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

BillyD

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May 30, 2021
It comes up the river by barge, then transferred to rail. Hey, it's all they had left. So that's what they tried to do.
 

A. Roy

Sergeant Major
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Sep 2, 2019
Location
Raleigh, North Carolina
Regarding those maps, Roy: they are the work of master cartographer Mark Anderson Moore. Mark is the "official" cartographer of the Carolinas Campaign, which is why I had him do the maps for my books on the surrender at Bennett Place and the Battle of Aiken, SC. The maps were compiled into an atlas years ago and were published by the original Savas-Woodbury Publishing Co. Copies can be hard to find and will likely be expensive, but this is the book, which is absolutely indispensable to the study of the Carolinas Campaign (which I have been studying seriously for twenty years now):

Yes, I had tried to get a copy of that book but was unable to, until the president of our local Round Table gave me one as a gift a few weeks ago after my presentation on the Raleigh fortifications. One of the most exciting maps for me is the one showing where the various Union corps camped around Raleigh after the city's surrender.

I've spent quite a bit of time at Bentonville over the years. My first tour was by Mark Bradley himself, and I've been along for several other tours with him over the years. It has long been one of my favorite battlefields for lots of reasons, but one of those reasons is that you can still find trenches in the woods where the iron pine head logs remain intact, 156 years after the fact. Ed Bearss once told me that he knows of no other site anywhere where one can see such a sight.

I've heard about those head logs and hope to get a chance to see them on my next trip. At first, I found it hard to believe, but I'm assured they are original.

In spite of having been born in Raleigh and grown up here, I knew little about the Civil War history of the area until recently (it helped to retire and to no longer have to care for sick kids and ancient parents -- plus, I was living in New England for many years). A few years back, I encountered the CW-era maps of the Raleigh entrenchments and started my current project, based on their construction and their locations on today's landscape. (The atlas shows the entrenchments on page 168.)

Roy B.
 

Lubliner

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Forum Host
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
You are right. Supplies from the deep south had been cutoff. Lee was still receiving supplies and expecting supplies by rail to Petersburg. At this time.
Have you ever been to the Outer Banks of North Carolina? Many inlets, bays, and waterways. Supplies were still getting through, however the last large shipment was captured by Grant's men.
The A of TN was still strategically important, with goal of guarding the last supply line. And potentially uniting with Lee.
There was a lot of back and forth messages between the Generals regarding supplies for the army. At first it was ordered to confiscate all that could be brought away so the enemy wouldn't get them. But the more astute Generals demanded that to deprive the citizens was too high a price to pay. Some had the welfare of the people in mind, some the army, and some questioned it all. It was a sad confrontation of egos and pride going down in defeat, as @Rhea Cole acknowledged.
Lubliner.
 

BillyD

Cadet
Joined
May 30, 2021
Agreed, it was a sad confrontation of egos and pride going down in defeat. Those terms can describe the entire war. Just the fact that the CSA could still put a functional fighting force in place at this time (when they must have known they were losing the war), is remarkable to me.
 

Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Agreed, it was a sad confrontation of egos and pride going down in defeat. Those terms can describe the entire war. Just the fact that the CSA could still put a functional fighting force in place at this time (when they must have known they were losing the war), is remarkable to me.
I am confused, what function are you referring to? Sherman’s intention was to bypass or swat aside any opposition in North Carolina. He was headed for Virginia as fast as he could go. The CSA generals knew that if their force was fixed in place, defeat was inevitable. After the Bentonville Battle, they sensibly ran for their lives, that was the right thing to do…
 

dgfred

Corporal
Joined
Apr 13, 2020
Also , an unknown number of the 4,000 Jr Reserves were killed and wounded. These were 15, 16 and 17 year olds who had been at Ft Fisher, other coastal forts and prison camps. The records for these soldiers are virtually nonexistent. It is difficult to comprehend that anyone could have believed that the Confederacy had any hope to survive after the siege at Petersburg was initiated.

I understand what y'all mean about pointless losses... but Bentonville was by far not the only one. It had gone on for a couple years.
Bentonville was just the last.
 

BillyD

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Joined
May 30, 2021
Well, "what function do I refer to?" Asks Cole. I repeat, my theory, is that the Army of Tennessee was in defense of the last functioning supply line of the Army of Northern Virginia. With hopes of then combining with Army of North Virginia.

The command structure was in place, the Confederate fighting force was in place and FUNCTIONING. The first afternoon and evening at Bentonville saw the Confederates as aggressors, and there is a strong thought that it could have been a victory if pursued into the evening. High command put the brakes on the men in the field. Also, think of the logistics of putting 40,000 men in the field complete with command structure, artillery, HQ, communications, support, etc. Hell just imagine the number of horses needed.

All of this, while they must have known it was an overall lost cause. Remarkable to me.
 
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Rhea Cole

1st Lieutenant
Joined
Nov 2, 2019
Location
Murfreesboro, Tennessee
Well, "what function do I refer to?" Asks Cole. I repeat, my theory, is that the Army of Tennessee was in defense of the last functioning supply line of the Army of Northern Virginia. With hopes of then combining with Army of North Virginia.

The command structure was in place, the Confederate fighting force was in place and FUNCTIONING. The first afternoon and evening at Bentonville saw the Confederates as aggressors, and there is a strong thought that it could have been a victory if pursued into the evening. High command put the brakes on the men in the field. Also, think of the logistics of putting 40,000 men in the field complete with command structure, artillery, HQ, communications, support, etc. Hell just imagine the number of horses needed.

All of this, while they must have known it was an overall lost cause. Remarkable to me.
As a student of the Army of Tennessee, I can assure you that the tattered veterans of that army were in no condition to take on Sherman’s army.
 

ErnieMac

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Retired Moderator
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May 3, 2013
Location
Pennsylvania
While working in South Carolina in the early 2000s I had occasion to make a day trip visit Averasboro (where I acquired a signed copy of Last Stand in the Carolinas) and Bentonville. It's good to see that thanks to the land acquisitions of American Battlefield Trust and other entities there is a good deal more available to see than when I visited.
 

John S. Carter

Sergeant Major
Joined
Mar 15, 2017
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):

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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).

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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:

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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.

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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.
Bentonville was not a ''LAST STAND'' battle as some may have a vision of such. Did Johnson's movements indicate that he may have been attempting to join with Lee but was out maneuvered by Sherman's superior force? Did Lee know of Johnson's location as to join with him ? Hypothesis ; If Johnson was moving to join Lee, and if he would escaped Sherman ,could he have reached Lee before he had surrendered . One last heroic -classical battle , Alexander vs. Cyrus ,or even Napoleon vs Wellington{ not classical but still}
 

dgfred

Corporal
Joined
Apr 13, 2020
It was for NC :wink:

It was a 'hope' to join forces... but not likely to succeed.
An opportunity arose to smack one wing (then maybe the other) because Sherman's superior force separated nearing Goldsboro, NC.

Hard to join up with such a large force clinging to your backside.

Supplies short, horses weak, good men dead... doubtful.
 
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