against several Union brigades in a desperate attempt to break the thin Federal line.

Sunday, March 22 - "Last Grand Charge of the Army of Tennessee & Morgan’s Stand" A massive Confederate offensive (the last grand charge of the Army of Tennessee) at 2:45 p.m. on March 19, 1865 routed the First Division, XIV Corps (Carlin) and isolated the Second Division, XIV Corps (Morgan) south of the Old Goldsboro Road. The swampy, dense briar infested area or otherwise known, as the "Bull Pen" did not allow either side to bring in artillery support, thus hand-to -hand combat ensued. Despite being assailed repeatedly from three sides- by elements of Gen’s Hoke’s & Hill ’s commands - Morgan’s division held its position in what has been described as “some of the most desperate fighting witnessed in the Civil War.”
 

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
As to how to that relates that to the terrain you saw, I couldn't say, but we probably used those large fields you show in your pictures. It's very sandy soil and some units were able to dig trenches pretty quickly just using hand shovels, plates and mugs.

That would make sense. Your description of the soil is pretty consistent with what you'll find throughout Coastal-Plain North Carolina! It makes pretty easy digging but tends to slump!


Saturday, March 21 - "The Fight at Morris Farm" With Carlin’s division routed and Morgan’s division isolated below the Old Goldsboro Road, Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum concentrated arriving units of the XX Corps on the Reddick Morris farm. Late in the afternoon, Confederate Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee launched a series of assaults on the Morris Farm position against twenty-one pieces of Union field artillery and against several Union brigades in a desperate attempt to break the thin Federal line.

This corresponds pretty well with Tour Stop A on the driving tour, "Confederate High Tide." The field shown here would be the direction that the Confederate charges came from, that is, from the north. The roads at Bentonville are pretty much at the same locations where they were during the battle. The road in the foreground here was then called the Goldsborough Road (now Harper House Road). The Confederates came across this road and drove the Federals back toward the south behind where I took the photo.

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Sunday, March 22 - "Last Grand Charge of the Army of Tennessee & Morgan’s Stand" A massive Confederate offensive (the last grand charge of the Army of Tennessee) at 2:45 p.m. on March 19, 1865 routed the First Division, XIV Corps (Carlin) and isolated the Second Division, XIV Corps (Morgan) south of the Old Goldsboro Road. The swampy, dense briar infested area or otherwise known, as the "Bull Pen" did not allow either side to bring in artillery support, thus hand-to -hand combat ensued.

Yes, you were reenacting a historic engagement -- I think it was the last true Confederate offensive of the war. I think the offensive came from across the Goldsborough Road shown here at Tour Stop B, "Morgan's Stand," from the direction of these fine North Carolina homes:

20200930121842_IMG_0628.jpg


(Disclosure: Both homes are larger than mine.)

The lovely lady who came with me on my Bentonville trip is looking south from Morgan's Stand toward the swampy "Bull Pen" area where that fierce hand-to-hand combat took place.

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In this map, magnified from that same marker, you can see the Goldsborough Road running east-to-west. The map is actually oriented with the South on top, so the Bull Pen area is shown above (or south) of the old Goldsborough Road:

BullPenMap.jpg


I do hope that you get to come to the 2021 reenactment!

Roy B.
 

Claude Bauer

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Joined
Jan 8, 2012
I do hope that you get to come to the 2021 reenactment!

Roy B.

Thanks, Roy--I hope we can make it too! And thanks for tying our reenactment scenarios to the actual battlefield.

Here's a picture of our unit digging a trench on the battlefield in that loose, sandy soil. Normally, reeactors wouldn't do something like this on original ground, but since the land is farmed, the soil is tilled anyway, and it can easily be restored to it's previous condition, they allow it at Bentonville. I believe this picture is from the 2010 event.
2007 01 16 009.JPG


By the way, it's too bad you missed the 150th reenactment in 2015--it had the largest contingent of Henry rifles and repeaters in the history of reenacting. Bentonville is one of the few battles where it's historically accurate to use a Henry rifle, so everybody turned out for that one. The picture below is the assembled Henry rifle company for the event--I'm in there somewhere.

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A. Roy

Sergeant Major
Forum Host
Joined
Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
Here's a picture of our unit digging a trench on the battlefield in that loose, sandy soil. Normally, reeactors wouldn't do something like this on original ground, but since the land is farmed, the soil is tilled anyway, and it can easily be restored to it's previous condition, they allow it at Bentonville.

Nice photos! Interesting to see them digging in there. Raleigh, where I live, is in the Central Piedmont. The soil here is mostly red clay in contrast to the sandy soil of the Southern Coastal Plain where Bentonville is -- yet it's less than an hour's drive between the two points. And that's also an intriguing point about how the weapons technology had changed by the time of Bentonville.

Roy B.
 
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