Review of Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston, by Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr.

13 Dec

For many historians, the saga of the Army of Tennessee during the Civil War ended with the disastrous Nashville Campaign in late 1864. Unbelievably, 4,500 veterans of that army traveled to North Carolina to take part in a last-ditch effort to halt William T. Sherman’s Union onslaught through the Carolinas over three months later. Late historian Nathaniel C. Hughes, Jr., chronicled this effort with Bentonville, The Final Battle of Sherman and Johnston.

Hughes, who has written biographies of Confederate Generals Gideon Pillow and William Hardee and of the Battle of Belmont, provides a straightforward account of one of the last major battles of the Civil War that took place at Bentonville, North Carolina.  Wasting few pages and barely setting the stage, Hughes describes how Sherman’s left wing became isolated in its trek through North Carolina after his destructive march through South Carolina and allowed Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, displaying a boldness he was not accustomed to exhibiting, the opportunity to strike it. Johnston, had gathered the remnants of the Army of Tennessee and combined it with other units from Georgia and the Carolinas to form an army charged with forcing back Sherman and preventing him from linking up with Grant to conquer Robert E. Lee’s army.

The battle opened on March 19, 1865 when portions of the Union left wing walked right into an ambush staged by Confederates and suffered devasting losses. Johnston’s men then attacked and inflicted additional casualties but stubborn stands from key Union units as well as some ineptitude by Confederate leaders, such as Braxton Bragg (again) prevented Confederate troops from securing a larger victory. When the day was over, the Federals had secured their position and the other Union wing was on its way. Once combined, the two wings would greatly outnumber Johnston’s force.

Interestingly enough, when the other wing arrived, Sherman hoped Johnston would simply fall back and not offer additional battle as he had so often when the two squared off in the campaign for Atlanta. Sherman held the upper hand and simply did not want to risk a large battle. Johnston kept this army in the field, however, and additional fighting took place on March 21 in which gallant Confederate counterattacks were necessary to save Johnston’s force from complete annihilation. Johnston eventually slipped away, and Sherman let him go. Johnston soon wrote Lee that he would not be able to hold off Sherman with his small force. Both he and Lee would surrender their armies less than a month later.

Bentonville adequately describes the battle, with Hughes using each chapter to chronicle the battle from one of the side’s perspectives. There are not enough maps to follow the action and left these readers sometimes confused about how things were unfolding on the landscape. Hughes also needed to spend more time setting the stage. We both still wonder how not only logistically but emotionally did those 4,500 beaten troops stationed in Tupelo, Mississippi, make the journey to continue to fight on in what had to be seen as an absolute losing cause.  At the very least, it would seem more men were disillusioned with their leadership after a series of devastating defeats. More time could have also been spent on Johnston’s decision to attack. Completely out of character with everything he exhibited on numerous other occasions throughout the war, this remarkable change in strategy seemed to deserve more thorough explanation.

Hughes ends the book describing Bentonville from the Confederate perspective as “brave, bold, and sad” and says the battle was a metaphor for the Confederacy itself, “bright hopes drowned in dark swamp water.” Strong words indeed for a forgotten fight that deserves more attention.

CPW/JMB

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