In honor of Pvt. Nathan R. Oakes, CSA

150 years ago, my great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, served as a private in Company D of the distinguished 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in the Army of Tennessee. He participated in the great Civil War campaigns, including the battles of Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Atlanta, Franklin, Nashville, and Bentonville. I am writing about his engagements as well as some details about fighting for the Lost Cause. I hope to honor him and commemorate the events and individuals that contributed to making this a renowned unit in the Confederate Army of Tennessee.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Battle of Bentonville, 1865

The last battle to be fought between the Union army under Gen. William T. Sherman and the Confederate army under Gen. Joseph E. Johnston began on this date in 1865. It lasted through the 21st. Known as the the Battle of Bentonville, it was fought in that North Carolina community.

For almost 7 weeks, Sherman's army had moved from Savannah through the Carolinas, its 2 columns, ravaging the population and the countryside as they passed. While Sherman met some opposition along the way, the scattered Confederate forces had been able only to delay his march.

While Union Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum's advancing left wing was stalled briefly at Averasboro on March 16th by Lt. Gen. William Hardee’s attack, by the next day it had resumed its march toward Goldsboro. The right wing of Sherman’s army under Maj. Gen. O.O. Howard was headed in the same direction on a parallel route.
On March 18th, Johnston received a report from his cavalry commander Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton informing him that Sherman's 2 wings were advancing on Goldsboro and were widely separated. One of the columns, Slocum's, was marching up the road from Averasboro to Bentonville. Hampton suggested the Willis Cole plantation as an ideal place for a surprise attack. Johnston agreed and directed his generals Stewart, Bragg, and Hardee to march for Bentonville.

Johnston was convinced that he must attack Sherman before he could combine forces with Maj. Gen. John M. Schofield's army, at this moment moving west from Kingston to Goldsboro. Furthermore, Johnston believed that delivering a knockout blow to Sherman would give the South greater leverage for bargaining at war's end. And an attack now would also help Robert E. Lee's army in Petersburg, Virginia, by preventing Sherman from joining Gen. U.S. Grant's army.

On today's date, a Sunday in 1865, the  the Confederates launched their offensive near the village Bentonville.1 The struggle took place between men and units of opposing armies which had been fighting each other for the entire war. My great grandfather Nathan Oakes also saw his last fight here on the 21st, when his brigade (Lowrey's) arrived on the battlefield, the last of Cheatham's troops, and Johnston's last infantry reinforcements to join the battle.

Confederate commanders placed their troops in position to block the path of the Union left wing. By the time Slocum's men realized they were marching into a trap, it was too late. Caught by surprise, they were beaten back down the Goldsboro Road. So far, Johnston's relatively small but concentrated force had been successful. 
Unfortunately for Johnston, however, his force was simply too small to follow up on his initial success. To add to his difficulty, units from other Union corps were rushed to join the battle. On the 20th, Sherman's ranks had swollen to 60,000 men, 3 times the size of Johnston's force.
Nevertheless, the outmatched Confederates launched 5 separate assaults. Each failed to dislodge Slocum's column, however. On the 21st, many of the troops from Cheatham's Corps, plus Gen. Johnston himself, were almost captured when Maj. Gen. Joseph A. Mower's Division of the Union right wing overran Johnston's headquarters. At stake was the Confederates' only line of retreat across Mill Creek. Hardee counterattacked with a hastily assembled force, including Cheatham's Corps (Lowrey's Brigade was probably held in reserve behind Cheatham's attacking troops). His bold action repulsed the Federals and held the Mill Creek bridge. His counterattack also brought the battle to a close.
Faced with overwhelming numbers, and with nothing further to gain by holding his position, overnight on March 21-22, Johnston began withdrawing his troops across Mill Creek toward Smithfield, about 15 miles north. There he planned to rest and refit his men and also ready them to stop Sherman's anticipated march to join Grant against Robert E. Lee in Virginia. His army had just suffered 2,600 casualties to Sherman's loss of 1,500. With the smaller and more depleted force, Johnston's loss had the greater impact, and it will contribute to his decision to surrender a month later.

The Battle of Bentonville succeeded in delaying Sherman, however, it did not seriously cripple his army. Had Sherman determined to crush Johnston at Bentonville, the war in North Carolina would have come to an end here and now. Bentonville served as a reminder to Sherman that the Confederates were still a force to be reckoned with.

With Johnston's withdrawal, the way was now clear for Sherman to move on to Goldsboro, there to unite his forces.

An excellent series of maps of the Battle of Bentonville is available at the Civil War Trust website. Another website provided by North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources website offers an outstanding series of maps detailing the action from March 19-22, 1865.
Lowrey's Brigade, which included 8th/32nd Mississippi RegimentGreat Grandfather Oakes's unitarrived on the battlefield on the 21st along with with Brown's Division. Having experienced serious delays on the rail line, Lowrey's Brigade and Brown's Division arrived at the station at Selma about 5:00 PM on the 20th. According to historian Mark L. Bradley, "Frank Cheatham set a grueling pace on the march to Bentonville the next morning. The men struggled to keep up and many of them dropped out from exhaustion, doubtless the result of two weeks' inactivity caused by the haphazard nature of travel on the North Carolina Railroad." In view of its exhausted condition, the brigade may not have seen serious action on its arrival at Bentonville, but instead held in reserve.

Sources: Last Stand in the Carolinas, Mark L. Bradley; Moore's Historical Guide to the Battle of Bentonville, Mark A. Moore; The Confederate Surrender at Greensboro, Robert M. Dunkerly; Narrative of Military Operations During the Civil War, Joseph E. Johnston; Official Records, Vol. 47, Pt. 1

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