“The aid of the people of the county is necessary…”

After the engagement at Bentonville, North Carolina, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston pulled his army back to the area near Smithfield to reorganize his growing forces and to keep an eye on Major General William T. Sherman’s Union armies in Goldsboro, North Carolina. During the same period, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched a desperate attempt to breach the Union siege lines at Petersburg, Virginia on March 25, 1865. General Lee attempted to drive a wedge in the Federal lines at Fort Stedman, and possibly delay the impending Union Spring Offensive slated for the end of March 1865. There was also hope that a possible victory might allow elements of the Army of Northern Virginia to slip into North Carolina, unite with General Johnston’s new “Army of Tennessee,” and strike at the Federal forces gathering in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Roughly 300 miles to the west in the North Carolina Mountains, Major General George Stoneman led a force of 6,000 Union troopers on a raid out of East Tennessee exploiting the foundation laid by Union raiders such as George Washington Kirk. The Confederacy was slowing collapsing in the east, and North Carolina was becoming the center of that disintegration.

In Smithfield, General Johnston continued to work to form his new army named after the principle Confederate field army of the heartland, the Army of Tennessee. This new force was integrating elements from the old Army of Tennessee destroyed at the Battle of Nashville, Tennessee in late 1864, the Confederate Department of North Carolina, and numerous miscellaneous units displaced by the movement of General Sherman’s Union forces into North Carolina. He had to appoint new division and brigade commanders, and consolidate veteran regiments into new battalions to bring structure to this force. In addition, General Johnston’s army needed supplies to clothe, equip, and feed these soldiers, and to bring them up to par to be able to resist General Sherman’s Federal forces. Due to the weaken state of the Confederate rail system, General Johnston was forced to rely on obtaining foodstuffs from the civilian population through a method known as impressment. In this manner, military officers and/or military units would “impress” food and supplies from the civilian population with the promise of payment later. In the eyes of the civilians, “impressment” was just another term for theft.

Also on guard to protect his citizens from the abuses of the central government, Governor Zebulon Vance protested to General Johnston to prevent the theft of civilian property in and around Smithfield, North Carolina. General Johnston also had a growing discipline problem with starving soldiers deserting their units and stealing food from the local inhabitants. In his telegram dated March 28, 1865, General Johnston assured Governor Vance that he was going to bring an end to what he called “…illegal impressments” by the soldiers in his command and “If the property so impressed is identified it shall be restored.”

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“I was on the Skirmish Line”

By nightfall on March 20th, Major General William T. Sherman had finally connected both wings of his combined Union armies along the Goldsboro Road. He finally felt secure in the knowledge that his veteran regiments were now in support of each other, and any new Confederate assaults would now face the united strength of his armies. In heavy skirmish lines were deployed along the united Federal front running parallel to the Confederate lines protecting the long column of Confederate troops and wagons retreating northwest toward the town of Bentonville. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston continued to push his troops to the bridge over Mill Creek, and hopefully, safety with the deep creek separating his army and the advancing Federal brigades.

The fighting now fell upon the Union veterans of the Army of the Tennessee, which was composed of both Fifteenth and Seventeenth Army Corps. Their commander, Major General Oliver O. Howard, had orders to push General Johnston’s Confederate forces back, strengthen the weak connection with the Left Wing, and to hold the Confederates in place to prevent any future attacks. On Monday, March 20th, Fifteenth Army Corps, specifically the First Division, led the push down the Goldsboro Road to reach the embattled Left Wing. Sergeant William Frederick Thayer, Company A, Fourth Iowa Veteran Volunteer Infantry described the fighting in his diary entry for March 20th as “…march 6 mls & forced the Rebs the 2 Brig drove them 4 mls, the Rebs made a charge & was repulsed our Brig was brought up on the double quick…”

On the next day, March 21st, the Union Army of the Tennessee once again began heavy skirmishing with the Confederates in their front. For Sergeant Thayer, his Fourth Iowa had to anchor the left of his brigade’s line of battle, while they pushed the Confederates back to Bentonville. He wrote “Our Brig moved forward & put a heavy skirmish line…” Despite heavy enemy fire, the Hawkeyes pushed forward to take the Confederate rifle pits. They immediately began to reinforce them for their own use. Thayer wrote that “…moved forward & drove the Rebs in their main works & took their pits.” During Sergeant Thayer’s action with the Fourth Iowa, Seventeenth Army Corps had sent one infantry division on a probe to the Confederate left flank, found an opening, and nearly pushed through to Confederate General Johnston’s headquarters. The timely commitment of Confederate reinforcements prevented the loss of the only retreat route available to General Johnston.

On Wednesday, March 22nd, Sergeant Thayer and his fellow Hawkeyes again found themselves pushing northwest toward Bentonville, North Carolina. Except for Confederate cavalry, they found the Confederate army had retreated across Mill Creek. Thayer noted that his company had lost a number of men killed and wounded including Captain Teal of Company D “…shot through the leg.” In his report of the Carolinas Campaign, Colonel George A. Stone wrote “Captain Teale, of the Fourth Iowa, deserves especial note for his gallantry in holding the most exposed and dangerous part of the line. I regret to announce this gallant young officer was severely wounded in the leg.”

Confederate General Johnston succeeded in getting his army over Mill Creek, and pulled his forces back toward Smithfield, North Carolina to receive additional reinforcements from the Confederate Army of Tennessee. With the Confederates gone, General Sherman turned his two Union armies northeast to march to Goldsboro, North Carolina for reinforcements and supplies as well. Sergeant Thayer noted on March 23rd “…marcht 12 mls twords Goldsboro & camp.”

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“…Enemy moving…”

Despite the success during the afternoon of March 19, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston realized that it was imperative for him to withdraw his forces back over Mill Creek before Major General William T. Sherman can bring his combined Union armies to bear against him. Unfortunately, General Johnston only had one road leading back to the small community of Bentonville (or Bentonsville as some may call it) to the bridge over the Mill Creek to use as his escape route back to central Johnston County. During the night of March 19, Johnston began to gather his wounded and wagon trains together to start the arduous trek northwest to Bentonville and the crossing at Mill Creek. The severe rains and the use of the road by moving columns of infantry served to damage the road to the point where any rapid movement was nearly impossible. The elderly Confederate general also knew that the Federal columns would start to recoil back and come to the support of the Left Wing as soon as possible. Johnston knew that he needed to ask his men to buy him time to get his trains across the creek, and to prevent the uniting of General Sherman’s columns as long as possible.

The unexpected Confederate attacks threw General Sherman’s carefully calculated plans into a quandary. He now faced the prospect of dealing with a Confederate force of unknown size, while being unsupported by other Federal columns moving up from New Bern and Wilmington and nearly out of supplies. General Sherman was convinced that the need for support and supplies was more important than closing in and destroying this Confederate army. However, he knew that he could not leave his Left Wing unsupported in the face of an unknown Confederate force. As General Johnston prepared to retreat, General Sherman ordered his Union Army of the Tennessee to reverse course and come to the aid of his Left Wing.

To stop this Union threat, General Johnston formed his new army into a “U” shaped position to protect the road to Bentonville, and to block the road intersection between the Left Wing and the Union Army of the Tennessee moving down the Goldsboro Road. During the day on March 20th, both sides settled into heavy skirmishing in an attempt to gain control of the Goldsboro Road. Not until nightfall, did the Federal forces were able to bull nosed their way past the Confederate forces guarding the road intersection near Ebenezer Church.

While General Johnston trying to save his newly formed army from General Sherman’s Union brigades, the strategic situation for the Confederacy began to deteriorate. Both Federal columns moving up from both New Bern and Wilmington were moving closer to Goldsboro, North Carolina. In Richmond, Virginia, rumors were circulating concerning the new spring offensive being planned by Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The weather was warming and soon the roads would be dry enough to move troops into position for a final strike against the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Confederate central government. In a telegram dated March 20, 1865, Confederate Brigadier General Laurence S. Baker, commander of the garrison protecting the railroad at Weldon, NC, contacted Governor Zebulon Vance to see if any home guard units can be spared to protect the railroad. General Baker was acting on a telegraph sent by Confederate General Robert E. Lee reporting the movement of Union troops from Hatchers Run, Va toward Weldon, NC. By this point of the war, the eastern and western theaters of combat were slowly merging into one arena of operations.

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“…old Sherman lit up with a sad disappointment…”

By the middle of March 1865, the Confederate forces in the Eastern North Carolina found themselves within a slowly closing vise of three major Union military advances. Union Major General John G. Schofield was moving his “Army of the Ohio” westward out of the federal occupied areas in and around New Bern, North Carolina. Roughly ninety miles to the southwest, Union Major General William T. Sherman’s raiding force of four infantry corps and one cavalry division was moving into North Carolina toward the town of Fayetteville on the Cape Fear River. To the southeast of Fayetteville, Major General Alfred Terry and his federal veterans of the recent capture of Fort Fisher (Tenth Army Corps) was moving through Duplin County toward the railroad hub of Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston had to assemble an army to buy the Confederacy time to mount an active defense of Central North Carolina within these three advancing enemy forces. Around Smithfield, North Carolina, he began to gather a force consisting of Confederate troops from recently abandoned military posts, arriving regiments from the Confederate Army of Tennessee, and elements of the Confederate Department of North Carolina under the command of Warrenton native, General Braxton Bragg. In attempt to buy General Johnston time to form an army, General Bragg struck Union General Schofield’s column near Wyse’s Forks, and was able to temporarily stop the Union advance coming from New Bern, NC on March 8, 1865.

This extra time afforded General Johnston the opportunity to formulate a plan to strike General Sherman and his federal forces positioned at Fayetteville, NC on March 11, 1865. Johnston did not have the numeral forces to take on General Sherman’s Union corps in a head to head fight; however he could possibly single out one of his columns for a quick attack and then pull his outnumbered forces back before the entire weight of Union armies can counterattack. To implement this plan, Johnston had to know where General Sherman’s forces were heading in North Carolina. The Confederate forces planned a rear guard action at Averasboro across the Cape Fear River from Fayetteville on March 16 to determine where Union General Sherman’s ultimate goal was in North Carolina, which was the rail town of Goldsboro on the banks of the Neuse River in Wayne County.

On March 18, General Johnston began to move his army southeast from Smithfield, NC to get his forces in position to assault the Left Wing of General Sherman’s Union columns marching overland to Goldsboro. The exposed Union Left Wing, consisting of the U.S. Fourteenth and Twentieth Army Corps, provided an opportunity for General Johnston’s Confederate forces to quickly strike and retreat before the Union forces had a chance to counter attack.

In his letter dated March 28, 1865, the correspondent titled “Son Lane” described the initial engagement near the small community of Bentonville, North Carolina, which we now know as the first day of the Battle of Bentonville on March 19, 1865. He described the initial arrival of Federal forces on the field near the Cole and Morris farms along the Goldsboro Road at 9 o’clock that morning, and the Union attempts to push the Confederate blocking units away from the road. He also wrote of the Confederate assault at 3 o’clock where “…our whole army charged the yanks and taken 2 lines of there works killing wounding and capturing thousands of them…”  Despite his description, only one Union infantry division, First Division, Fourteenth Army Corps, was routed from the field, and the Confederate assaults were soon stopped by the arrival of reinforcements from Union Twentieth Army Corps and the defense of Second Division, Fourteenth Army Corps below the Goldsboro Road. By nightfall on March 19, a stalemate existed across the battlefield as the Confederate forces retreated back to their earlier positions held that morning.

Unfortunately, we do not know who “Son Lane” was and which unit he served with on that Sunday, March 19, 1865. We do know that his letter came from Chatham County, and he described his unit as “battery” and was currently serving as “horse artillery” at the time of his letter to his mother. He may have served with one of three North Carolina artillery units from the Confederate Department of North Carolina, but unfortunately, there is no clear evidence available to determine which artillery battery that he served with.

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The Battle of Averasboro and its aftermath as seen through civilian eyes.

March 16th, 1865 near the county line between Harnett and Cumberland County, North Carolina, Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s corps of the Confederate army fought a delaying action against the left wing of General William Sherman’s army. Sherman’s army was marching from Georgia into North Carolina as part of his Carolina’s Campaign.  To allow for a quicker advance through the area, and also to sustain his army through foraging, Sherman divided his army into two wings.

Confederate commander General Joseph Johnston saw an opportunity to strike a blow against Sherman’s army by isolating one wing.  Sherman’s army outnumbered Johnston’s but the odds would be a little better if one wing were to be isolated.

Hardee’s mission was to fight a holding action to allow Johnston’s scattered forces to unite in an effort to deliver such a blow.  Hardee formed a defense in depth – layering three lines of troops across the path of the federal army.  The Federals were able to push two lines back but the third line held until nightfall.  Under cover of the night Hardee ordered his troops to withdraw, leaving the campfires burning to deceive the Federals.

This letter by Janie Smith describes some of the action of the battle and its aftermath. She gives an account that shows exactly what it was like for civilians to be caught in the writ large drama unfolding around them.

In the end the Confederate forces yielded the battlefield having slowed down Federal forces somewhat for a single day but not for as long as they had initially hoped.  Even so the precious single day gave Johnston’s forces time to gather and set the stage for the larger Battle of Bentonville a few days later.

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First Wednesdays – “…we took it a foot for fayetteville NC…”

By March 1865, the Southern experiment as a separate nation on the North America continent was quickly coming to a close. In Virginia, Union Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant was preparing his two field armies for a spring offensive to strike Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia one final time to wrench the Capitol from Richmond, Virginia, from Confederate control. Some 270 miles south in Cheraw, South Carolina, Union Major General William T. Sherman was pushing this force of two field armies northward through the Palmetto State with his focus on its border with North Carolina. Despite these ominous events, Confederate President Jefferson Davis wrote “In spite of the timidity and faithlessness of many who should give tone to the popular feeling and hope to the popular heart, I am satisfied that it is in the power of the good man and true patriots of the country to reanimate the wearied spirit of our people…”

The Confederate government was soon forced to abandon cities, towns, and military facilities due to General Sherman’s movements through South Carolina. Charleston, the site of the initial Confederate victory in 1861, was soon abandoned due to the threat of these federal forces. The Confederate military had realized that their invasion of Tennessee in November 1864 had not stopped General Sherman’s march through Georgia and South Carolina, but served only to leave these Confederate states undefended in the presence of “Sherman’s bummers.” To stop the Union forces, the Confederate military realized that they needed to create an army to take to the field and resist the invasion of the Carolinas. The abandonment of military posts brought about a large surplus of Confederate military personnel, who now found themselves as infantrymen marching northward to rendezvous in North Carolina. In many cases, it was a hard march due to some personnel being physically unsuited for active field service and the onset of rain storms throughout the Carolinas that winter.

One of those men marching northward was Henry Hunter Bowen, who was from Washington County, North Carolina. Bowen had enlisted in the Confederate States Marine Corps, and was stationed with the Confederate Naval squadron in Charleston, South Carolina. With the abandonment of Charleston, Bowen found himself with fellow blue jackets and marines moving by rail to Wilmington, North Carolina in early February 1865. The capture of Wilmington on February 22 forced the sailors and marines to leave the railroad to start an arduous overland march to Fayetteville, North Carolina to unite with other Confederate forces under the command of Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston. In his letter dated 26 February 1865, Bowen writes to his wife of his arrival in Fayetteville, NC and the effect of the march on him. He writes that “I want to try to get a furlow to come home as soon as I can but cant tel you when …”

Unfortunately, there are no more letters describing what happened to Bowen after February 22. His unit was later incorporated into “Tucker’s Naval Brigade,” which was later dispatched from Fayetteville to Richmond, Va. The brigade was assigned to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, and took severe losses during the Appomattox Campaign. It is not known whether if Bowen was presented in the heavy combat at the end of the war. We do know that he did survive the war, since he signed his oath of allegiance in September 1865.

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First Wednesdays – “…keep my luck for I have lost everything…

The hurrahs over the initial defense of Fort Fisher soon came to an end with the arrival of a new Union task force to take the fort and close off the Cape Fear River to the Confederacy. This new expedition was sent south from Virginia under the dual command of Major General Alfred Terry from the Union Army of the James and Rear Admiral David D. Porter of the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. This combined force of 9,000 infantry and roughly sixty naval vessels arrived in mid-January 1865, and soon started landing troops between the fortification and Wilmington, North Carolina. On 15 January 1865, Admiral Porter began a heavy naval bombardment on the Confederate redoubts, while General Terry maneuvered his Union forces into position to commence the ground assault. Toward the end of the bombardment, Porter set a mixed force of U.S. marines and sailors to from the beach to quickly strike at the Northeast Bastion of Fort Fisher. This assault was quickly repulsed with heavy losses among the blue jackets; however their attack drew the Confederate attention away from General Terry’s men, who soon started their assault on the land face of the fort. After many hours of heavy fighting, the main portion of the fort was taken and the Confederate survivors were pushed back to Battery Buchanan, which was situated to cover New Inlet going into the Cape Fear River. Confederate Major John Reilly found the position vacant, and faced with the prospect of overwhelming Union assaults, chose to surrender the remaining Confederate forces to General Terry.

The correspondent “R. P. G.” wrote on 24 January 1865 describing the naval bombardment of the fort by the Union Navy as a “fearfully grand picture.” He described the advance of the Union marines and sailors as a “…dark line advancing, at a run, on the fort…” He witnessed the severe hand to hand combat in the fort and wounding of both Confederate Major General William Whiting and Colonel William Lamb and the planting of the Union regimental flags on the Confederate redoubts on the land side of the fort. He was convinced that the reason of the loss of the fort was “…the cowardice of some 300 or 400 soldiers who were defending the Land Face of the fort…” Interesting enough, “R. P. G.” did not participate in the fighting, but chose to leave the fort. He noted that “…Myself and 3 of the Signal Corps – got into a small boat and by crowding managed to out of the enemy’s reach – We did not get off too soon – for just as we had gotten off the beach the enemy’s land forces took procession of the Battery [Battery Buchanan].”

Confederate First Lieutenant Henry E. Benton of the Company C, Thirty-sixth North Carolina Troops was not that lucky as “R. P. G.” He and the rest of the fort’s garrison were captured, and were soon shipped north to Union prisoner of war camps. Lt. Benton arrived on Governors Island, New York for incarceration at the old U.S. Army barracks. In his letter to his wife dated 28 January 1865, Benton wrote about the conditions in the barracks and telling his wife not to worry about him. He noted that “…I am enjoying very good health and am as pleasantly situated as [ ] us will admit…” However, he did note on the top of his letter “…Send me all the US money you have, keep the gold & silver…” He would remain in prison only a short time and was paroled and exchanged at City Point, Virginia on 5 March 1865.

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Second Mondays Lecture Series: General Whiting and Fort Fisher – Monday, February 9

Please join us for the Inaugural “Second Mondays” Lecture Series for 2015! 

Lori Sanderlin from the North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport will speak on

“Confederate Major General William Whiting and Fort Fisher”

on Monday, February 9, 12 Noon to 1 Pm 

in the Auditorium of the Archives & History Building

Admission is FREE


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First Wednesdays – “…hoping you will not leave us to the mercy of the tories much longer…”

The first week of January 1865 heralded the beginning of a new year in North Carolina, but also marked the fifth year of the struggle define a new country within the boundaries of North America. This struggle for independence by the Confederate States of America was slowly and painfully coming to an end in the midst of great suffering by the population of the state. While the focus of attention was directed to the defense of Fort Fisher and Wilmington, North Carolina, the western portion of the state was on the verge of lawlessness. Confederate and state authority had broken down in many piedmont and western counties, where bands of Unionists (also known as Tories) were openly resisting the civil authority. Union Colonel George Washington Kirk, a native of Greene County, Tennessee, had formed a force comprising North Carolina regiments enlisted in Union service to conduct raids throughout Western North Carolina. These raids struck blows against the Confederate supply infrastructure, and prevented gathering of men and supplies for the state’s war effort. In addition to these raids, local bands of Unionists coupled with Confederate deserters conducted their own raids to gather foodstuffs from the population.

Despite the efforts of Governor Zebulon Vance to appeal to the patriotism of western citizens during his recent gubernatorial campaign, the disenchantment with the war continued to grow in the small communities dotting the piedmont and the western mountains. Many families had suffered greatly through their men being conscripted for Confederate service, and leaving their families in need during the fall harvest and winter months. In many cases, the absences became permanent, when news of the death of family member serving in Confederate service came back home. Other events, like the Shelton Laurel Massacre in 1863, served only to bring into question the entire Confederate war effort by citizens. By 1864, many North Carolinians serving in Confederate service had enough of the broken promises by their new government and begun the process of leaving (or deserting) their regiments to return home and care for their families. These veterans began their own resistance against the Confederate government by openly opposing the civil authority in their communities.

On 5 January 1865, Sue Combs wrote a letter to Governor Vance describing the conditions in the small community of Stony Point in Alexander County, North Carolina. She wanted Governor Vance to understand the hardships being suffered by the women of the community due to rising food prices brought on in part by local speculators and shortages due to roving bands of Tories. Her husband, Newton P. Combs, had enlisted in Company H, Fifty-Sixth North Carolina Troops in March 1862, and was captured in May 1864. He was exchanged on November 15, 1864, but died seven days later.

Widow's Pension for Newton P. (Sue) Combs, State Archives of North Carolina

Widow’s Pension for Newton P. (Sue) Combs, State Archives of North Carolina

As a recent widow, Sue Combs was particularly sensitive to the needs of her two children and the other families suffering through the winter of 1865. She also wanted Governor Vance to have her father released from military service. He had been drafted into the Senior Reserves, and was detailed as a guard at Salisbury Military Prison. Ms. Combs described that her father “…would do his country more good to be home [and] work for the people than 20 good soldiers…” In her mind, her father was needed at home to support the community due to the lack of protection by the local militia officers. She noted that “…the tories [and] deserters have gotten procession almost from the upper edge of Iredell County to the brushy mountains.” She continued to support the idea of a separate Confederate government; however she wrote “I will close now hoping you will not leave us to mercy of the tories much longer…”

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A Man of His Word.

In our last blog past we highlighted Governor Vance’s call to arms – his resounding cry for his fellow Tar Heels to meet him at the coast to repel the Yankees attacking Ft. Fisher!

For all his bloviating about shouldering arms and defending the Old North State, even going so far as to say “your Governor will meet you at the front and will share with you the worse,” the proclamation gives rise for one to beg the question – did Vance in fact go to Wilmington “to share with” fellow Tar Heels “the worse?”

These two telegraphs – one to Vance and one from Vance – from December 27th, 1864 confirm that Vance, who had been Colonel of the 26th NCST and who had been under fire at New Bern in March 1862, backed up the bravado of the proclamation and went to Wilmington to meet with his fellow Tar Heels to protect the state from the invading Yankees.  His role in the action was minor – he did travel out to Ft. Fisher (accompanied by women from the local Ladies Aide Society) as the last of the Yankee forces withdrew from the area.  Accounts indicate that the governor congratulated Colonel Lamb and General Whiting – joining in the hurrahs of the troops defending the fort.  He was a man of his word.

Vance would return to Raleigh shortly thereafter and remain in Raleigh until the irresistible approach of Sherman’s main army forced him to flee westward.  In the meantime the threat of another attack on Fort Fisher hung like the sword of Damocles over the men assigned to defend it.  The sword would fall in mid-January 1865.

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