Near the war’s end, Confederate General Johnston struck
one last, telling blow at Sherman’s Union juggernaut.
By B. Keith Toney
By March 1865, both North and South realized that the long, bloody Civil War that had raged for four years was rapidly drawing to a close. With Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia trapped in the enemy’s stranglehold at Petersburg, and Major General William Sherman’s Union juggernaut racing out of Georgia and through the Carolinas, leaving a swath of destruction and desolation in its wake, there was a sense of desperation on one side and mounting expectant jubilation on the other.
Lee had convinced President Jefferson Davis that the South’s best hope of turning things around required the services of the president’s old nemesis, General Joseph E. Johnston. The much-maligned Johnston was sent to North Carolina and charged with a seemingly impossible task–stop Sherman, then race to Petersburg to join Lee.
Johnston tried–and, incredibly, for about four hours almost did exactly that. On March 19, 1865, near a place called Bentonville in east-central North Carolina, Johnston’s ragtag army managed to isolate and deal a telling blow to Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s wing of Sherman’s army. Unfortunately for the Confederates, who had little left but heart and pride, it was a case of far too little, too late. Fortunately for Sherman–as if he didn’t have a great enough advantage–the Confederates also had the burden of General Braxton Bragg commanding troops in the field. Though the battle would continue through March 21, the valiant effort of Johnston’s army was effectively ended the first day with its failure to crush Slocum.
Long overlooked in the shadows of the war’s end, the Battle of Bentonville has finally received the attention it deserves in two major works: Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston, by Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr., (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., $37.50) and Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville, by Mark Bradley (Savas Woodbury Publishers, Campbell, Calif., $33).
In Bentonville, veteran historian Nat Hughes has cemented his place at the forefront of Civil War historians with a detailed tactical study. The book is another fine example of what the Civil War community has come to expect from UNC Press publications–a scholarly work that will stand for years to come. Alongside such titles as Harry Pfanz’s two Gettysburg books and Gary Gallagher’s Fighting For the Confederacy, Hughes’ contribution to the UNC catalogue is a worthy addition.
If, after a visit to Bentonville (a trip that I highly recommend), you are captivated by this interesting battle and are looking for a detailed account of the fighting, Hughes’ book will fit the bill. Bentonville is meticulously researched and well-written and should stand the test of time as a classic example of a fine work about a major Civil War battle that has been too long overlooked.
Mark Bradley’s Last Stand takes a broader approach to the battle than does Hughes’ Bentonville, covering the earlier actions in North Carolina that led up to Bentonville. While Hughes’ book touches on the actions at Fayetteville and Averasboro to add context, Bradley gives a good, detailed analysis of both fights, explaining the direct influences that these earlier actions would have on the Bentonville battle.
Bradley has done an excellent job of blending firsthand accounts and his own analysis into a highly readable book. The narrative flows, carrying the reader along from point to point, and accomplishes the goal of every writer of history, enabling the reader to feel like an eyewitness to the battle as it unfolds.
The 36 maps by cartographer Mark A. Moore are superb. They go beyond complementing the text–one could practically follow the battle and understand all the action by using the maps alone.
Another excellent feature is the appendix, entitled “Views of the Battlefield.” Using both old and new photographs of the major geographic areas of Bentonville, Bradley gives readers a greater understanding of how the terrain affected events during the course of the battle.
It would be difficult to decide which book is the better, Bradley’s Last Stand in the Carolinas or Hughes’ Bentonville. The wisest choice would be to read both books, since they complement one another extremely well. Where one book is lacking, the other picks up the slack. If a choice had to be made, it would probably be to take Bradley’s to the battlefield and settle down with Hughes’ in the comfort of your favorite easy chair. As long as you keep the other handy, you can’t go wrong either way.