March 19 – 21, 1865
Confederate G. Joseph E. Johnston had managed to accumulate 21,000 men and at last was ready to confront Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s forces as they marched through North Carolina. His plan, a rare offensive movement for Johnston, was to attack Gen. Henry W. Slocum’s two-corps column, separated by 10 miles from the rest of Sherman’s forces.
On the morning of March 19, 1865, Slocum’s column clashed with Confederate cavalry just south of Bentonville. The Union troops pushed back the Southern horsemen until they found themselves under attack by Rebel infantry. Slocum quickly consolidated his troops, called for reinforcements, and managed to beat off Johnston’s all day attacks with hard fighting. After dark, Johnston pulled his men back to a good defensive position.
There was little fighting on March 20. Sherman hastened his left column, commanded by Gen. Oliver O. Howard, to Slocum’s aid. Johnston needed time to move his wounded to safety, and was content to hold his ground. Even with a three-to-one superiority in numbers and the Rebel force surrounded on three sides, Sherman was also hesitant to press the attack. He did not realize the odds were in his favor and he, too, had a large number of wounded.
The next day Sherman’s men attacked the Rebel left flank. They were repulsed and the lines remained static until night, when Johnston pulled back toward Smithfield, having lost 912 killed and 1,694 wounded. Sherman’s losses were 478 killed and 1,168 wounded.
Johnston’s attack on Sherman was well planned and executed but he had too few men to carry it out. He wrote Gen. Robert E. Lee, “Sherman’s course can not be altered by the small force I have. I can do no more than annoy him.”
Fascinating Fact: On the morning of March 21, Confederate Gen. William J. Hardee, after months of pestering, finally gave in to his 16 year old son, Willie, and allowed him to join the 8th Texas Cavalry. A few hours later, the general came upon litter-bearers moving to the rear carrying Willie, mortally wounded in his first charge in the Battle of Bentonville.