|Ending positions of the first day at Bentonville. Sherman would bring up the rest of his army over the next two days and force Johnston to retreat. Johnston and much of his army narrowly escaped capture.|
General Philip Sheridan's cavalry force roamed freely in northern and central Virginia. He raided multiple rail depots and appeared only twenty miles from Richmond in no time. He damaged an important aqueduct on the James River Canal. Private property was being ravished by the Union cavalry as well. General George Pickett's division was sent to deal with this threat to General Robert E. Lee's line of communications.
General William Hardee's small corps of Confederates was ordered by General Joseph E. Johnston to block the Union corps of General Henry Slocum at Averasboro, North Carolina. This was a full battle, the first Sherman's army had encountered since leaving Savannah several weeks ago. The Confederates were insufficient in number, however, and Slocum swept them aside as he continued his advance. There were about 1,200 casualties in this short sharp fight.
The Civil War Today app reports on March 17: "The Federal Armies of West Mississippi, under the command of General Edward Canby, and numbering in the tens of thousands, are marching on Mobile, Alabama. Union troops are moving north from the area of Fort Morgan at the mouth of Mobile Bay, and a separate column is mobilizing at Pensacola, Florida. The U.S. Navy has been in control of Mobile Bay since August, and are playing a major role in the new campaign.
"A Confederate dispatch from Mobile to Richmond last week reports: 'Fourteen vessels were added to the fleet to-day, making twenty one in sight of the city. Great activity prevails with the enemy in Lower Bay. There is every indication of an early attack. The enemy have fired a few shots at both shores.'"
General Johnston concentrated his entire "army" of about 17,000 against one wing of Sherman's 60,000. The Southern troops, many former Army of Tennessee boys, attacked at Bentonville. The largest battled so far in 1865 began with the Rebels penetrating Yankee positions and driving a considerable distance before reinforcements steadied the Northern lines. The next day Sherman concentrated upon Johnston, who extended his weak lines to cover his flanks. There was constant, heavy skirmishing. On the third day Sherman attacked and broke through the Southern left flank, threatening to cut off the route of retreat for Johnston's entire army. The Rebels shifted troops from one side of the battlefield to the other, counterattacked, and reopened the vital road which served as the Confederate retreat path.
Simultaneously, General John Schofield captured Goldsboro, NC against very little Confederate resistance. With the fall of that city and with his army in crisis, almost surrounded, Johnston's command hastened away, so as not to be cut off from communications with General Lee. The Battle of Bentonville resulted in about 1,600 Union killed and wounded and about 2,000 for the Confederates. Over 1,500 Southerners were reported as missing, some captured, some perhaps escaping the agony of war when all seemed lost.
After the battle Sherman joined up with Schofield at Goldsboro. Once the rail road from New Bern was repair for logistics purposes, Sherman planned to have over 100,000 men at his disposal. His plan was to march on Petersburg and combine his mighty force with the Army of the Potomac commanded by General George Meade but under the direct supervision of General Ulysses S. Grant. General Johnston warned General Lee that he had insufficient numbers to truly confront the mass of Sherman. "I can do no more than annoy him," Johnston wrote. There was heavy skirmishing at Mill Creek until the remains of Johnston's army safely withdrew. The battle was hailed as a victory in Richmond, though most realized it failed to stop Sherman.
13,000 Union cavalry under General James Wilson began a campaign throughout Alabama, concentrating on destroying mines, arms factories, and foundries that still operated for the Confederacy. General Nathan Bedford Forrest offered the only resistance to the Federals, commanding about 7,000 poorly supplied cavalry. Simultaneously, a smaller Union cavalry force under General George Stoneman crossed the North Carolina mountains by way of Knoxville, Tennessee to raid the parts of the state that Sherman's army did not march through. Stoneman encountered no opposition and was able to move at will.
General Lee realized that the Army of the Potomac would eventually be reinforced by General Sheridan's cavalry from the north and General Sherman's large army from the south. The Army of Northern Virginia, occupying 50 miles of fortifications around Petersburg and Richmond for many months now, would finally be overwhelmed. Lee ordered General John B. Gordon to find a weak point anywhere in the Union lines and attack. The hope was to break through the Northern position and reach Grant's main supply depot at City Point, Virginia. Deprived of supply, the sheer size of the Union army would cause mass confusion and potentially break the long siege.
Before dawn on March 25, Gordon surprised the Federals by attacking Fort Stedman with about 11,000 infantry, capturing the fort and about 1,000 yards of entrenchments. The captured artillery inside the fort was turned and the Confederates poured enfilading fire up and down the Northern lines. As the sun rose the Rebel momentum waned, however. Union artillery concentrated on the fort and reinforcements were rushed to the area. Federal troops counterattacked, recaptured the fort, and drove the Southerners back into their own trenches.
Gordon's command suffered over 3,000 casualties which the South could not replace. 1,500 Confederates were captured in their retreat. Union loses totaled about 1,000. That evening Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis that his weakened and overextended army could not hold its current position for much longer. Meanwhile, President Abraham Lincoln, who coincidentally was meeting with Grant at City Point at the time, visited the battlefield and Meade's headquarters. Lincoln observed the burial of many of the Union dead from the battle before returning to City Point.
The following day Lincoln reviewed Federal positions along the James River as he waited for Sherman to join Grant and himself for a strategic conference. The war continued in Alabama, with Northern cavalry closing in on Selma while a combined naval and infantry force put more pressure on Mobile. Skirmishing picked up near Birmingham as the Confederates attempted to resist multiple Union maneuvers while evacuating trains to less threatened parts of the state.
Sherman arrived at City Point the following day. It was the first time he had directly appeared before other Union generals and staff since he left Chattanooga for the start of the Atlanta Campaign in May 1864. He met with Lincoln, Grant, and Admiral D.D. Porter to discuss strategic coordination against Lee's army. The meeting lasted two days. Lincoln expressed concern that Lee might abandon Petersburg and join up with Johnston's forces in North Carolina, a move which could extend the war for many months.
Federal naval and ground forces continued their slow, methodical investment of Mobile. The forces laid siege to Confederate fortifications outside the city and attempted to maneuver their naval power where it could be most effective. This was thwarted by a collection of small Rebel gunboats and a plentiful supply of floating torpedoes released into the waters near the area.
After 11 months of siege, Grant moved in force against Lee's right flank at Petersburg. Grant had assembled some 125,000 men against Lee's dwindling 55,000. The Union commander sent 15,000 infantry in an attempt to block the Confederate supply lines. The Yankees pushed the Rebels back until Southern reinforcements were brought in to stabilize the sector. The battle lasted for several hours. Meanwhile, Sherman returned to his army in North Carolina and Sheridan's cavalry continued to harass and destroy vital Confederate interests roaming freely south of Petersburg.
Lee ordered thousands of his infantry under Pickett to strengthen his extended right flank. These men joined Confederate cavalry under General Fitzhugh Lee near Five Forks, Virginia to protect Lee's vital line of communication with Johnston's small army and the rest of the South. Lee gambled by removing some troops from his left and center in order to reinforce against Grant's maneuvers on his right flank.
Torrential rainfall delayed Northern maneuvers and bought Lee time to make adjustments. Sheridan's cavalry attacked Pickett's division in hopes of routing them before they could entrench, but the attack was repulsed with few Southern casualties. To the east, Lee made an attack of his own. As reported in The Civil War Today app:
"A separate, more deadly battle was fought today along the White Oak Road, to the east, where Lee's troops attempted to outflank Union infantry and cut them off from Sheridan at Dinwiddie. The Yankees were driven back in early fighting, but more V Corps troops arrived to stabilize the Union lines. By mid afternoon the Federals launched a counterattack, led by General Chamberlain's brigade, who charged the exhausted Rebels and pushed them back across White Oak Road. By this evening, the Union had seized a stretch of the road, which cuts off General Pickett at Five Forks from the rest of Lee's army. Both sides lost hundreds of men in this day's fighting. Some of Warren's troops are marching tonight to Sheridan's aid at Dinwiddie."
With Pickett's infantry isolated at Five Forks, the Confederate position suddenly became even more precarious.
|The March 24 issue of The New York Tribune featured the Field of Operations in North Carolina as well as stories on the fall of Wimington and the Battle of Bentonville. The price of a single copy was four cents.|