Action at Bentonville

Shown here is an artist rendering of the Federal forces turning the left flank of the Confederate line published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The artist was James E. Taylor, who in 1864 at the age of twenty-four became a ‘special artist’ for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Rogersville’s Carrick W. Heiskell, the original captain of the Hawkins Boys before he rose through the ranks to become colonel of the regiment, remembered a speech given by Gen. Frank Cheatham before the Battle of Bentonville, North Carolina.

“At night the men gathered and marched from one general’s headquarters to another, calling for speeches,” said Col. Heiskell. “Cheatham would dodge when his men came for him. But one evening they surrounded his tent — no one under a brigadier then had a tent — and called on him for a speech. He came out greatly embarrassed and said, ‘Boys, I have gained great reputation as a fighter, but the credit belongs to you, not to me. We have been in many tight places, but none where you ever failed me or failed your country. How many brave men have fallen your decimated ranks attest.’ And the General’s eyes filled; and the tears ran down the faces of his veterans. This was his speech.”

Nobody knew where they were or where the enemy was at the start of the battle due to the fact that both sides were using faulty maps. Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s map failed to show a road being used by the Confederates to move toward Bentonville while Gen. Joseph E. Johnston’s map was drawn with an incorrect scale, showing his troops closer together and Sherman’s farther away.

Based on this faulty information, Johnston, who had taken overall command in North Carolina, chose to unite his troops and attack.

The initial morning assault was successful. Sherman’s soldiers, expecting Confederate cavalry, were surprised to find nearly half of Johnston’s army and were quickly pushed back. Digging into a defensive position, they sent urgent messages to their commander for reinforcements.

As the day wore on, both generals begin to realize their errors. Sherman quickly sent another corps to reinforce the one already engaged in battle while making plans to send part of his army on a march around to come from behind. Johnston, seeing the Federal army growing in numbers while his own reinforcements were not arriving, held his ground and kept up the fight.

In the afternoon, the growing weight of the Union army finally punched a hole in the center of the Confederate line, through which the Yankees began to move. It was at this moment that the Hawkins Boys and what was left of the 19th Tennessee Infantry Regiment arrived on the battlefield and closed the gap in the line.

“Tuesday evening we reached the scene of action just in time to prevent the coming of a column of the enemy through a gap in our line of battle between the right and left wings of the army,” said William Worsham, regimental musician. “Here our brigade and regiment had its first encounter with the enemy on the new field. We drove them back and completed the broken line.”

The Confederates held the field after that day of fighting, but Sherman was undeterred and resumed the attack the next morning. In the next day’s battle, Sherman hit the Rebel left, under the command of Gen. William J. Hardee, while using his growing numbers to also try to get around the line and cut off any Confederate retreat.

Again the Hawkins Boys and the 19th Tennessee were called on to march to a new position and hold the line, and things were not going well when they arrived. The Federals had pushed back the left flank and the woods were on fire, filling the air with thick smoke.

“We never fought under just such circumstances before,” said Worsham. “The entire woods was filled with smoke, black and sooty, we could scarcely see. It filled not only our eyes but our mouths. We were in turpentine country, the trees all peeled and covered with rosin, and about every fiftieth tree was on fire. Great black volumes of smoke filled all the woods and rendered it almost intolerable.”

“The firing is hot in front,” said Col. Heiskell. “The enemy had almost surrounded us having forced our line in the form of a horseshoe, leaving only the open end of the shoe unguarded.”

Only through determined fighting had the men of the 19th Tennessee been able to push back Union advances and keep the horseshoe open. With reports of Federal soldiers marching in his rear and his army already surrounded on three sides, Gen. Johnston pulled his army out under cover of darkness, across Mill Creek to Smithfield, where he continued to watch Sherman. From there he sent the following message to Gen. Robert E. Lee in Richmond.

“Sherman’s course cannot be hindered by the small force I have. I respectfully suggest that it is no longer a question whether you leave present position; you have only to decide where to meet Sherman. I will be near him,” read Johnston’s message.

The Hawkins Boys, those few who were left, again awaited orders to march. But where to?

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