In early February of 1865, Union General William T. Sherman turned northward from Savannah, Georgia to plow through the Carolinas and join up with General Ulysses S. Grant’s forces in Virginia. Brought out of “administrative exile,” Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston was put in charge of the defenses against Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee. Old Joe had one last chance to rebuild his reputation by blocking the Union advance with the remnants of the Army of Tennessee, plus some scrounged-together local forces. In the twilight hours of the Confederacy, the battle over the Carolinas would come to a head at Averasboro (March 15-16) and Bentonville (March 19-21). In the end, Johnston gave way to Sherman and withdrew further north. He would later surrender the Army of Tennessee that spring.
Rather than go into too much detail about the battle, I’ll recommend the book by Dan Davis and Phill Greenwalt within the Emerging Civil War Series entitled Calamity in Carolina: The Battle of Averasboro and Bentonville, March 1865. Between its covers, you’ll find a great overview of both battles and a driving tour beginning in Savannah and ending in Bentonville. I’ve personally followed most of the driving tour and definitely enjoyed the journey, even while most of the country was still shut down due to Covid back in the fall of 2020. For this week’s ECW Weekender, I’d like to share a few photos from my visit to Bentonville, a battle that holds meaning for me as a descendant of a soldier who participated in General Joseph Mower’s attack on March 21 (32nd Wisconsin, Company H).
The first place to start for any tour of a battlefield, of course, is the visitor’s center for the Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site. Though the center was closed at the time of my visit due to Covid restrictions, there were helpful volunteers sitting outside in the heat to provide a driving tour map and other handouts. A short walk from the visitor’s center is the preserved Harper House, former home to John and Amy Harper, along with their family and a few enslaved blacks. The house was used as a field hospital for the XIV Corps and later for convalescing Confederate prisoners of war. Mary Hatcher, the youngest daughter of John and Mary, remembered from the battle, “those fearful yells, the awful roar of the cannon, the hurtling grape and canister scattering destruction everywhere,” that had “made an impression that can never be described, and today rests in the memory as a funeral dirge.”
A stone’s throw from Harper House is a representative of a slave dwelling that may have been used by the enslaved people on the Harper Farm. According to 1860 census records, the Harpers enslaved three people, Lucy (age 37), Alexander (age 21), and Clarissa (age 19). It’s unclear what became of them, but there are black Harpers on the 1870 census within the vicinity of Bentonville, implying that they continued to reside in the area after emancipation.
Around the Harper House and visitor’s center are a smattering of monuments to both Union and Confederate forces. Above is one relatively new monument to the XIV, XV, XVII, and XX Corps that fought in the area.
A Confederate cemetery contain the remains of 360 soldiers who died during the battle of Bentonville, including soldiers who were recovering from wounds at the Harper House. Some are marked, but many are unknown.
Along the driving tour, one can see plenty of surviving – and recreated – earthworks from the battle. These particular earthworks were dug by the 1st Michigan Engineers and Mechanics, elements of Maj. General Alpheus William’s XX Corps.
The visitor’s center provides a great driving tour, but if you want to get out and stretch your legs, check out the walking trail around the Willis Cole Plantation on the northern end of the battlefield. Some heavy fighting occurred here on the first day of the battle (March 19). The earthworks along this trail had me “nerding out,” to which my husband can testify. Though the cellphone reception was pretty spotty along the trail, he could still hear me exclaim, “OMG! Look at those earthworks!” every so often during the phone call.
Bentonville has much more to offer than what I’ve mentioned here, and Averasboro is just down the road from the visitor’s center. If you need another excuse to visit and want to bring the family, Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site will be hosting a Fall Festival later this month, complete with living history demonstrations like blacksmithing, textile works, brewing, medicine, and much more. There will be wagon rides, live music, and crafting opportunities. For more information, you can visit their site HERE. Then, check out their website for additional information on how to visit on any regular ol’ day HERE.
 Daniel Davis & Phillip Greenwalt, Calamity in Carolina: The Battles of Averasboro and Bentonville, March 1865, (California: Savas Beattie, 2015), p. xvii
 Mary Harper Thatcher, “Reminiscences of the Battle of Bentonville,” (in a handout I requested from the volunteers at Bentonville Battlefield)