On March 19, 1865, Joseph E. Johnston organized his forces into a hook-shaped line at Cole's Plantation, blocking the Goldsboro Road. That morning William T. Sherman's Federal Left Wing stumbled into the Confederate trap, just as it was being set.
After a Union probing attack failed, the Confederates launched a massive assault which drove Gen. William P. Carlin's XIV Corps division from the field. Morgan's division managed to hold on despite being surrounded on three sides by Confederate adversaries. Late that afternoon a strong Federal defense of the Morris Farm by the Left Wing's XX Corps managed to squelch the Confederate advance. The first day's fighting ended in a tactical draw.
Failing to completely crush the Union lines, Johnston's Confederates pulled back to positions held earlier in the day, and Sherman's Right Wing began arriving on the battlefield by midday on March 20. Sharp skirmishing prevailed, as the Confederates changed position to deal with the arrival of the Federal Right Wing. The junction of Sherman's divided army at Bentonville placed nearly 60,000 Union troops (including reserves) against Joe Johnston, who had brought to the field approximately 16,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry with which to oppose Sherman. Despite receiving limited reinforcements, the Confederates were no match numerically for the powerful Union army.
Johnston clung to a tenuous position guarding his army's sole escape route over rain-swollen Mill Creek, and began evacuating his wounded to Smithfield, 20 miles to the north.
To Sherman's great irritation, he found the Confederate army still in position on March 21. The Union commander was anxious to reach Goldsboro, and was impatient for the Confederates to retreat. Johnston, outnumbered and no longer holding the advantage of surprise, could only hope that the Federals might be lured into a costly frontal attack on his small but well-entrenched army.
For two days following the main battle of March 19, the opposing forces squared off in a severe and continuous skirmish fight. On March 21 Sherman's Right Wing moved to within a few hundred yards of the left half of Johnston's army. That afternoon, a "little reconnaissance" by Gen. Joseph A. Mower's XVII Corps division escalated into a full-scale push toward Mill Creek Bridge on the Confederate left flank.
Mower's charge overran Joe Johnston's headquarters, forcing the general and his entourage to beat a hasty retreat. At this critical juncture a well-orchestrated Confederate counterattack, led by Lt. Gen. William J. Hardee, quickly descended upon Mower's two brigades and forced them back. Sherman was furious with Mower's advance, fearing it would bring on the general engagement he wanted to avoid. The Union commander called a halt to the operation, but not before Mower's men were roughly handled by a combination of Confederate cavalry and infantry. Hardee's bold action assured Johnston the use of Mill Creek Bridge, his only means of egress from the battlefield. But the triumph of forcing the Federals back came at a personal cost to General Hardee. His only son, a youth of sixteen in the 8th Texas Cavalry, was mortally wounded in the charge against Mower. With no further advantage to be gained by holding a position at Bentonville, Johnston's weary troops abandoned their works during the night and withdrew toward Smithfield.
On March 22 Federal forces pursued the retreating Confederates as far as Hannah's Creek before giving up the chase. Sherman was content to let Johnston escape, fully expecting to have to deal with him again at a later date. But the Confederate withdrawal cleared the way for Sherman to occupy Goldsboro, which was foremost in the general's mind. His army needed rest and provisions, and Sherman also wanted to have the additional forces of J. M. Schofield and A. H. Terry before tangling with Johnston again.
The armies of Sherman, Schofield, and Terry converged on Goldsboro and occupied the town for two and one-half weeks in preparation for the final leg of the campaign.
On April 26, 1865, Johnston laid down Confederate arms on Sherman's terms at the Bennett Place near Durham, in the largest troop surrender of the American Civil War.