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.