March 1865 saw the Confederacy in severe straits, Union General Ulysses S. Grant had a death-lock grip on Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces around Richmond, Virginia.
Meanwhile, in North Carolina, Union General William T. Sherman had reached the Tar Heel state and was angling toward the eastern portion of the state. He was aiming for Goldsboro, North Carolina where Union forces from the Atlantic Coast would meet him with a cornucopia of supplies.
To stop this juncture, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was put in charge of the the conglomerate of Southern forces, including the remnants of various garrison troops from the Atlantic seaboard, remnants of the Army of Tennessee, and various other commands.
One of those elements was the former Confederate garrison of Wilmington, which contained the veteran infantry division of Major General Robert Hoke. As they retreated, their goal was to stop the westward incursion of Major General Jacob Cox’s command whose goal was to capture Goldsboro and be ready for Sherman’s arrival.
That sets the stage for the critically important, yet largely forgotten, action at Wise’s Forks. The battle has “received only a fraction of the attention paid to battles fought at Bentonville, Monroe’s Crossroads, and Averasboro” (xi).
Luckily, the battle now has a complete and deserving monograph by two expert Civil War historians. The Battle of Wise’s Fork, March 1865 by Wade Sokolosky and Mark A. Smith.
The book is a compact, fast-moving, primary source driven, battle narrative. A must have for any Civil War enthusiast, especially those of the Western Theater.
Putting aside the benefit of hindsight, the Confederates that fight at Wise’s Forks continue with the same determination that had highlighted many a battlefield in the four years of war. Unfortunately, like a few of those battlefields for the Confederates in the west, Braxton Bragg was present for this one as well.
Yet, as the Cox’s Union troops reached Southwest Creek, near Kinston, North Carolina, one of the last defensive barriers before Goldsboro, North Carolina, the combined Confederate forces fought a last ditch offensive. Robert Hoke, D.H. Hill, proud survivors of the Army of Tennessee, and even North Carolina Junior Reserves–troops in their teenage years and under 18–matched wits with Union coastal garrison troops, veterans from the bloody fields of Virginia, and troops returning to Sherman’s command.
Fought over three days, the Confederates enjoyed great success on the first day, capturing nearly an entire Union brigade after routing them from their initial line of defense. Yet, Bragg’s unfortunate mantra of having an uncanny ability to misjudge the flow of a battle, pulled Confederate forces from one flank to the other. This innocent move robbed the Confederates of momentum and also opened up an escape route for parts of the Union command.
Two days later, in excellent prose, Sokolosky and Smith paint the sad-tale of what remained of three divisions of the Army of Tennessee, the former principle Confederate army in the west; “three experienced major generals and a pair of brigadiers led eight brigades totaling 1,700 men–the equivalent of a single average brigade in the Army of Tennessee during the Atlanta Campaign” (178). The attack that unfolds conjures up feelings of empathy and sadness for the immense loss suffered by this Confederate force.
With a cast of general officers, including Bragg, D.H. Hill, Hoke for the South, and George Greene, Jacob Cox, John Schofield, and even a cameo appearance of the Irishmen Thomas Francis Meagher for the North, the battle does not lack for household Civil War officer names.
Sokolosky and Smith do an excellent job at writing about these officers, including their command decisions or lack thereof. What adds to the history though is their mutual ability to bring out the individual tales and weave them effectively into the battle narrative. Learning the strife, effort, and humanitarian side of the fighting in March 1865 brings this book to another level and allows the reader to connect with these individuals of a century and a half ago.
One account that underscores the depth of research matched with adding an interesting side note to the overall history is the account of Confederate Private George A. Knight of the 42nd Georgia Infantry. Knight was captured in the fighting on March 10, 1865 and escaped death on another battlefield. Knight was leading a charmed life. As Sokolosky and Smith tell the tale, it “seemed that neither Yankee bullets nor Mother Nature could claim the Rebel private. Eight months earlier [from March 1865] a bolt of lightening had struck Knight but failed to kill him” (183).
Just an incredible tale of perseverance, or luck, or fate. Whichever you believe in, the fact that Sokolosky and Smith brought this depth of research into their book and molded it into a great read is truly remarkable.
Wise’s Forks, like Betonville, was a battle of lost opportunities. For a while, the battle lacked a dedicated narrative about the fighting and this segment of the final campaigns in North Carolina. Luckily, Sokolosky and Smith have rectified this unintentional omission.
I hope you enjoy the read as much as I did.
Publisher: Savas Beatie, LLC – 2015
270 pages, including illustrations, maps, and five appendices.