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.”