The Swamp Lizard Turns the Flank: Joseph Mower’s Assault at Bentonville

Joseph Mower. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Joseph Mower. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Reveling in victory, Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower watched as the enemy to his immediate front collapsed, the Confederates scampering to the rear for safety. To his immediate front, Mower could make out the buildings that constituted the village of Bentonville. His probe had completely broken the gray position- overrunning Gen. Joseph Johnston’s headquarters-but now Mower was advancing blind. He had to find out what was out in front of him. Turning to the nearest regiment, the 64th Illinois Infantry, Mower ordered them ahead. This act was characteristic of this Connecticut Yankee who had earned a reputation in Sherman’s armies as an aggressive officer.

 Mower began his military service in the War with Mexico as an Engineer. In the mid-1850s, he received an officer’s commission in the 1st U.S. Infantry. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Mower had risen to the rank of Captain. After serving in Maj. Gen. John Pope’s campaigns on the Mississippi River, Mower was promoted to Colonel and received command of the 11th Missouri Infantry. Rising to brigade command in the fall of 1862, Mower fought at Iuka and Corinth. Promoted to Brigadier General in March 1863, Mower led his men during the Vicksburg Campaign. He served in Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson Smith’s XVI Corps during the Red River Campaign and later fought at Tupelo. On August 12, 1864, he was promoted to Major General. As Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman prepared for his “March to the Sea”, he requested that Mower be transferred from Missouri to serve with his armies. Mower became a division commander in the XVII Corps of the Army of the Tennessee. It was during the opening actions of Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign in January, 1865, that Mower would earn the nickname “the Swamp Lizard.”

Like the rest of the Army of the Tennessee, Mower’s division arrived on March 20th, the second day of the battle. Leading the XVII Corps onto the battlefield, Mower initially took a position south of the Goldsboro Road in an attempt to link up with Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s Army of Georgia, only to have Maj. Gen. William Hazen’s division complete the connection. Mower then moved his men into reserve north of the road.

 March 21st opened with Gen. Joseph Johnston’s Army of the South and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s armies skirmishing with one another. Late in the morning, Mower received permission from his corps commander, Maj. Gen. Frank Blair, to launch a reconnaissance in force. Interestingly, Mower decided to take along two of the three brigades of his division-all but one regiment from his second brigade were guarding the wagon trains. Blair gave his permission and Mower moved his men around to the far right of the Union line.

Mower wrote afterwards “I pushed my command…for the purpose of closing on the enemy’s flank…then formed in line of battle, and throwing out skirmishers moved forward…in moving forward the brigade on the right (Brigadier General [John] Fuller’s) encountered a very bad swamp, and I found it necessary to halt the Third Brigade some three quarters of an hour to allow the First Brigade to pass the swamp.”

 He continued “At this time our skirmishers advancing met those of the enemy; they being thus aware of our approach opened a fire of artillery upon us. At this time our skirmishers met those of the enemy…As soon as General Fuller had again formed on the right I moved forward, driving the enemy from a line of skirmish pits which they had occupied, and capturing a caisson belonging to the battery which had been firing upon us and which they were unable to get away owing to two of the horses being shot. After gaining the crest of the hill I ordered a halt.”

Mower's division advanced across this ground toward the Confederate line beyond.
Mower’s division advanced across this ground toward the Confederate line beyond.

The Union infantry had crashed into Brig. Gen. Matthew C. Butler’s South Carolina troopers, commanded this day by Brig. Gen. Thomas Logan and overrun the guns of Captain William Earle’s battery. Fortuitously, the Yankees had overwhelmed the thinly held Confederate left and the village of Bentonville within sight a few hundred yards away. It was at this time that Mower dispatched the 64th Illinois. He could not have known it then, but just beyond the village lay the Mill Creek Bridge and the Confederates’ only avenue of retreat.

Modern bridge over Mill Creek.
Modern bridge over Mill Creek.

At the critical moment, Mower received a message from one of his brigade commanders that his line did not connect with the rest of the army. In turn Mower ordered his brigades to shift to the left. This maneuver gave the Confederates time to begin their counterattack. Johnston as well as his subordinates had recognized the threat and like locusts, both Confederate cavalry and infantry began to swarm onto the Mower’s brigades.

 While Brig. Gen. Pierce M.B. Young’s horsemen-led by Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton-drove the 64th Illinois out of Bentonville, elements from Col Baxter Smith’s brigade moved forward. The famous 8th Texas, “Terry’s Texas Rangers”, along with the 4th Tennessee struck the Federal infantrymen. Maj. Gen. Frank Cheatham’s division from the Army of Tennessee also joined the assault, pushing back Mower’s division and pressing in from three sides. A soldier in the 32nd Wisconsin recalled that it was “the hardest fight that we have ever had…the Johnnies came very near taking us all in, they came down on our Division in overwhelming numbers.”

Although Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard had pushed out the Army of the Tennessee’s skirmishers in support of Mower, Sherman was furious that the fighting had escalated. The commanding general did not want to bring on an engagement; he was more concerned with moving on to Goldsboro and resupplying his men.

Pressed in on three sides, Mower finally ordered a withdrawal. With his line restored, Johnston realized that his thin line was too vulnerable. Late that night, he began a hurried withdrawal. On March 23, Sherman’s armies finally reached Goldsboro, completing their march through the Carolinas.

Mower would eventually be elevated to command the XX Corps in the Army of Georgia. After the war, he would lead two all-black infantry units, the 39th U.S. Infantry and then the 25th U.S. Infantry. He died of pneumonia on January 6, 1870 while heading the Department of Louisiana in New Orleans. The “Swamp Lizard” rests in Arlington National Cemetery.

A special thanks to Dr. John Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy who graciously provided a letter from an ancestor who served in the 32nd Wisconsin that was used in this post.

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