The Battle of Bentonville and Second Surrender of a Confederate Army in the East

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2023, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in The Charger in March 2023.

By the beginning of 1865, the Confederacy’s impending doom was becoming apparent with William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces approaching North Carolina at the beginning of March after its path through Georgia and then South Carolina and Robert E. Lee’s army trapped in the defense of Petersburg and Richmond. On February 22, 1865, Confederate President Davis recalled Joseph Johnston to lead a desperate attempt to stop Sherman before he united with Ulysses Grant’s Army of the Potomac.

Johnston assembled the remnants of John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee, Confederate forces under William J. Hardee scattered through the Southeast, Robert Hoke’s division from the Army of Northern Virginia under Braxton Bragg and cavalry commanded by Joseph Wheeler and Wade Hampton. Johnston reorganized this collection of disparate units by consolidating 153 depleted infantry regiments into 32. His approximately 30,000 faced an oncoming veteran Union force of twice that number. After entering North Carolina on March 8, Sherman divided his army into two wings – the left wing commanded by Henry Slocum and a right wing commanded by Oliver Otis Howard – and headed for Goldsboro.

Unexpectedly, given Johnston’s war record of fighting largely on the defensive, Johnston decided to attack Sherman’s left wing, which was separated from Howard’s right wing in their advance. The Confederates attacked on March 19 at the village of Bentonville, short of Goldsboro. Slocum’s forces were driven back into a defensive position. With the arrival of Howard’s reinforcements the next day, the now entrenched Confederates were outnumbered. On March 21, Union general Joseph Mower’s division of Frank Blair’s XVII Corps outflanked the Confederates, and Mower prepared to cut off Johnston’s escape route only to be ordered by Sherman to halt, allowing Johnston’s army to escape. Johnston’s army suffered around 2,600 casualties. Among its 239 killed was the 16-year-old son of General William Hardee, who had pleaded with his father to join the 8th Texas cavalry. Union casualties were about 1,500.

Willie Hardee’s gravestone
The gravestone gives Willie’s age as 17, but most sources give his age as 16.

On April 6, Johnston held a final review of his remaining force. Compared to the status of Johnston’s command of the Army of Tennessee during the Atlanta campaign of 1864, before being relieved by Davis in favor of Hood, these troops were now in terrible condition, most having been defeated at Franklin and Nashville in Tennessee or driven from Georgia and South Carolina by Sherman.

Sherman’s force was then joined by John Schofield’s and Jacob Dolson Cox’s corps coming from Tennessee and Alfred Terry’s force in North Carolina, bringing Sherman’s total to 88,948 soldiers as he aimed to advance to Raleigh, the state’s capital. It was captured by Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry on April 13, the day after Sherman learned of Lee’s surrender of his army in its failed flight attempt to link up with Johnston. On April 14, Johnston then met with Jefferson Davis and his cabinet in Greensboro as it was fleeing south. After Johnston informed Davis that his much smaller force had no chance of defeating Sherman, Davis authorized Johnston to contact Sherman about terms of surrender. Johnston then promptly informed Sherman that he wanted an armistice while pursuing this issue.

The two commanders met on April 17 at the Bennett farmhouse west of Raleigh. When Sherman informed Johnston of Lincoln’s assassination, Johnston feared the worst. But for the intervention of General John Logan, commander of the Union XV Corps, Union troops, enraged by the news of Lincoln’s assassination, might have burned Raleigh in retaliation.

Joined now by Confederate Secretary of War and former U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge, Sherman and Johnston agreed to a surrender that went far beyond the terms that Grant and Lee had previously signed and were much more favorable to the Confederacy. In the face of immediate repudiation by the federal cabinet, they were then forced to back down and agree to the Grant-Lee surrender terms, although “Johnson balked…He explained the pending starvation of his men and the fact that some lived as far away as Texas and needed help getting home” (Dollar, p. 146). Sherman then provided supplemental terms of 250,000 rations and permitted the use of federal trains and boats for paroled rebels: “This kind act cemented the bond of friendship between the opposing army commanders, an affection that would last through the rest of their lives” (Dollar, p. 147).

Sam Watkins

Reflecting the toll of the war on the Confederate armies, Private Sam R. Watkins of Company “Aytch” [H] of the First Tennessee Infantry Regiment in his 1881 memoir of the Civil War recounted its condition at the surrender:

“On the 26th day of April, 1865, General Joe E. Johnston surrendered his army at Greensboro, North Carolina. The day that we surrendered the regiment it was a pitiful sight to behold. If I remember correctly, there were just sixty-five men in all, including officers, that were paroled on that day. Now, what became of the total of the original 3,200?…It was indeed a sad sight to look at, the Old First Tennessee regiment. A mere squad of noble and brave men, gathered around the tattered flag that they had followed in every battle through that long war.”

Dollar describes that during this period there were increasingly lawless conditions including widespread looting fueled by alcohol, food shortages, and the realization of Confederate soldiers that final defeat was near. Johnston’s force’s morale plummeted after learning of Lee’s surrender and suffered massive desertions prior to its final surrender on April 26. Notably, Confederate cavalry commanders Wheeler and Hampton defied the surrender.

On the Union side:

“As Sherman’s grand army marched away from war, its members experienced a dramatic realization that their soldier lives were ending. The intimate bonds with their mess mates, forged under the very worst of conditions, would soon be torn asunder. Men who once held each other’s lives in their hands would soon disappear. The thought of the dissolution of their powerful brotherhood elicited a deep melancholia” (Dollar, p. 168).

Dollar concluded:

“The inescapable proof of the war’s impact on survivors was found in the debilitated physical, mental, and moral states that afflicted many veterans. Families both North and South tried to put their own lives back together, while helping old soldiers deal with their maladies” (Dollar, p. 190).

Dollar recounts the suffering of veterans and the suicides of many. His book draws upon the diaries and accounts of numerous veterans and civilians throughout his day-by-day history of the events in North Carolina.

References (Click on any of the book titles to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.)

Dollar, Jr., Ernest A. Hearts Torn Asunder: Trauma in the Civil War’s Final Campaign in North Carolina (Savas Beatie, 2022)

Hughes, Jr., Nathaniel Cheairs. Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston (U. North Carolina Press, 1996)

Woodworth, Steven E. Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee, 1861-1865 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) [pp. 629-631]

Related link:
A Civil War Greek Tragedy