The Last Campaign of the Army of Tennessee (Part Two)

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series The Confederate Surrenders
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battle of averasboroOn February 23, Confederate general-in-chief Robert E. Lee ordered Johnston to take command of the Army of Tennessee and other Confederate units in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, and to “concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman.” Johnston managed to concentrate in North Carolina the Army of Tennessee commanded by Lt. Gen. Alexander P. Stewart, Maj. Gen. Robert Hoke’s division from the Army of Northern Virginia, troops from the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida commanded by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, and cavalry under the command of Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton. Johnston’s army was called the Army of the South.

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The Battle of Averasboro (alternately Averasborough)

Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman was moving his army north towards Goldsboro in two columns. The right column (Army of the Tennessee) was under the command of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard and the left column (Army of Georgia) was under Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston sent Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee’s corps to attack Slocum’s left wing while it was separated from the rest of Sherman’s forces. Slocum’s troops had crossed the Cape Fear River at Fayetteville and were marching up the Raleigh plank road.

On the afternoon of March 15, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry came up against Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s corps—consisting of Taliaferro’s and McLaw’s infantry divisions and Wheeler’s dismounted cavalry—deployed across the Raleigh Road near Smithville. After feeling out the Confederate defenses, Kilpatrick withdrew and called for infantry support.

During the night, four divisions of the XX Corps arrived to confront the Confederates. At dawn, March 16, the Federals advanced on a division front, driving back skirmishers, but they were stopped by the main Confederate line and a counterattack. Mid-morning, the Federals renewed their advance with strong reinforcements and drove the Confederates from two lines of works, but were repulsed at a third line.

By late afternoon, the Maj. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis’s Union XIV Corps began to arrive on the field but was unable to deploy before dark due to the swampy ground. Outnumbered and in danger of being flanked Hardee withdrew during the night after holding up the Union advance for nearly two days.

The Confederates had not held up the Union Army as long as they had hoped. Each side suffered about 700 casualties; however, these were losses the Federals could afford while the Confederates could not.It should be noted that the Confederates were outnumbered five to one.

The Battle of Bentonville

After the Battle of Averasboro the Union Army continued to move the short distance north. Sherman continued to have his army group divided into two wings. Confederate maps erroneously showed that the two wings were twelve miles apart, which meant each would take a day to reach the other. Johnston planned to concentrate his entire army to defeat Slocum’s wing and to destroy its trains before it reunited with the rest of the Union column; the attack was planned for “as soon after dawn tomorrow [March 19] as possible”

The Confederate attack commenced on March 19, as Slocum’s men marched on the Goldsboro Road, one mile south of Bentonville. Hoke’s division under Bragg’s command deployed on the Confederate left facing west, while Stewart’s army deployed on the Confederate right facing south. Slocum was convinced he faced only enemy cavalry and artillery, not an entire army. In addition, Sherman did not believe that Johnston would fight with the Neuse River to his rear. Therefore, Slocum initially notified Sherman that he was facing only light resistance near Bentonville and did not require aid.

Slocum attempted to brush aside the Confederates by attacking with the 1st Division of Brig. Gen. William P. Carlin with support from the 3rd Division of Brig. Gen. Absalom Baird, both from the battle of bentonville-overviewXIV Corps but this attack was driven back. Slocum then deployed his divisions in a defensive line, with Carlin’s division on the left, Baird’s division in the center, Brig. Gen. James D. Morgan‘s 2nd Division on the right, and a XX Corps division in support, in order to delay the Confederates long enough to allow the rest of his wing to arrive.

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None of the divisions, except for Morgan’s, constructed strong breastworks, which were further compromised by a gap in the center of the Union line. Lafayette McLaws’ division from Hardee’s command was approaching the Confederate positions at the time of the Union attacks. Due to Bragg’s concern about a flanking attack on Hoke’s left, McLaws was ordered to deploy on the Confederate left flank. About noon, Hardee arrived with the division of William B. Taliaferro, which was deployed behind the Army of Tennessee. Hardee was then took command of the Confederate right wing.

At 3 p.m., Confederate infantry from the Army of Tennessee launched an attack and drove the Union left flank back in confusion, nearly capturing Carlin in the process and overrunning the XIV Corps field hospital. Confederates under Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill filled the vacuum left by the retreating Federals and began enfilading the Union troops remaining along the front.

Morgan’s division was nearly surrounded and was being attacked from three sides, but the Confederate attacks were uncoordinated and therefore unsuccessful in driving them from the position. Hardee, using Taliaferro’s division and Bate’s corps from the Army of Tennessee, attacked the Union positions near the Harper house but were repulsed after multiple assaults. McLaws arrived after Taliaferro and Bate were repulsed and attacked but was repulsed as well. After a heated engagement, Union reinforcements arrived and checked Hill’s assault. Fighting continued after nightfall as the Confederates tried without success to drive back the Union line. About midnight, the Confederates withdrew to their original positions and started entrenching.

Slocum had called for aid from Sherman during the afternoon attacks, and Howard’s wing arrived on the field late on the afternoon of March 20, deploying on Slocum’s right flank and extending the Union line towards Mill Creek. Johnston responded to Howard’s arrival by pulling back Hoke’s division so it ran at a right angle to Stewart’s left flank, and deploying one of Hardee’s divisions on Hoke’s left. Confederate cavalry protected the Confederate flank to Mill Creek in a weak skirmish line. Only light skirmishing occurred on this day. Johnston remained on the field, claiming that he stayed to remove his wounded, but perhaps also in hope of enticing Sherman to attack again, as had happened at Kennesaw Mountain.

On March 21, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower, commanding the division on the Union right flank, requested permission from his corps commander to launch a “little reconnaissance” to his front, which was granted. Mower instead launched an attack with two brigades on the Confederate left flank, which was defending Mill Creek Bridge. Mower’s men managed to come within one mile of the crossing before Sherman peremptorily ordered them to pull back. In his memoirs, Sherman admitted that this was a mistake and that he missed an opportunity to end the campaign then and there, perhaps capturing Johnston’s army entirely. Among the Confederate casualties was Hardee’s 16-year-old son, Willie. Hardee had reluctantly allowed his son to attach himself to the 8th Texas Cavalry just hours before Mower’s attack.

The Confederates suffered a total of nearly 2,600 casualties: 239 killed, 1,694 wounded, and 673 missing. About half of the casualties were lost in the Army of Tennessee. The Union army lost 194 killed, 1,112 wounded, and 221 missing, for a total of 1,527 casualties.

During the night of March 21 until the following dawn, Johnston withdrew his army across Mill Creek and burned the bridge behind him, leaving behind a cavalry detachment as a rearguard. The Union army failed to detect the Confederate retreat until it was over. Sherman did not pursue the Confederates, but continued his march to Goldsboro, where he joined the Union forces under Terry and Schofield. Johnston cancelled any movement to Petersburg with the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Johnston and Sherman sparred with each other through the rest of March and to the middle of April.

 

 

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