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Fall of the South: Battle of Bentonville

For the next few months, we'll be covering the final days of the Civil War exactly 150 years later. This is the fifth installment of the series.   

March 19-21, 1865: Battle of Bentonville

The Battle of Bentonville, from March 19-21, 1865, was the last large-scale engagement of the war for Joseph E. Johnston’s Army of the South, a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to stop the much larger Union army under William Tecumseh Sherman from advancing north, where he intended to join forces with the Army of the Potomac under Ulysses S. Grant. The Confederates fought valiantly and won some tactical victories but in the end they were simply outnumbered, reflecting the huge imbalance in manpower and materiel that would soon decide the war. 

After laying waste to South Carolina, Sherman’s army of around 60,000 men marched northeast into North Carolina, where he ordered his troops not to loot and burn property, since many locals disliked the Confederacy and he hoped to win them over (although they would still have to forage, meaning requisitioning food from inhabitants, generally without payment). Meanwhile another Union force of around 20,000 men under John Schofield captured Wilmington on February 22, 1865 and then headed inland, with orders to join up with Sherman’s army in the eastern part of the state.  

With fewer than 20,000 men in the ragged but proud Army of the South, Johnston knew his only chance of defeating Sherman, or even slowing his advance, was to attack before Schofield arrived at the nearby rail hub of Goldsboro, giving Sherman an overwhelming advantage. After concentrating his forces in Smithfield, North Carolina, about 20 miles southeast of Raleigh, Johnston decided to attack Sherman’s left flank, under the command of Henry W. Slocum, which was relatively isolated from the rest of the army as it approached the town of Bentonville; this held out the possibility of defeating the different parts of Sherman’s larger force “in detail,” or one at a time. 

At first Johnston’s plan met with great success on the first day of the battle, as the Confederate sprang a trap on Slocum’s forces, which fell back in disorder before finally managing to take up strong defensive positions towards nightfall. The battle raged through one of the state’s famous pine forests, with predictable consequences for the dry, highly flammable trees. One Confederate, A.P. Harcourt, described the battlefield. 

The battle… for the most part in a dense pine and turpentine forest. After the first day’s firing this forest got on fire and at night, the scene beggars description, as lurid flames, fed by the rosin on the trees, would shoot up into the sky and suddenly drop back like so many tongues, while underneath the wounded moaned piteously for help or struggle to escape roasting alive. 

Indeed Johnston’s initial success came at a considerable price, as his small force suffered 2,462 casualties – dead, wounded and missing – including a fifth of the beleaguered Army of Tennessee. Another Confederate soldier, Arthur Peronneau Ford, recounted the bloody scenes as his unit approached the fighting: 

We reached Bentonville at about 3 o'clock p. m., only a short time after the battle had begun, and as we marched hurriedly along the road in the direction of the firing we passed a number of wounded men coming to the rear; and then several operating tables on both sides of the road, some with wounded men stretched on them with the surgeons at work, and all of them with several bloody amputated legs and arms thrown alongside on the grass. 

On the other side Union colonel William Hamilton described a virtually identical scene: “A dozen surgeons and attendants in their shirt sleeves stood at rude benches cutting off arms and legs and throwing them out of the windows, where they lay scattered on the grass.” 

Although the Confederates had succeeded in driving Slocum’s Union forces back, reinforcements didn’t arrive in time to continue the assault, due in part to communications failures, and Johnston ended up withdrawing his troops to their original starting point, where they took up strong defensive positions in a rough “V” shape facing south. He hoped to provoke Sherman into attacking hastily, allowing the dug-in Confederates to inflict heavy losses – but Sherman didn’t fall for the trap. 

There was little fighting the next day, March 20, but the tide of battle nonetheless gradually turned against the Confederates as Sherman ordered his right wing under Oliver Howard forward to threaten Johnston’s flank and take the pressure off Slocum; Sherman also ordered Schofield to hurry his troops to Goldsboro, allowing him to threaten Johnston from the rear. As these forces came into alignment, Johnston found himself threatened with encirclement. 

After a rainy night, on the morning of March 21 the Union forces continued digging themselves in, while both sides sent out skirmishing squads to test their foe’s defenses and try to determine their intentions. This continued until the late afternoon, when Union corps commander Francis Preston Blair Jr. authorized a reconnaissance in force by Joseph A. Mower on the extreme right wing; Mower interpreted these orders liberally and led two brigades in a surprise attack on Johnston’s rear, which threatened to cut off Johnston’s only line of retreat, completing the encirclement. However Sherman ordered Mower to break off his impromptu attack, and Johnston was able to withdraw that night; Sherman later admitted this was a mistake, as he might have been able to defeat Johnston and shorten the war considerably. On the other hand the defeat at Bentonville further demoralized the Confederate troops. A Union soldier, Theodore Upson, summed up the situation: “I should think those fool Johnnys would quit. They might as well try to stop a tornado as Uncle Billy [Sherman] and his boys.” 

For his part, on March 23 Johnston warned Robert E. Lee that there was nothing he could do to stop Sherman, whose army now numbered over 80,000 with the arrival of Schofield’s troops and other reinforcements. Johnston’s message to the Confederate general-in-chief was fatalistic: “I can do no more than annoy him. 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.” 

In short Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, hanging on desperately at the Siege of Petersburg, was now on its own. Lee would have to break out of the siege on his own, before Sherman arrived, or face certain defeat. 

See the previous entry here. See all entries here.

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The Dangerous History Behind the Word 'Deadline'
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Nowadays, the word deadline is used all but exclusively to refer to a date or time by which something must be accomplished. But over the centuries, the term has been used in a number of different contexts: Among early 20th-century printers, for instance, a deadline was a line marked on a cylindrical press outside of which text would be illegible, while the Oxford English Dictionary has unearthed a reference to an angler’s “dead-line” dating from the mid-1800s referring to a weighted fishing line that does not move in the water.

The modern sense of deadline, however, may be influenced by a much more dangerous meaning. It originated during the Civil War, and came to prominence during the much-hyped trial of an infamous Swiss-born Confederate leader named Henry Wirz.

Wirz was born Heinrich Hartmann Wirz in Zürich in 1823. In his early twenties, a court forced him to leave Zürich for 12 years after he failed to repay borrowed money, and in 1848 he left first for Russia before eventually settling in America. After working a string of jobs at several spots around the country, Wirz married a woman named Elizabeth Wolf in 1854 and moved to Louisiana. After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, he enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry.

One of Wirz’s first engagements in the war was the Battle of Seven Pines on May 31, 1862. He was badly wounded in the fighting, losing the use of his right arm, and when he returned to his unit a few weeks later he was promoted to the rank of captain in recognition of his bravery and service. From there, Wirz rose through the ranks to become an adjutant to John H. Winder, an experienced and high-ranking general overseeing the treatment of Confederate deserters and Union prisoners. In 1864, Wirz was put in control of Camp Sumter, a newly-established internment camp for Union soldiers located near Andersonville in rural Georgia.

Over the remaining 14 months of the war, Camp Sumter grew to become one of the largest prisoner of war camps in the entire Confederacy. At its peak, it held more than 30,000 Union prisoners, all of whom shared an enormous 16.5-acre open-air paddock—conditions inside of which were notoriously grim. Disease and malnutrition were rife, and a lack of clean water, warm clothing, and adequate sanitation led to the deaths of many of the camp’s prisoners. Of the 45,000 Union prisoners held in the Camp at one time or another, it is estimated that almost a third succumbed to Sumter’s squalid and inhumane conditions.

In his defense, Wirz later claimed to have had little real control over the conditions in the camp, and it is certainly true that the day-to-day running of Camp Sumter was a disorganized affair divided among numerous different parties. Incompetence, rather than malice, may have been the cause of many of the camp's horrors.

Execution of Captain Henry Wirtz (i.e. Wirz), C.S.A, adjusting the rope
Execution of Captain Henry Wirz in 1865

In 1865, the war came to an end and Wirz was arrested in Andersonville. He was eventually sent to Washington, and held in the Old Capitol Prison to await trial before a military commission. That fall, more than 150 witnesses—including one of Wirz’s own prison staff and several former prisoners—took to the stand and gave testimony. Many provided damning evidence of Wirz’s harsh treatment of the prisoners (although historians now think some of these testimonies were exaggerated). As accounts of him withholding food and other supplies from prisoners found to have committed even minor offenses were relayed in the press—and as the full extent of the terrible conditions inside Camp Sumter became public—Wirz emerged as a much-vilified symbol of the camp’s inhumane treatment of its Union prisoners.

One of most damning examples of his inhumanity was his implementation of what became known as the Camp’s dead line:

Wirz, still wickedly pursuing his evil purpose, did establish and cause to be designated within the prison enclosure … a “dead line,” being a line around the inner face of the stockade or wall enclosing said prison, and about twenty feet distant and within said stockade; and so established said dead line, which was in many places an imaginary line, in many other places marked by insecure and shifting strips of [boards nailed] upon the tops of small and insecure stakes or posts, he … instructed the prison guard stationed around the top of said stockade to fire upon and kill any of the prisoners aforesaid who might touch, fall upon, pass over or under or across the said “dead line” ...

—Report of the Secretary of War, October 1865

In other words, this deadliest of all deadlines was a line Wirz implemented just inside the inner wall of Camp Sumter. Any prisoner wandering beyond the line would immediately be killed.

Stories like this were all the evidence the court needed: Wirz was found guilty of violating the rights of wartime prisoners, and was hanged on the morning of November 10, 1865.

Widespread press reports of Wirz’s trial and the horrors of Camp Sumter soon led to the word deadline being popularized, and eventually it passed into everyday use—thankfully in a less severe sense.

By the early 20th century, the word’s military connotations had all but disappeared and the familiar meaning of the deadlines we meet—or miss—today emerged by the early 1920s.

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The Confederacy's Plan to Conquer Latin America
Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Northerners and Southerners alike wanted the federal government to take a more aggressive approach toward acquiring new territory. In fact, some private citizens, known as filibusters, took matters into their own hands. They raised small armies illegally; ventured into Mexico, Cuba, and South America; and attempted to seize control of the lands. One particularly successful filibuster, William Walker, actually made himself president of Nicaragua and ruled from 1856 to 1857.

For the most part, these filibusters were just men in search of adventure. Others, however, were Southern imperialists who wanted to conquer new territories in the tropics. Abolitionist factions in the North greatly opposed their efforts, and the debate over Southern expansion only increased tensions in a divided nation. As the country drifted into war, U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky warned that "the Southern states cannot afford to be shut off from all possibility of expansion towards the tropics by the hostile action of the federal government."

But Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 put an end to the argument. The anti-slavery president refused to compromise on the issue, and war broke out in April 1861.

CONFEDERATE COLONIES, SOUTH OF THE BORDER

Winning the war was clearly a higher priority for the Confederacy than conquering Latin America, but growth was certainly on the post-war agenda. The Confederate constitution included the right to expand, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis filled his cabinet with men who thought similarly. He even hinted that the slave trade could be revived in "new acquisitions to be made south of the Rio Grande."

During the Civil War, Confederate agents attempted to destabilize Mexico so that its territories would be easy to snatch up after the war. One rebel emissary to Mexico City, John T. Pickett, secretly fomented rebellion in several Mexican provinces with an eye to "the permanent possession of that beautiful country." Pickett's mission ended in failure in 1861, but fate dealt the South a better hand in 1863. French Emperor Napoleon III seized Mexico, and the move provided the South with a perfect excuse to "liberate" the country after the Civil War.

Of course, Mexico was just part of the pie that the South hoped to inherit. Confederate leaders also had their eyes squarely on Brazil—a country of 3 million square miles and more than 8 million people. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Matthew Maury, one of the forces behind the U.S. Naval Academy, dispatched two Navy officers to the Amazon basin, ostensibly to map the river for shipping. Instead, they were secretly plotting domination and collecting data about separatist movements in the region. When the South lost the war, Maury refused to abandon his plans. He helped up to 20,000 ex-rebels flee to Brazil, where they established the Confederate colonies of New Texas and Americana. To this day, hundreds of descendants of the Confederados still gather outside Americana to celebrate their shared heritage of rocking chairs and sweet potato pie. In a strange way, a part of the Old South still survives—thousands of miles below the U.S. border.

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