After completing the infamous March to the Sea, Sherman turns north and puts the Carolinas "...to the torch." Dividing his army in two columns, the Federals advance on Goldsboro NC, where they will unite with reinforcements moving west from the coast. With his forces concentrated, Sherman will then move to join Grant in Virginia.
The Federals expect little resistance from Confederate forces. However, on the morning of March 19th, the lead division of Slocum's column skirmishes with Confederate cavalry near Bentonville. As the Federals push back the horsemen, they suddenly run into enemy infantry behind a line of breastworks. Troops from General Braxton Bragg's Department of North Carolina are blocking the road.
"Well General, I have found something more than Dibrell's cavalry. I find infantry intrenched along our whole front, and enough of them to give us all the amusement we shall want for the rest of the day."
-Maj. General Henry Slocum, Army of Georgia
Federal troops from the XIV Corps probe the Confederate line:
Trying to turn the enemy flank at the Cole Farm, Briant's Brigade advances toward Confederate artillery behind some hasty works:
"Throwing forward skirmishers, we advanced rapidly, driving the enemy out of their skirmish line of works across the Cole farm to the woods beyond, but the enemy opened on us with shot and shell from a battery to our left oblique."
-Capt. William Voris, 88th Indiana
"We were in plain sight, in the open field, in musket range, and we found the place a little unhealthy."
-Capt. Joseph Hinson, 33rd Ohio
Vandever's Brigade marches past the Morris Farm toward the sound of the guns:
"I attacked, but failed to drive the enemy, who is strong in men and artillery. There is a very large force in our front."
-Brig. General William Carlin, 1st Division XIV Corps
The Federals continue to try to find their way around Bragg's flank. As they advance through the wilderness, they stumble upon more enemy troops. Waiting in ambush are thousands of Confederate soldiers. They are the remnants of what is left of the Army of Tennessee, under the command of Lt. General Alexander Stewart.
The Army of Tennessee advances to turn the Federal left flank:
"It looked like a picture and at our distance was truly beautiful. But it was a painful sight to see how close their battle flags were together, regiments being scarcely larger than companies, and a division not much larger than a regiment should be."
-Col. Charles Broadfoot, 1st NC Junior Reserve
Slocum learns from Confederate prisoners that he faces a large army under the command of Joseph E. Johnston, who has been brought out of retirement and given the task of halting Sherman's advance in North Carolina.
Bragg's troops start pouring over the works to launch a counter attack against Carlin's Division:
As the day wears on, the Federals try desperately to hold onto their positions. And to make matters worse, fresh Confederate troops appear on the Federal left. Taliaferro's Division from the Army of Northern Virginia moves forward from its position to extend the Confederate right. McLaw's Division, also from the ANV, is marching towards the front as well.
As the Confederate flanking force works its way to the rear of the Federal line, troops from General Alpheus Williams' XX Corps deploy at the Morris farm and push back the enemy. It is a desperate struggle, but the Federals manage to halt the Confederate advance as darkness descends upon the battlefield.
"The most terrible battle I ever imagined... It was the most fearful scene I ever witnessed."
-Capt. G.B. Gardner, General Hardee's staff
When Sherman received word of the size of the enemy force at Bentonville, he immediately sent Howard's Right Column to reinforce Slocum. On the following day, these reinforcements arrived and bolstered the Federal position. No major fighting took place on the 20th or the 21st, as the two armies licked their wounds and took time to reposition themselves and strengthen their defenses. During the night of the 21st through dawn on the 22nd, Johnston withdrew his army from the field.
Federal casualties numbered around 1,500, while the Confederates had suffered some 2,500 casualties. The Confederates failed to stop Sherman's army in North Carolina, and a month later the war ended.