Delaying the Army of the Tennessee: Evander Law and the Battle of Bentonville
We are now in the middle of the 152nd Anniversary of the Battle of Bentonville, fought from March 19 to March 21, 1865. During the three day battle, Confederate forces under Gen. Joseph Johnston engaged Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army group outside the small North Carolina village. The architect of the Confederate battle plan was the head of Johnston’s cavalry, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton. Following the Battle of Averasboro, Hampton monitored the Union march eastward. Operating outside Bentonville, he noticed the terrain on a nearby plantation sloped up to a high plateau and away from the road the Federals would have to use to reach their new supply base at Goldsboro. The Confederates could use the plateau to conceal infantry and then strike the enemy column along the road. Hampton pitched his plan to Johnston who readily agreed. As Johnston moved his infantry toward the battlefield on the morning of March 19, Hampton’s cavalry delayed the Union march until the Confederates could get into position. That afternoon, Johnston’s assault smashed one division from Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s Army of Georgia and came close to encircling another. Slocum was able to rally and beat back several attacks throughout the day before nightfall brought an end to the fighting. While Hampton’s performance is considered one of the finest by any officer on either side during the war, it overshadows the conduct of one of his subordinates on March 20.
My co-author of Calamity in Carolina: The Battles of Averasboro and Bentonville, March 1865, (Savas Beatie, LLC 2015) Phill Greenwalt aptly described Evander Law’s action during the battle in a text to me last Friday as “yeoman’s work”. Like his superior Hampton, Law was a native of South Carolina. Similarly, he did not have a West Point education. He cut his teeth first as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 4th Alabama and later as a brigade commander in Lt. James Longstreet’s First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia. When Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood was wounded at Gettysburg and then again at Chickamauga, Law temporarily took command of Hood’s Division. After recovering from a wound received at Cold Harbor, Law requested and received a transfer from Virginia in early 1865 to defend his native state as Sherman marched north from Savannah, Georgia. Law later received command of a brigade of South Carolinians in Maj. Gen. Matthew C. Butler’s cavalry division.
While Hampton contested Slocum’s advance, Butler kept a close eye on Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s Army of the Tennessee. Months of constant campaigning, however, caught up to Butler on the morning of March 20. Exhausted and sick, he turned command over to Law. Apprised of Johnston’s attack on Slocum, Howard moved to reinforce the Army of Georgia. His approach would put him squarely in Johnston’s rear, threatening to trap the Confederates between the two Union armies. Recognizing the threat, Law prepared to delay Howard’s advance while he sent couriers off to warn Johnston.
Law’s troopers pulled down fence rails to use as barricades as the Union infantry approached.”We were hurried up, part of our Regiment was deployed as skirmishers”, wrote Theodore Upson of the 100th Indiana as they moved to engage Law’s cavalrymen. “The Johnnys sent a lot of cavalry around our flank, thinking they would capture skirmish line which was well in advance. We were driving the Johnnys rapidly. They had a little 3 pound gun on he road would stop and fire it sometimes.” The Confederates stubbornly fell back, holding up Howard’s march for several hours. This was just enough time for Johnston to swing back his left flank and anchor it on a stream called Mill Creek. Although the line was weak, Law’s actions likely helped avert a disaster for Johnston.
When a Union assault nearly cut off his line of retreat on March 21, Johnston wisely decided to abandon the battlefield and march north to the town of Smithfield. After the war, Law moved to Florida where he was instrumental in establishing the state’s education system. He also ran a newspaper and served as commander of the Florida division of United Confederate Veterans. He passed away on Halloween, 1920 and rests in Bartow, Florida.