"If the foragers could not clear the way, nothing less than a brigade need try it."
--Lt. Allan H. Dougall, Adjutant, 88th Indiana, Hobart's brigade; Medal of Honor recipient for saving the 88th's flag from capture in the Battle of Bentonville.
Braxton Bragg, with Hoke's Division, moves south from the hamlet of Bentonville to Cole's Plantation, and takes position blocking the Goldsboro Road.
Sherman, Left Wing commander H. W. Slocum, and XIV Corps commander Jeff C. Davis confer at the intersection of the Smithfield-Clinton and Goldsboro roads. Confident of reaching Cox's Bridge later that afternoon, Sherman prepares to move south to join the Federal Right Wing as it advances on Goldsboro. Skirmish firing rolls up from the east, and Davis voices his opinion that the XIV Corps is "likely to encounter more than the usual cavalry opposition." Davis's adjutant, A. C. McClurg, overhears Sherman's reply: "No Jeff; there is nothing there but Dibbrell's [sic] cavalry. Brush them out of the way. Good morning. I'll meet you to-morrow morning at Cox's Bridge." McClurg will later remember that "three days yet lay between us and Cox's Bridge."
Carlin's division (First, XIV A.C.) takes the advance, moving eastward on the Goldsboro Road.
After a march of six miles, McLaws's Division of Hardee's Corps reaches Bentonville and falls out to rest.
Carlin's advance (Hobart's brigade) pushes elements of Dibrell's Confederate cavalry from a line of rail barricades east of the Morris Farm. Upon reaching the Cole House, Briant's Wing of Hobart's brigade receives artillery and small-arms fire from Hoke's Division and is forced to scramble for cover. Carlin deploys to clear the road.
As Carlin struggles with Hoke's Division, the Army of Tennessee (Stewart) is steadily filing into position to the north.
Morgan's division (Second, XIV A.C.) is ordered to the front to assist Carlin.
As Morgan moves in on the right of Carlin's division, Slocum becomes worried over the delay in clearing the road. He sends his first message to Sherman:
"Fearing that the firing would be heard by General Sherman and cause the other wing of the army to delay its march, I sent Major E. W. Guindon of my staff [to tell] Sherman . . . that I should not need assistance, and felt confident that I should be at the Neuse [River] at the appointed time."
The Confederate threat is dismissed as merely "cavalry with a few pieces of artillery."
Carlin launches a probing attack to develop the enemy position. Miles's brigade is easily repulsed by Hoke's Division. On the Cole Farm, the brigades of Buell and Hobart (Briant's Wing) are repulsed with heavy casualties. South of the Goldsboro Road Morgan's division continues filing into position on Carlin's right. A dangerous gap exists between the separated wings of Hobart's brigade, with Briant's Wing north of the Goldsboro Road and Fitch's Wing south of the road.
Bragg pleads for reinforcements following Carlin's assault, prompting Johnston to dispatch McLaws's Division (now arriving after the deployment of Stewart's men) to the Confederate left. McLaws's absence will deplete by one-fourth the striking force Johnston is assembling at Cole's Farm.
Following the repulse of the Federal probing attack, Slocum learns of Johnston's presence and intentions from three Southern prisoners ("Galvanized Yankees" formerly of the Federal army). "There is a very large force in your front," Slocum is told, "all under the command of Joe Johnston."
Wade Hampton tells Johnston: "Stewart wrote just now that the enemy attacked him. Taliaferro [of Hardee's Corps] is just going in. I think whatever we do should be done quickly. An advance of the line would break them, I think."
Webb's battery (19th Indiana) deploys to the left of Fitch's Wing of Hobart's brigade, prompting Scovel's battery (C, 1st Illinois) to move further to the left.
Slocum, now realizing he faces serious opposition, implores Sherman: "I am convinced the enemy are in strong force in my front . . . . I shall strengthen my position and feel of their lines, but I hope you will come up on their left rear in strong force."
Slocum accentuates his 1:30 p.m. dispatch to Sherman: "It is reported by prisoners that Johnston and Hardee are here. I think a portion of the Right Wing should be brought forward at once."
The vanguard of the Federal XX Corps (Hawley's brigade of Jackson's First Division) reaches the Morris Farm sometime after 2:00 p.m.
In line behind Hawley, Robinson's brigade continues eastward to Cole's Farm and is directed to plug the gap between Fitch and Briant. Robinson deploys along a shallow ravine, making no connection on either flank with Carlin's troops. As two of his regiments are recalled to the Morris Farm, Robinson takes note of Carlin's poorly formed line, whose left is thrown forward along the northern slope of a deep, wooded ravine.
All of Johnston's infantry is now on the field and preparing to attack the enemy. Johnston places William J. Hardee in charge of the coming assault. At corps commander William Bate's suggestion, Hardee directs Taliaferro's Division to extend the Confederate striking force to the right--to outflank Buell's position. Hardee plans to launch an attack at 2:45 p.m.
Carlin ignores a warning from Lt. William Ludlow (Slocum's chief of engineers) to redeploy his line south of the ravine, to a new position on Robinson's left. "[B]eing confident of my ability to hold my position until the troops in rear should come up," reported Carlin, "I decided not to fall back, but made dispositions to fortify my left flank against movements of the enemy [Taliaferro] in that direction." Instead of forcing the enemy to attack across this major geographical obstacle, Carlin himself is about to be caught inside of it. Disaster looms for the unsuspecting Federals.MAP 1
"The most terrible battle I ever imagined . . . . It was the most fearful scene I ever witnessed."
--Capt. G. B. Gardner, Courier, staff of Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee.
Hardee launches a full-scale attack with the Army of Tennessee and Taliaferro's Division.
On the left of Carlin's Federal division, the troops of Buell and Briant (Hobart) are sent reeling backward toward the Morris Farm. Carlin's ranks are punished severely while negotiating the southern bank of the fence-lined ravine which had earlier protected the men from Hoke's artillery. With his position rendered untenable by the flight of Carlin's division, Robinson pulls his command back under fire to the Morris Farm.
Taliaferro passes unopposed beyond Buell's left flank.
South of the Goldsboro Road, the right half of Carlin's line (Fitch and Miles) caves in toward Morgan's position. Confederate troops under Hill and Loring quickly descend upon Webb's battery, capturing three guns. The fourth gun and team of the battery is steered into the road and saved by Pvt. Peter Anderson, 31st Wisconsin Infantry.
Cogswell's brigade of Ward's division (Third, XX A.C.) arrives on the Morris Farm and forms in reserve.
When the battle erupts on Carlin's front, Hawley's 13th New Jersey and the 82nd Illinois (Robinson) are sent out to prolong Hawley's line to the right. As Carlin's troops come streaming back in defeat from Cole's Farm, the 13th and 82nd try in vain to rally their stampeding comrades. Though a few stay on the line, the main body of Carlin's division passes to the rear in disorder, finished for the day as an effective fighting force.
To help provide a rallying point, Selfridge swings southward and deploys astride the Goldsboro Road.
Having fallen back to the Morris Farm, Robinson takes position across the road in front of Selfridge.
South of the road, Mitchell's brigade (Morgan) struggles to keep a front toward the enemy as the fleeing ranks of Fitch and Miles are driven into its lines. Mitchell forms a sharp-angled salient (facing north), anchored on the right by the 34th Illinois and on the left by the 121st Ohio. Between Mitchell's two regiments are disorganized elements of Fitch and Miles, many of whom continue to stream out of action toward a swamp to the south.
Fearing's brigade (of Morgan's division) is rushed to the left from its reserve position to stem the tide of the advancing Confederates. Fearing collides with troops from Hill's Corps, who bear heavily upon both his front and right flank. The 52nd Ohio and 86th Illinois break under the pressure and Fearing's line crumbles, falling back in disorder to the south and west.
At the Morris Farm, Stephens's battery (C, 1st Ohio) is ordered to deploy on the XX Corps line. MAP 2
"So closely were we pressed that our Gen [Mitchell] told us to tare [sic] up our 'flag' and tramp it into the ground before surrendering . . . . [W]ithout any joking we came very near taking a trip to Richmond or some other Rebel 'sea port' [but] we whipped them so badly they knew not from where they came."
--William Kemp, 98th Ohio, Mitchell's brigade, on the fighting below the Goldsboro Road.
McLaws's Confederate division is en route to the Cole Farm, having been recalled from Bragg's position by General Hardee. Johnston regrets having sent McLaws to Bragg earlier in the battle. The squandering of McLaws's force, which has been idle on Bragg's front, proves to be an irreversible tactical blunder for the Confederates.
Hoke's Division finally joins the fight, advancing on Morgan's formidable position in the swamps below the Goldsboro Road.
On Morgan's left, Colquitt's Brigade slams into the angle in Mitchell's line. This attack, together with the continued advance of Hill's troops, sends Morgan's northern salient scrambling backward in defeat toward the swamps to the south. When the northern salient falls away, the 34th Illinois stands firm, preserving the angle and in large measure the security of Morgan's position.
On Vandever's front, a confused hand-to-hand struggle ensues as the 60th Illinois and 14th Michigan surge ahead in a counterattack on Hoke's advance. The dense forest, swampy terrain, and cloying gunpowder smoke make organized battle formations difficult to maintain. In the melee Holland's 40th North Carolina loses its colors to Cpl. George Clute of the 14th Michigan Infantry.
Having knocked Fearing's brigade out of action, troops of Hill's command pour into the resulting gap and veer eastward toward the rear of Morgan's line. Disorganized from their battle with Fearing, Hill's men surge ahead in disconnected groups. At this critical juncture for the Confederates, Hill's advance begins to lose momentum.
By 4:00 p.m. Gen. Jeff C. Davis is calling for reinforcements to bolster the lines of the XIV Corps. Cogswell's XX Corps brigade is dispatched to the Federal right, and stumbling through the swamps emerges on the right flank and rear of Hill's men as they attack the rear of Morgan's line.
With Hill's advance behind them Morgan's men, having repulsed Hoke's Division, are forced to jump to the opposite side of their breastworks to meet this new Confederate attack. Having just returned from their counterattack on Hoke, the 60th Illinois and 14th Michigan charge to the west, slamming into Hill's line where the 14th captures the colors of the 54th Virginia of Palmer's Brigade. The 17th New York and 10th Michigan also join the Federal charge, and with Cogswell's advance any hope of Confederate success below the road quickly evaporates. Hill's men are overwhelmed and forced to retreat north of the Goldsboro Road. Morgan's division holds, despite enemy attacks from three sides. MAP 3
"If the Lord will only see me safe through this job, I'll register an oath never to vote for secession again as long as I live."
--Unidentified Soldier of Elliott's Brigade, Taliaferro's Division, prior to the battle for the Morris Farm.
Cogswell moves up on the left and rear of Mitchell's brigade and becomes sharply engaged with Loring's command and Pettus's Brigade. This action develops into an extended engagement, with both sides slugging it out until well after dark. Five Federal guns below the road rain long-range shot and shell upon the Rebel units engaging Cogswell.
By 4:30 p.m. the battle for the Morris Farm is under way, as Taliaferro's Division engages the Federal XX Corps. Elliott's Brigade is quickly repulsed by Union artillery and a right-angle flanking fire from the 13th New Jersey and 82nd Illinois regiments. Rhett's Brigade and Bate's Army of Tennessee veterans manage to plow ahead for a series of costly attacks on Robinson's position.
As Taliaferro's attacks begin, the 143rd New York emerges from its reserve position behind Hawley. In the face of the attacking enemy, the 143rd moves out to join on the left of Robinson's line. This is a timely maneuver for the Federals, as a subsequent attack by Rhett's Brigade comes within 30 yards of Robinson's men, who are lying down behind light rail works. The line wavers and begins to break in the center. This is the high water mark for the Confederates at Bentonville. At this crisis of the engagement Lt. Col. Hezekiah Watkins, 143rd New York, takes matters into his own hands and bullies Robinson's men back into line. The troops of Taliaferro and Bate are punished severely by the massed Federal batteries (16 guns north of the road), all of which join Stephens's Battery C, 1st Ohio, during the Confederate attacks. The last assault occurs at sundown, and the Federal line on the Morris Farm holds.
During this action, the remainder of Ward's division arrives and moves into line on the left of Hawley. Kilpatrick's cavalry also arrives and masses on the Federal left.
As the battle rages McLaws, having arrived at the Cole Farm, sends three brigades toward the front. Conner's Brigade (Kennedy) relieves James Jackson's command below the Goldsboro Road around dusk. Kennedy's engagement with Cogswell's brigade continues after dark in the burning pine woods until about 8:00 p.m.
Harrison's Brigade of McLaws's Division advances beyond Bate's position after sundown, too late to be of any assistance.
Elements of Fitch and Miles, out of action since the attack of the Army of Tennessee, head for the Morris Farm to join the remnants of Carlin's division.
After dark, Hardy's brigade of McLaws's Division makes a feeble attack on a detachment of the 121st Ohio, which brings the action to a close for March 19. MAP 4
Slocum sends his final plea to Sherman for reinforcements:
"I have positive information that General Johnston is here in person with a heavy force. I feel confident of holding my position, but I deem it of the greatest importance that the Right Wing come up during the night to my assistance . . . . From prisoners I learn that the corps and commands of Hardee, Stewart, [S. D.] Lee, Cheatham, Hill, and Hoke are here."
Johnston's Confederates begin pulling back to their original starting positions, as the engagement of March 19 ends in a tactical draw.
At 9:00 p.m. Wade Hampton instructs Gen. Joseph Wheeler, whose cavalry force is stationed several miles to the west, guarding the Smithfield-Clinton Road:
"[L]eave sufficient force to hold the bridge on Clinton and Smithfield road [at Stone Creek] and bring the rest of your command to Bentonville. . . .General Johnston proposes to maintain his position to-morrow. Send out your best scouts to get information."
Condensed from Moore, Mark A. Moore's Historical Guide to the Battle of Bentonville. Da Capo Press, 1997; 104 pp; 36 maps. Used with permission.