“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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