On 23 February command of the Confederate forces in North Carolina had been given to General Joseph Johnston. He commanded a force of around 21,000 men, with which to face Sherman’s 60,000. However, Sherman was advancing over a wide front, hoping to repeat his success in South Carolina. There, he had threatened both Augusta and Charleston, before eventually pushing between them to capture the state capitol at Columbia. This had split the Confederate forces in the state, and forced them to retreat without a fight.
Now Johnston was determined to attack. He hoped to take advantage of Sherman’s wide front by attacking one wing of the Union army and smashing it before the rest of the army could reinforce it. On 16 March 1865 part of Johnston’s army had encountered the Federal left wing at Averasborough. Although his army had been forced back by the Union advance, the battle did confirm that the Federal left wing was if not actually isolated, might at least be vulnerable to determined attack.
Accordingly, Johnston gathered together the bulk of his army, and on 19 March launched a full blooded attack on the advancing Federal left wing. He had judged well. During the afternoon on 19 March the Federal left wing had to fight alone. After so long without a battle, the Federal troops were almost surprised by the Confederate attack. The right wing of the army was about twenty miles further east. News of the fighting at Bentonville did not reach Sherman, who was now with the right wing, until the evening of 19 March. He immediately ordered a night march, and across the night of 19 March and most of 20 March the Federal right rushed to the aid of the left wing.
By the time they began to arrive during the afternoon of 20 March, the battle was effectively won. The Confederate attacks had had some initial success, but as the afternoon of 19 March had worn on, the Union position had been strengthened, while the Confederate strength began to fade. The next morning, Johnston did not have the strength to renew his attacks. On 20 March, neither side did much fighting. The Union troops worked to strengthen their position and awaited reinforcements. It is not entirely clear to this author why Johnston stayed in position. Every moment he waited the rest of the Union army got closer. Once Sherman arrived, there was a very serious danger that Johnston’s entire army would be captured.
That came close to happening on 21 March. Massively outnumbered, Johnston faced a frontal assault from the united Union army combined with a flank attack on his left wing that threatened to cut him off. His left wing came close to collapse. However, he was let off the hook by Sherman, who did not reinforce the successful attack, and instead called it back. Sherman later described this as a mistake, but at the time many felt that he was deliberately holding back. Sherman was not keen on full scale battle, and at this late stage in the war he did not want to waste the lives of his troops. He had always argued that the destruction of Confederate resources was the best way to end the war, and his march through the Carolinas had gone a long way towards proving him right. The remnants of Johnston’s army could have little or no effect on the outcome of the war. Events proved him correct. Within three weeks, Lee had surrendered and the war was virtually over. Johnston’s army played no further role in what was left of the fighting.