On this day in 1865, the Battle of Bentonville begins. The three-day battle has been called the Southern Confederacy’s “last hurrah.” However, the conflict ultimately ended with Confederate General Joseph Johnston’s army in retreat.
Union General William T. Sherman was then bringing the second of two devastating campaigns to an end. In late 1864, he’d made his infamous “March to the Sea,” plowing through Georgia and destroying everything in his wake. Plantations, bridges, roads, and railroads were devastated. At the end of his march, he conquered Savannah, claiming that it was a “Christmas gift” for Abraham Lincoln.
Following this victorious march, General Ulysses S. Grant wanted Sherman and his men to travel, via boats, to consolidate forces with him in Virginia. But Sherman had a different idea. He wanted to march through the Carolinas, just as he had Georgia. He would destroy anything of military value—and he would even take the South Carolina capital.
Perhaps he was especially interested in ransacking the state that had left the Union first? At the end of his march, he would join forces with Grant. Together, the two would face off against Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Grant approved the idea. He wrote Sherman: “Your confidence in being able to march up and join this army pleases me, and I believe it can be done. The effect of such a campaign will be to disorganize the South, and prevent the organization of new armies from their broken fragments.”
In the meantime, the Confederacy was taking action, too. Its commander in the region was no match for Sherman, and something had to be done. Robert E. Lee wanted Joseph Johnston instead. This recommendation left Confederate President Jefferson Davis in a bit of an awkward position: His own relationship with Johnston had been rocky during the war. Nevertheless, Davis approved the move. “Assume command of the Army of Tennessee,” Lee wired Johnston, “and all troops in Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. . . . Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.”
Sherman’s army was moving through the Carolinas in two columns of about 30,000 men each, and he was making rapid progress. Johnston hoped to attack one column, defeating it before the other column could provide reinforcements. He decided to make his attempt at Cole’s Plantation, just south of Bentonville, in North Carolina. The federal left wing was headed that way.
On March 19, Union forces fell into Johnston’s trap. One Union officer later wrote of the early moments in the Confederate attack: “The onward sweep of the rebel lines was like the waves of the ocean, resistless.” What followed was a bloody, 3-day battle. Both sides were fighting hard. Both sides were making mistakes. The Union forces were helped when reinforcements arrived from Sherman’s right wing on March 20. The Confederate army was badly outnumbered. Nevertheless, they didn’t retreat until after nightfall on the 21st.
Casualties were high. More than 4,000 men were dead, wounded, or missing after the battle: 1,527 were Union casualties and 2,606 were Confederate casualties. The Confederate army would last only a few more weeks. On April 9, Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, thus starting a chain-reaction of surrenders across the South.
Charles Elihu Slocum, The life and services of Major-General Henry Warner Slocum (1913)
Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes, Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston (1996)
Perry D. Jamieson, Spring 1865: The Closing Campaigns of the Civil War (2015)
William T. Sherman, Memoirs of General W.T. Sherman (1889)