The Battle of Bentonville was the last major battle to occur between the armies of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston during the Civil War.
During the late winter and early spring of 1865, Sherman’s army of hard-bitten Western troops cut a swath of destruction through South Carolina, a logical continuation of the previous fall’s "March to the Sea" Campaign.
In mid-March, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's Union force reached Fayetteville, North Carolina. From Fayetteville, he moved in 2 columns. His right, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's Army of the Tennessee, marched northeast toward Goldsborough, where it was to join another Union column that had come inland from the coast. Sherman's left, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum's Army of Georgia (XIV and XX Corps), moved north to threaten Raleigh.
On March 8, Union soldiers crossed into North Carolina as a collection of Confederate units attempted to concentrate and block their path. Sherman divided his command into two parts, a Left Wing commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum and a Right Wing commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard.
On March 13, the 2 wings marched separately toward Goldsboro. Confederate reconnaissance revealed this disposition, and Johnston attempted to concentrate his entire army on Slocum’s wing before it reunited with the rest of the Union column.
On March 16, Slocum briefly engaged the Confederates near Averasborough, turning east towards Goldsborough after the Confederates fell back.
By that time the Confederate commander, Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, with about 21,000 men, had decided to strike at Slocum while he was seperated from the other Federals, in the hope of delaying or preventing the Union concentration at Goldsborough. His plan, a rare offensive movement for Johnston, was to attack Slocum's 2-corps column, separated by 10 miles from the rest of Sherman's forces. While Slocum's advance was stalled at Averasborough by Hardee's troops, Sherman's right wing marched toward Goldsborough.
On March 19, the Confederate attack commenced, as Slocum’s men marched on the Goldsboro Road, 2 miles south of Bentonville. Slocum was convinced he faced only Confederate cavalry, not an entire army. Therefore, he initially notified Sherman that he was facing only cursory resistance near Bentonville and did not require aid.
Slocum encountered Johnston's entrenched Confederates, who had concentrated to meet his advance at Bentonville. Late in the afternoon, Johnston attacked, crushing the line of the XIV Corps. Confederate infantry loomed out of the woods along the Goldsboro Road and drove the Union left flank back in confusion. Only strong counterattacks and desperate fighting south of the Goldsborough Road blunted the Confederate offensive. Elements of the XX Corps were thrown into the action as they arrived on the field. Five Confederate attacks failed to dislodge the Union defenders and darkness ended the first day's fighting. Slocum had called for aid from Sherman during the afternoon attacks, and Johnston, knowing he would soon be heavily outnumbered, refused his left flank to cover his only available retreat path over Mill Creek. Slocum quickly consolidated his troops 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. During the night, Johnston contracted his line into a "V" to protect his flanks with Mill Creek to his rear.
On March 20,there was little fighting. Sherman was bringing up more troops to attack Johnston. Slocum became heavily reinforced. Johnston needed time to move his wounded to safety, and was content to hold his ground. Even with a 3 to 1 superiority in numbers and the Confederate force surrounded on 3 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. Sherman was inclined to let Johnston retreat. With all of Sherman's troops on the scene, he was moving and ready to attack the Confederates.
On March 21, however, Johnston remained in position while he removed his wounded. Skirmishing heated up along the entire front. In the afternoon, Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower launched an unauthorized attack on the Confederate left flank, which was defending Mill Creek Bridge. Mower’s men managed to come within one mile of the crossing before they were driven back, saving the army's only line of communication and retreat. Mower withdrew, ending fighting for the day. During the night, Johnston withdrew his army across Mill Creek and burned the bridge behind him. Sherman took little notice and did not pursue the Confederates, but continued his march to Goldsboro. The Confederate army had failed in its last chance to achieve a decisive victory over the Union army in North Carolina.
On March 22, Union forces pursued at first light, driving back Wheeler's rearguard and saving the bridge. Federal pursuit was halted at Hannah's Creek after a severe skirmish. Sherman, after regrouping at Goldsborough, pursued Johnston toward Raleigh. Johnston's attack had been well planned and executed, but he had too few men to achieve any decisive results. Realizing the hopelessness of further resistance, he soon opened negotiations that led to his surrender.