150 Years Ago This Week: The Battle of Bentonville

March 1865

Union Maj. Gen. William Sherman did not expect an attack near Bentonville, N.C. on Sunday, March 19. Gen. Sherman ordered Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum to take his command from the left flank of the army and move to the right, to support Maj. Gen. Oliver Howard’s command. Unexpectedly, Gen. Slocum’s troops ran headlong into entrenched Confederates south of Bentonville.

Gen. Slocum ordered several assaults on the Confederate lines, but the Union troops were unable to break through. Seeing the assaults falter, the Confederates rallied and pressed their own advantage. The fighting ended at nightfall; three main Confederate assaults were beaten off, and the Southerners pulled back to their original positions.

Gen. Howard’s men marched during the night to reinforce the battered lines of Gen. Slocum’s troops. The fighting at Bentonville lasted last two days, to March 21, by which time the main body of Gen. Sherman’s armies arrived on both the front and each flank of the Confederate lines. By late afternoon of March 21, Gen. Johnston’s battered Confederate troops withdrew and marched north. Casualties in this last significant effort to hold Gen. Sherman’s advances were high; the Southerners sustained more than 2,600, most of whom had been captured. Union casualties numbered about 1,600.

In Virginia, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan and his command arrived on the Pamunkey River south of Richmond after wrecking the Virginia Central Railroad on their way in from the Shenandoah Valley. On March 22, in Alabama, Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson struck from the Tennessee River towards Selma. This raid was made in conjunction with the Federal attack on Mobile.

In the lines at Petersburg, a decision was made for an attack on Fort Stedman, on the Federal right flank of the Union army. If the Union siege line could be broken here, the supply line to the Union depots at City Point could be cut. Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant might shorten the Union lines, thus freeing some of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s army to be detached to march south and reinforce Gen. Johnston in North Carolina.

President Lincoln, along with Mrs. Lincoln and son Tad, left Washington for Gen. Grant’s headquarters at City Point. Among other things, the president planned to meet with Gen. Grant and determine what could be done to end the war. The presidential party arrived at Fort Monroe the following day. This same March 24, across the high seas, the Confederate raider C.S.S. Stonewall left port at Ferrol in Spain. Two U.S. Navy frigates lying offshore refused to engage the Stonewall in battle.

March 25 saw the Confederate attack by Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon’s men on Fort Stedman near Petersburg. Initially, the Confederates were successful in taking the fort and its Union garrison. Almost three-quarters of a mile of Union positions were soon taken by the Confederates, but like so many Confederate assaults this late in the war, the Southerners lost their momentum with little strength in numbers.

By 7:30 p.m., the Federal forces rallied and drove the Confederates back and out of Fort Stedman, and the Union line was restored. Dejected, Gen. Lee rode back from the field; against less than 1,500 casualties sustained by the Federals, the Army of Northern Virginia had lost some 4,000 men, most of them captured. The same day, in a drenching rain, on the east side of Mobile Bay in Alabama, the Union troops reached Spanish Fort and the outer defenses of Mobile.

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Arthur Candenquist
About Arthur Candenquist 193 Articles
A long-time historian, researcher, lecturer and author, Arthur Candenquist serves as secretary-treasurer of the Rappahannock County Sesquicentennial Committee. He can be reached at AC9725@cs.com.