The Battle of Bentonville was a veritable who’s-who of discarded Confederate leaders: Joe Johnston, Braxton Bragg, Lafayette McLaws, Alfred Colquitt, Evander Law, and William B. Taliaferro were just some of the hapless commanders on the field. The 22,000-man army that Johnston commanded looked much more impressive on paper. The army consisted of the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, the Department of North Carolina, and the Department of South Carolina, Georgia & Florida, with other castoffs joining along the way.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Averasboro, William T. Sherman continued his march through the Carolinas, destroying railroads and disrupting supply lines on its way to join Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army near Petersburg & Richmond. On March 19, as the respective Federal wings approached Goldsboro, North Carolina, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum’s wing encountered Johnston’s hodgepodge army. Johnston’s forces concentrated at Bentonville with the hope of falling upon Slocum’s wing before the Federal wing of Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard could come to Slocum’s support.
Convinced that he faced only a paltry Confederate cavalry force, Slocum launched an attack to disperse them. In turn, the Yankees were driven back. Slocum then established a makeshift defensive line northeast of the Harper house and called for reinforcements. Meantime, Johnston’s army arrayed itself to deal a blow to Slocum. It took the Confederates the better part of the day to bring their offensive to life. After 3 p.m., the Rebel line surged forward. Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s division of the Army of Northern Virginia attacked the right of Slocum’s line, driving back Slocum’s men and overrunning the Union XIV Corps field hospital. While on the Union left, the remnants of the Confederate Army of Tennessee crashed into the weak Federal line. While many of the Federal units were driven back, Brig. Gen. James D. Morgan’s Union division held out against the onslaught, and eventually Union reinforcements arrived to support a counterattack. The Confederates reached their high-water mark at the Morris Farm, where Union forces formed a defensive line. After several Confederate attacks failed to dislodge the Union defenders, the rebels pulled back to their original lines. Nightfall brought the first day’s fighting to a close in a tactical draw.
The next day, Howard's right wing arrived to reinforce Slocum, which put the Confederates at a numerical disadvantage. Sherman expected Johnston to retreat and was inclined to let him do so. Although Johnston began evacuating his wounded, he refused to give up his tenuous position, guarding his only route of escape across Mill Creek. Outnumbered, his only hope for success was to entice Sherman into attacking his entrenched position, something Sherman was unlikely to do.
The next day, Johnston remained in position and skirmishing resumed. Heavy fighting erupted south of the Goldsboro Road in an area later called the “Bull Pen” between Morgan’s and Hoke’s men. Under a heavy rainfall, Union Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower led a “little reconnaissance” toward the Mill Creek Bridge. When Mower discovered the weakness of the Confederate left flank, Mower launched an attack against the small force holding the bridge. A Confederate counterattack, combined with Sherman’s order for Mower to withdraw, ended the advance, allowing Johnston’s army to retain control of their only means of supply and retreat. Johnston’s men retreated across the bridge that evening, ending the battle. Sherman pursued Johnston’s army toward Raleigh—capturing the city on April 13. The war in the Western Theater was drawing to a close.