By March 8, 1865, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman's entire 60,000-man Union army had crossed into North Carolina after punishing South Carolina during the month of February. Sherman's army was in the second half of his proposed march from Georgia, to the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Sherman's short term goal was the vital railroad junction at Goldsboro, North Carolina, so that he could rest and refit his tired army.
Opposing Sherman's massive force was a ragtag group of Confederates commanded by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston. Since Johnston could only muster 20,000 men to fight Sherman's 60,000, the Confederate general had to bide his time and wait for the perfect opportunity to strike. This opportunity finally presented itself when Sherman divided his large force into two equal units, marching on separate roads, therefore allowing the army to move more quickly. In the nineteenth century, North Carolina's roads were notoriously bad and could not have withstood all of Sherman's men travelling on them at once. Sherman was forced to march his army on parallel roads, roughly twenty miles apart, which was nearly a day's march. Johnston could strike one of these columns of roughly 30,000 men with a better chance of success than having to fight the entire Union force.
On March 19, 1865, Johnston placed his soldiers in position to block the path of the Union left wing. The Confederate units were concealed by brush until the Northern soldiers came within easy firing range. By the time men from the Union army's XIV Corps realized they were marching into a trap, it was too late. The Federals, caught by surprise, were beaten back down the Goldsboro Road. Because Johnston was able to concentrate his small force to combat individual elements of the Northern army, his plan worked for a while. This changed, however, when other Union contingents hastily made it to Bentonville.
Despite the surprise sprung on the Northern soldiers at Bentonville, Johnston had too few troops to capitalize on his early gains. Although the XIV Corps was initially defeated, Johnston still had to combat the rapidly arriving XX Corps and later arriving units of the XIV Corps. This proved to be an impossible task for Johnston's men, as five separate assaults failed to dislodge Sherman's left wing. Johnston knew by night fall on March 19 that he had missed his opportunity to stop Sherman, and he retreated towards positions near the village of Bentonville.
By the morning of March 20, Sherman's right wing began arriving on the field. Those units had rushed toward Bentonville upon hearing the fighting in the distance. By the time the entire right wing arrived on the field, Sherman had nearly 60,000 men, giving him a three to one advantage over Johnston. Faced with such numbers, Johnston began retreating from Bentonville on March 21. Many of Johnston's men and Johnston himself were almost captured by Gen. Joseph A. Mower's Division of the Union right wing. "Mower's Charge" was eventually repulsed by Confederate forces, ending the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on North Carolina soil.
Confederate High Tide
March 19, 1865: 4:30 p.m. - Dark
The final Confederate attacks on the first day of battle — Morris Farm and South of the Goldsboro Road. (PDF)
March 19, 1865: Late Afternoon - Dark
Union defense of the Morris Farm, including positions of the XX Corps artillery. Also includes final actions south of the Goldsboro Road on the first day of battle. (PDF)
March 19, 1865: 2:45 - 3:45 p.m.
Main charge of the Confederate Army of Tennessee and Taliaferro's Division, including the rout of Carlin's Union division and Fearing's counterattack. (PDF)
March 19, 1865: 3:45 - 4:30 p.m.
Attack of Hoke's Confederate division on Morgan's Union position south of the Goldsboro Road. Also includes elements of the Army of Tennessee in rear of Morgan, and the advance of Cogswell's Union brigade. (PDF)
March 19, 1865: 3:45 - 4:30 p.m.
Morgan's struggle to maintain position south of the Goldsboro Road. Includes attack of Hoke's Confederate division, elements of the Army of Tennessee in rear of Morgan, and the advance of Cogswell's Union brigade. (PDF)
N.C. Junior Reserves
March 19-20, 1865
First position at Cole's Farm on March 19, and change of position on March 20, 1865. Also includes approach of the Union Right Wing, with overview of maneuvers on March 20. (PDF)
March 21, 1865: 12:00 p.m. - Dark
Advance of Mower's Union division toward the village of Bentonville and Mill Creek Bridge, with positions of Fuller's and Tillson's brigades. Also includes a portion of the extended engagement between the Confederate Hoke-McLaws line and the Union Right Wing. (PDF)
March 21, 1865: Mid-Afternoon - Dark
Confederate counterattack on Mower's Union division, showing defense of Mill Creek Bridge and flood of reserves to the Confederate left flank. Also includes a portion of the extended engagement between the Confederate Hoke-McLaws line and the Union Right Wing. (PDF)
Skirmish at Hannah's Creek
March 22, 1865
Final action of the Battle of Bentonville. Confederate retreat and Federal pursuit by the 26th Illinois Infantry. CIVIL WAR TRAILS. (PDF)