Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site
Harper House Rd - No. of Newton Grove

Four Oaks, NC

October 11, 2003

As we pulled off the exit from I-95 to Smithville, NC, I noticed a sign that indicated "Bentonville Battlefield" south on Rt 701. Since I had never heard of a civil war battle in North Carolina I turned to my resident historian (Bob) and asked about it. He indicated it was just a minor battle in the "war between the States" as the southerners call it. We had decided to spend 3 days in Smithville so I thought it would be interesting to run down and see the battlefield. On the day we arrived at the battlefield the sky was rather ominous looking, filled with dark brooding clouds. We went into the visitors'William T. Sherman center and watched the informational film about the Bentonville Battle. We found out that the battle of Bentonville, which took place during the three days of March 19-21, 1865, was the last full-scale action of the Civil War in which the Confederate army was able to mount an offensive. This major battle, the largest ever fought in North Carolina, was the only significant attempt to defeat Gen. Williams T. Sherman after he left Georgia. Departing from Savannah in January, 1865, Sherman had met little resistance on his march northward. Union forces advanced through South Carolina, capturing Columbia and devastating the countryside. Only North Carolina lay between Sherman's army and Gen. U.S. Grant's forces in Virginia, and Confederate forces in the Carolinas were widely scattered. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston was ordered to unite these troops and attempt to prevent Sherman from combining his army with that of Grant. With less than half as many men as Sherman's sixty thousand, Johnston knew hisJoseph E. Johnston only chance for success lay in the possibility of finding Sherman's army divided. Miserable road conditions forced Sherman to divide his command into two wings, and on March 18, Johnston learned that the sections had become separated by a half-day's march. Sensing the opportunity to strike one of the wings with his force of about twenty thousand, the Confederate general moved his troops into position near the village of Bentonville. On the evening of March 18, Johnston organized his forces into a sickle-shaped line along the Goldsboro road and waited for the advancing Federals. The following day Sherman's left wing stumbled into Johnston's trap. Initial Confederate attacks overran large sections of Federal lines. One Union division managed to hold on despite being surrounded by Confederate adversaries. Failing to completely crush the Union lines, Johnston's Confederates pulled back into positions held earlier in the day. Sherman's right wing arrived on the battlefield early on March 20, ending Johnston's hope of dealing with a smaller Union force. For two days the opposing forces faced The John Harper house and field hospital each other. Cannon and rifle fire were constant. On March 21, a Federal advance commanded by Gen. J.A. Mower approached within two hundred yards of General Johnston's headquarters before being driven back. That evening Johnston's weary troops abandoned their positions and withdrew toward Smithfield. Federal forces observed but did not pursue the Confederates. Johnston failed to halt the Union advance, and Sherman's army marched on to Goldsboro, where supplies awaited the tired troops. Johnston surrendered to Sherman, ending the Civil War in the Carolinas. The Battle of Bentonville was fought over an area of six thousand acres. More than four thousand men were reported killed, wounded, or missing during the three-day battle. During the confrontation, wounded Union soldiers were taken to the farm home of John and Amy Harper, where a field hospital was established. Some wounded Confederates were likewise treated at this facility. After we finished the informational film we were greeted by a very knowledgeable young lady by the name of Becky Sawyer. I had seen a sign coming in that said tours of the nearby historic mansion were available on the hour. Since it was 15 minutes past the hour I asked her if we had missed the last tour. She told me that no one had shown up for that tour but if we were interested she would take us on the tour. We indicated that we were certainly interested and asked what the charge would be. She smiled and told us that there was no charge but we were welcome to make a donation. The farm house, had been owned by a couple named John and Amy Harper. During the battle of Bentonville many of the wounded were taken to this farm house to be treated by the army surgeons. In getting the Harper's agreement to use the house as a field hospital the army agreed John and Amy Harper to allow the family to remain in residence on the second floor of the house. Becky took us into the house which had been furnished to look like a field hospital of the civil war. It never ceases to amaze me how much the instruments used by the Doctors during the Civil War resemble the ones still used by doctors today. As we went through I could only imagine what it might have been like for the family to live above a field hospital with the screams and cries of the wounded. Unfortunately there was no journal from any member of the Harper family which the historical society has been able to locate. We were able to go through the entire house. Then we went outside and went through two out buildings that might have been similar to those that would have been used in the Civil War days as a kitchen and slave quarters. The kitchens in those days were kept in separate buildings to keep the heat out of the main house and also to reduce the risk of fire. The Harper family was reported to have three slaves. One male and two females. The slave quarters was a very simple wooden structure, which at least had a wooden floor and was raised up off the ground. Becky was able to answer all our questions about the farm and the battle. Afterward, we went back into the visitors' center and looked over the rest of the exhibits there. Then it was out to the truck and we drove around the path taken by the battle. Although we have been to a number of different war sites this one was interesting to me because of the fact that the family home had been turned into a field hospital and because the house was still standing. I really enjoyed our visit to the Bentonville Battlefield. 

Good Luck! Have Fun! and Stay Safe!