A Brief Synopsis of the Battle of Bentonville: March 19-21, 1865

On March 19, 1865, Joseph E. Johnston organized his forces into a hook-shaped line at Cole’s Plantation, blocking the Goldsboro Road. That morning William T. Sherman’s Federal Left Wing stumbled into the Confederate trap, just as it was being set.

After a Union probing attack failed, the Confederates launched a massive assault which drove Gen. William P. Carlin’s XIV Corps division from the field. Morgan’s division managed to hold on despite being surrounded on three sides by Confederate adversaries. Late that afternoon a strong Federal defense of the Morris Farm by the Left Wing’s XX Corps managed to squelch the Confederate advance. The first day’s fighting ended in a tactical draw.

Sketch of the 1865 battle of Bentonville with soldiers, cannons, and horses in the foreground amongst tall pine trees with an army, smoke, and forests in the background with an open field between.
This sketch by William Waud, who personally witnessed the battle, depicts Union defenses on the Morris farm during the battle. In the background, entrenched US infantry fire at advancing Confederates while in teh foreground artillery batteries from the Union 14th and 20th Corps are deployed amongst a stand of longleaf pines. This image first appeared in Harper's Weekly on April 15, 1865. 

Failing to completely crush the Union lines, Johnston’s Confederates pulled back to positions held earlier in the day, and Sherman’s Right Wing began arriving on the battlefield by midday on March 20. Sharp skirmishing prevailed, as the Confederates changed position to deal with the arrival of the Federal Right Wing. The junction of Sherman’s divided army at Bentonville placed nearly 60,000 Union troops (including reserves) against Joe Johnston, who had brought to the field approximately 16,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry with which to oppose Sherman. Despite receiving limited reinforcements, the Confederates were no match numerically for the powerful Union army.

Johnston clung to a tenuous position guarding his army’s sole escape route over rain-swollen Mill Creek, and began evacuating his wounded to Smithfield, 20 miles to the north. To Sherman’s great irritation, he found the Confederate army still in position on March 21. The Union commander was anxious to reach Goldsboro and was impatient for the Confederates to retreat. Johnston, outnumbered and no longer holding the advantage of surprise, could only hope that the Federals might be lured into a costly frontal attack on his small but well-entrenched army.

For two days following the main battle of March 19, the opposing forces squared off in a severe and continuous skirmish fight. On March 21 Sherman’s Right Wing moved to within a few hundred yards of the left half of Johnston’s army. That afternoon, a “little reconnaissance” by Gen. Joseph A. Mower’s XVII Corps division escalated into a full-scale push toward Mill Creek Bridge on the Confederate left flank.
Mower’s charge overran Joe Johnston’s headquarters, forcing the general and his entourage to beat a hasty retreat. At this critical juncture a well-orchestrated Confederate counterattack, led by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, quickly descended upon Mower’s two brigades and forced them back. Sherman was furious with Mower’s advance, fearing it would bring on the general engagement he wanted to avoid. The Union commander called a halt to the operation, but not before Mower’s men were roughly handled by a combination of Confederate cavalry and infantry. Hardee’s bold action assured Johnston the use of Mill Creek Bridge, his only means of egress from the battlefield. But the triumph of forcing the Federals back came at a personal cost to General Hardee. His only son, a youth of sixteen in the 8th Texas Cavalry, was mortally wounded in the charge against Mower. With no further advantage to be gained by holding a position at Bentonville, Johnston’s weary troops abandoned their works during the night and withdrew toward Smithfield.

Soldiers clash in a forested area with smoke and flags flying in the air and hand to hand combat depicted in this 19th century sketch.
Mower’s Attack on the Confederate Left, East of Bentonville, March 21, 1865. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

On March 22 Federal forces pursued the retreating Confederates as far as Hannah’s Creek before giving up the chase. Sherman was content to let Johnston escape, fully expecting to have to deal with him again at a later date. But the Confederate withdrawal cleared the way for Sherman to occupy Goldsboro, which was foremost in the general’s mind. His army needed rest and provisions, and Sherman also wanted to have the additional forces of J. M. Schofield and A. H. Terry before tangling with Johnston again.

The armies of Sherman, Schofield, and Terry converged on Goldsboro and occupied the town for two and one-half weeks in preparation for the final leg of the campaign. On April 26, 1865, Johnston laid down Confederate arms on Sherman’s terms at the Bennett Place near Durham, in the largest troop surrender of the American Civil War.

After the Battle

In the week following the Battle of Bentonville, the country rang with the news of Sherman's fight with Johnston in the "pine barrens" of North Carolina. Northern newspapers, including the New York Herald, featured bold front-page headlines announcing the encounter, and lengthy accounts of the fighting by war correspondents followed. But Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Grant just three weeks after the guns fell silent at Bentonville, and Joseph E. Johnston laid down Confederate arms in his own theater on April 26, 1865. Occurring as it did "in the midst of the collapse of the Confederacy," the Battle of Bentonville was quickly overshadowed as the war drew to a close.

As the battle and its history fell from public awareness, peace returned to the rolling farms and forests around the hamlet of Bentonville. The remote community enjoyed a quiet obscurity, and all of the battlefield's 6,000 acres would remain in private ownership for most of the next century.

Early Memorials

The first effort to commemorate the battle came in 1893 when the Goldsboro Rifles, a local veteran's organization, erected a monument to mark the common grave of 360 fallen Confederates near the home of John and Amy Harper. Located just south of the Harper family cemetery, the white marble structure was dedicated on March 20, 1895, to mark the 30th anniversary of the battle. Wade Hampton, who had commanded Confederate cavalry at Bentonville, was in attendance for the dedication adjacent to the Harper House, which had served as a field hospital for the Federal XIV Army Corps. Three decades later the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) placed a second monument on the field in 1927, marking the point where North Carolinian Robert F. Hoke's portion of the main Confederate line crossed the Goldsboro Road on the first day of battle.

A Tour After 62 Years

In 1929 Fred Olds, of the Hall of History (forerunner of today's North Carolina Museum of History), wrote of a springtime battlefield tour recently enjoyed in remote southeastern Johnston County. He was truly amazed by what he found.

"One of the best-preserved battle fields of the War between the States is that of Bentonville," Olds asserted, noting that the field "still reveals lines of entrenchments so perfectly preserved as to be startling. They reach for miles." Extensive ground cover and little new construction in the area had kept the battlefield relatively undisturbed. Marveling at the pristine field fortifications, then adorned with fragrant arbutus blossoms, Olds observed that "nature has in the years which have passed cared for them with infinite tenderness." As he toured "no end of rifle pits," probably along the Sam Howell Branch, he found them "as distinct and well preserved as if they had been dug but a few years ago. Time has stood very still in that once bloody area."

Reflecting on his visit to the killing fields, Fred Olds suggested that "the battleground should be visited by thousands of people. And there should be many bronzes marking it. Great deeds were done there, on both sides, and American valor, endurance, and skill were nobly illustrated."

State Acquisition

During the next decade, various groups and individuals campaigned for preservation of the battlefield with little success. Only the approach of the Civil War centennial in the 1960s, and the combined efforts of Bentonville resident Herschel Rose and the Harper House-Bentonville Chapter of the UDC, revived interest in preserving the battlefield. Finally, in 1957 the North Carolina General Assembly appropriated $25,000 for the purchase and initial development of 51 acres on the battlefield. This property included the original Harper House and a portion of the reserve lines occupied by the Federal XX Army Corps.

In August of that year, a group of interested citizens formed the Bentonville Battleground Association to assist in fund raising and promotion of the site. The association quickly raised $15,000 to restore the Harper House and prepare the site for public access. The house--a modest two-story, eight-room structure in the Greek Revival style--had been modified after the turn of the century. Its original portico had been removed to make way for a larger covered porch, and an additional kitchen wing had been added to the west side of the building. The porch and wing were removed, the facade was reconstructed, and the house was beautifully restored to its original appearance.

The Bentonville Battleground Association was superseded in 1961, when the North Carolina Department (now Division) of Archives and History established the Bentonville Battleground Advisory Committee. The primary function of the committee was to seek funding for the construction of a visitor center on property acquired by the state.

That same year the General Assembly earmarked $26,000 for a visitor center at the new state historic site. This amount fell short of the forty-thousand-dollar estimated cost of the project. But the Bentonville Battleground Advisory Committee was able to secure additional private and foundation gifts, bringing available funding to $40,000, and construction of a visitor center began in January 1964. Completed in June of that year, the new visitor center was dedicated during the centennial anniversary of the battle on March 21, 1965.

Site Expansion

In the early 1980s, new personnel at the state historic site implemented Bentonville's first interpretive programs. The resulting increase in visitation prompted the General Assembly to appropriate funding for the purchase of additional land in 1986, and 36 acres were added to Bentonville. This land included an important section of earthworks constructed by the Confederate Army of Tennessee, in which the remains of original log revetments may still be seen.

Expanding interpretive programs and a successful commemoration of the battle's 125th Anniversary in 1990 brought increased national attention to the site and its preservation needs. In June 1990, the Association for the Preservation of Civil War Sites (APCWS) purchased 7.24 acres of threatened land adjacent to the visitor center and the Federal XX Corps position. Assisting APCWS in this purchase was the Bentonville Battlefield Historical Association (BBHA), which was formed in 1986.

In addition to APCWS, the Conservation Fund's Civil War Battlefield Campaign also came to Bentonville's assistance. Bentonville was featured in the Conservation Fund's Civil War Battlefield Guide, published in 1990. In addition, the Conservation Fund helped to secure the donation of a small parcel of land to the battlefield from Ross Lampe of Smithfield, North Carolina. This one-acre tract provides critical access to property purchased in 1986.

National Recognition

Participation in the American Battlefield Protection Program's Civil War Battlefield Survey in 1991-1992 brought Bentonville to the attention of the National Park Service (NPS). In 1993, the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, appointed by Congress to assess the preservation needs of the nation's Civil War sites, produced its report on the status of America's Civil War battlefields. The commission's Report on the Nation's Civil War Battlefields recommended ways in which private and public entities can work together to preserve national treasures like Bentonville for future generations. It also placed Bentonville sixth on the list of "Priority One, Class A" battlefields that deserve the highest priority for coordinated, nationwide preservation action by the year 2000.

Under the guidance of the NPS Southeastern Regional Office's National Register Program, Bentonville's staff prepared a nomination application for National Historic Landmark designation, submitted in 1994. On June 19, 1996, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt designated the site a National Historic Landmark. This important new status will enable Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site to apply for federal grants available for purchasing property and easements to protect historically significant land.

Proceeds from the successful 130th Anniversary battle reenactment in 1995 enabled BBHA to purchase 3.59 acres in an area of the battlefield where significant fighting occurred on the second and third days of the battle. A $17,600 grant from the North Carolina Natural Heritage Trust enabled the state to purchase this property from BBHA for the purpose of incorporating it into Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site. In 1996, BBHA began working with private landowners and local, state, and federal government agencies to develop a comprehensive battlefield preservation plan that can be put into effect by the year 2000. An additional 10 acres on the wartime Morris Farm, which saw major action on March 19, 1865, was also acquired by the BBHA.

Bentonville Today

Today the battlefield of Bentonville remains relatively undisturbed. The roads in this rural area, which were not paved until after World War II, are essentially as they were during the battle. However, increased logging and agricultural industry in the area have begun to mar the landscape. Some sections of trenches, long shaded by abundant ground cover, have all but disappeared, and several clusters of rifle pits have been obliterated. Within an hour's drive of the bustling and expanding Triangle region of North Carolina, the Bentonville area is in danger of becoming a bedroom community for Raleigh and surrounding cities.

In the spring of 1999, Bentonville received a grant from the Conservation Fund in the amount of $150,000. In August, the site received $300,000 in matching funds from the General Assembly, through the Department of Cultural Resources.

A Tour After 133 Years

The site has recently put together a comprehensive preservation and resource protection plan for Bentonville. In February 1998—with the aid of the National Park Service, Bentonville historians, Archives and History staff members, and local surveyors—the site implemented a sophisticated GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) project to map resources within the study area. These included 3.36 miles of remaining earthworks (in various states of preservation), locations of principal wartime dwellings, monuments and highway markers, cemeteries, and certain late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century structures.

Our initial tour with the GPS crew confirmed for the newcomers to the battlefield what Fred Olds had seen so long ago. The extant earthworks at Bentonville are something to behold. Back in 1993, such luminaries in the field of Civil War history as Edwin C. Bearss and James M. McPherson (both of the Civil War Sites Advisory Commission) had proclaimed the quality and number of extant fortifications unlike any they had seen. Indeed, their condition is so remarkable today that it is interesting to imagine what Olds must have encountered more than 70 years ago.

Of the 3.36 miles of earthworks mapped in February, the best 47 percent were rated in good or fair condition. Sixty-eight rifle pits were mapped (several more have since been found), and 25 points of damage by incessant relic hunting were identified. Thirty-eight other breaks in the lines were categorized as man-made logging breaks. Our forays into the fields, woods, and swamps also revealed new works which had thus far remained undiscovered.

A preliminary report on the GPS findings at Bentonville has been posted on the NPS CRGIS Website.

GPS Follow-Up — 1999

On December 6, 7, and 8, 1999, a GPS team from the National Park Service's Cultural Resources GIS facility in Washington, D.C., was once again on hand to study the battlefield of Bentonville. The four-member team—led by David Lowe and including James Stein, Deidre McCarthy, and Matt Stutts—was assisted by site manager John Goode and Bentonville historian and mapmaker Mark A. Moore, of the North Carolina Office of Archives & History's computing office in Raleigh.

This year's follow-up work involved several avenues of study:

The earthworks (first mapped in February 1998) were checked against previously noted damage points, and new points of damage were verified along the lines.

Another interesting method involved taking profiles (or cross sections) at various points along each of the mapped earthwork segments.

The GPS crew employed two comparative methods for "profiling" the works: (1) a manual "string-and-pole" method, where a level line was stretched at right angles across the parapet and ditches and measured from the ground at one-foot intervals; and (2) a method using laser-assisted GPS technology. From a fixed point, a laser beam was bounced off a prism at several intervals across the parapet and ditches, to measure the height and distance of the reflected beam.

Graphs made from the data collected will provide visual comparisons of height and width for each trench segment profiled—and will help document their various states of preservation across the battlefield.

Additional Earthworks Mapped at Bentonville

This year's study was capped off by the mapping of additional important earthworks at Bentonville—which will probably turn out to be a significant and lengthy portion of the Union line south of the old Goldsboro Road (2nd Division, XIV Army Corps - James D. Morgan's division).

We had actually located this line several years ago, and lost track of it! This portion of the Union line was not included in the 1998 mapping project. Knowing it was there, however, we had no trouble coaxing the NPS crew into the forbidding, swampy forest to relocate and map the line, once and for all.

This terrain was difficult for the soldiers in March 1865, and it is especially so today. The recent hurricanes—Fran and Floyd—have toppled numerous large trees in the area, making the ground (which is choked with thick underbrush) almost impossible to traverse in some locations.

Nevertheless, the six of us spread out and plunged into the wilderness. It was rough going, but the effort paid off. The 3.36 miles of works previously mapped will be increased by this well-preserved line of Union trenches.

A second segment of additional Union works was also mapped—on the eastern half of the battlefield, where the lead elements of the Federal Right Wing arrived on March 20, 1865. This segment may turn out to be a portion of the entrenched position of Maj. Gen. William B. Hazen's division.

Battlefield Structures

We ended the study with a tour of potential wartime structures on the battlefield. The NPS crew's architectural historian, Deidre McCarthy, did an initial assessment of the Dupree House on Battlefield Road, which appears to be old enough to have been standing at the time of the battle.

She also did an in-depth initial assessment of the old Stevens place below Bentonville. This odd brick and wooden structure has come down through local lore as having sheltered a few citizens of Bentonville during the battle. While the brickwork on the bottom floor may have been replaced, the upper structure has enough identifiable architectural features to place it on the battlefield in 1865.

With its ties to the battle, this structure will be an important study point for Bentonville in the near future—and we will be pursuing having Deidre conduct a formal documentation of the Stevens place.

A comprehensive report on the GPS findings at Bentonville is forthcoming.

The NPS CRGIS earthwork study at Bentonville was made possible by a $24,000 grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program in 1997.

Preservation Links
American Battlefield Trust
American Battlefield Protection Program
The Conservation Fund's Civil War Battlefield Campaign

Text by Mark A. Moore, Synopsis by Mark Bradley.