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.

Library of Congress // Public Domain
The Key to Robert E. Lee's Puzzling Death Might Be Hidden in a Photo of His Earlobe
Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

When Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee died five years after the Civil War ended, the cause of his death had doctors stumped. He had been in poor health, but his specific illness was a mystery; there weren't many clues beyond symptoms Lee had described in letters. “The troops are not encamped near me and I have felt so unwell since my return as not to be able to go anywhere,” he wrote to his wife in 1863.

This was before electrocardiograms and x-rays existed. There were no obvious physical findings to support a formal diagnosis, either. Lee’s doctors made some educated guesses based on his gripes and treated him with everything but the kitchen sink: hot mustard plasters and footbaths, doses of turpentine or ammonia, and enemas, all of which were standard medical treatments in the Civil War era. Without a robust medical history to guide them, the doctors diagnosed stroke, rheumatism, and pneumonia in the months leading up to Lee's death.

Now, new research from East Carolina University sheds light on the age-old question of what actually caused Lee's demise, thanks to the discovery in a photograph of a crease running diagonally across Lee’s right earlobe. According to the case study, recently published in the American Journal of Cardiology, the crease is a physical sign that Lee likely died from heart disease.

Richard Reinhart, an emeritus professor of medicine at East Carolina University and author of the paper, says earlobe creases can help detect heart disease. Some previous reports have pointed to heart disease as the cause of Lee’s death based on written evidence, but “until now there hadn’t been an actual physical finding supporting this diagnosis,” Reinhart tells Mental Floss. “His earlobe crease is the only piece of objective physical evidence that helps back it up.”

Photo of Robert E. Lee showing a crease in his right earlobe
Virginia Historical Society

The possible connection between earlobe creases and heart disease was first made in 1973, and there have since been more than 120 studies investigating the link. Scientists aren’t sure why creases appear in the earlobes of some heart disease patients, but researchers have suggested that a heart condition may affect the blood vessels and elasticity of the earlobe in a way that forms a crease over time.

Reinhart, a history buff who has a particular interest in the life of Lee, saw a close-up photo of the general at the Virginia Historical Society one day and noticed the wrinkle on his ear. Aware of the possible link between earlobe creases and heart disease, he began poring through Lee’s personal letters and attending physicians’ notes, as well as previous reports of Lee’s illness, to see if his symptoms jibed with a failing heart.

It turned out the symptoms correlated well: Lee initially had an episode of chest pain in 1863, which progressively worsened when he exerted himself and eventually took on characteristics that would be recognized today as heart disease. And in the months before his death in 1870, he began to have chest pain even at rest, which suggests a heart attack was imminent.

“The constellation of symptoms, I believe, are readily explained by heart failure due to progressive coronary artery disease,” Reinhart says.

In an age where advanced medical diagnostic tools weren’t yet in play, a physical feature like an earlobe crease would have been a useful visual cue had doctors known it might signal heart trouble. But even if they had known, could they have done anything to help Lee? One option—a nitroglycerin-based substance called amyl nitrite, which dilates the coronary artery for better blood flow to the heart—had been documented in the British medical journal Lancet in 1867 but wasn’t used much clinically. Salicylate, the precursor to aspirin, which today's physicians recommend for preventing heart attacks, had been around since before the Civil War. But the idea of using it as an anti-platelet drug wouldn't occur for decades.

“Understanding heart disease back then was in its relative infancy, and I don’t think there’s anything that would have turned Lee’s condition around,” Reinhart says. “Even today, I believe the outcome from his final illness—end-stage heart failure—may not have been much better, given that the mortality rates for it are still significant.”

Show and Tell
Photograph of Jefferson Davis in Women’s Clothing
International Center for Photography, Gift of Charles Schwartz, 2012

On May 10, 1865, Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy, was captured by Union troops near Irwinville, Georgia. Davis’s capture, about a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, was the effective end of the Confederacy and the four-year war that had left hundred of thousands of Americans dead.

Davis, a true believer in the cause of the Confederacy, refused to accept Lee’s surrender, believing that the South could still wage a guerilla war against the Union (clearly, Lee disagreed). With that cause in mind, Davis and his family fled Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, hoping to make it to Texas, where he believed he could continue to fight. But the Davises would only make it as far as south Georgia before they were found by Union troops.

According to a handful of accounts from the period, Davis was captured while wearing women’s clothes. The story, as it’s generally told, depicts a man desperate to escape and so, with the encouragement of his wife, Varina, he donned her overcoat and shawl and slipped into the Georgia swamp with a female servant (other accounts say he grabbed his wife's coat and shawl accidentally). Union troops spotted the two “women” and, on closer look, realized that one was wearing spurred boots. Given away by his footwear, Davis surrendered to the Union troops.

The story of Davis in women’s clothing traveled quickly to the ears of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Stanton recognized the story as an opportunity to discredit Davis, who still had numerous sympathizers throughout the country. Historians have noted that the North gendered its victory as masculine and heroic and, in contrast, portrayed the South as feminine and weak. Davis’s flight played into that narrative, portraying the Southern leader as a coward willing to emasculate himself in order to escape. In short, manly martyrs do not wear women’s clothes. (Never mind that numerous eyewitness accounts disputed the story, including two by members of the First Wisconsin Cavalry, one of the units that captured Davis and his party and another by Davis’s coachman.)

Nevertheless, Stanton planned to exploit the account to the Union’s full advantage. But there was a slight hitch in his plan—namely, the look and style of Varina Davis’s overcoat and shawl. Mrs. Davis’s overcoat was essentially unisex, and bore a striking resemblance to the raincoats of Union soldiers. Furthermore, the shawl was also worn by many men in the mid-19th century, including Abraham Lincoln. The original plan foiled, Stanton encouraged the rumor that Davis had been captured wearing women’s petticoats, earning Davis the derogatory nickname “President in Petticoats.”

The rumor proved incredibly popular. Historian Gaines Foster writes, “Northerners delighted in the accounts of how the Confederate chieftain had tried to escape in female disguise.” Indeed, even P.T. Barnum couldn’t resist the spectacle: The circus king exhibited what he claimed to be the very clothes Davis was wearing at the time of his capture.

Boston Public Library via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Numerous prints circulated of Davis in petticoats, and photography—a relatively new medium at the time—took up the theme as well. In this combination photograph (up top) produced by the Slee Brothers of Poughkeepsie, New York, and now owned by the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, Davis is depicted in the petticoats of a woman, his head, taken from a separate photographic portrait, having been imposed on another body. Here, Davis wears bonnet, shawl, and petticoats, a fanciful elaboration on the story of his capture, and the skirts are lifted to reveal his spurred boots. The Slee Brothers were one of many photography studios to use combination printing—the production of a single positive through multiple negatives—to play with the theme of Davis fleeing in women’s clothes.

Other photographs from the period depict Davis’s head superimposed on a body wearing full hoop skirts with large men’s boots also imposed over the body, as well as Davis (again in full women’s dress) sneaking through the Georgia swampland while holding a dagger. In almost all of these photographs, the boots are prominently displayed, noting Davis’s folly and a clear part of the narrative of the North’s victory.

Photography was undoubtedly a powerful tool to disseminate the story of Davis’s and the South’s defeat. Davis himself recognized the importance of the new medium: In 1869, he commissioned a photograph of himself wearing the actual clothes he had worn when captured. But the act was fruitless and, despite his insistence, the “President in Petticoats” is a story that stuck with Davis long after death.

Header image: International Center for Photography


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