In southern Johnston County, near Four Oaks, lies Bentonville Battlefield. It’s a secluded spot in the country amid farmland and tobacco fields.
From the gravel parking lot, the place seems serene. Only the random passing vehicle breaks the silence. But it’s hard to step out of your car without the weight of Bentonville hitting you.
This was the site of the last full-scale action of the Civil War – and North Carolina’s largest battle.
The History of Bentonville Battlefield
After destroying the Fayetteville Arsenal on March 11, 1865, Sherman spent four days in Fayetteville plotting his march north to join Grant. His objective was to destroy railroads and disrupt supply lines along the way.
Sherman decided to split his 60,000-man army into two wings. He planned to send Major General Slocum with the left wing of his army north to Raleigh – while Major General Howard led the right wing northeast toward Goldsboro.
On March 16, 1865, Confederate General Johnston sent General Hardee to slow Slocum’s progress, resulting in the Battle of Averasboro. After a day of heavy fighting, the rebels retreated.
The brief battle gave Johnston time to assemble his 20,000 forces at Smithfield.
After Averasboro, Slocum headed east toward Goldsboro.
Acting on information from Wade Hampton, Johnston directed his troops to gather at Bentonville and attack Slocum’s men.
On March 19, the battle broke out at Bentonville when the Confederates routed the lead Union division at Morris Farm. The rest of the Slocum’s men arrived and helped drive the Confederates back to their original lines.
Sherman’s troops set up a field hospital less than a mile from the front lines in the home of John and Amy Harper. Union surgeons treated men from both armies at Harper House throughout the battle.
Despite the hellish scenes of a Civil War field hospital, the Harpers refused to abandon their home.
The next day, Sherman’s right wing joined the left. Though heavily outnumbered, Johnston refused to withdraw his troops. He attempted to goad Sherman into attacking his entrenched position but failed.
Random altercations broke out throughout the day, but no significant battles occurred.
On the 21st, a Union division launched an unauthorized attack against the Confederates. They nearly succeeded in cutting off the rebel’s only line of retreat.
A counterassault saved the Confederate troops, who fled back to Smithfield.
The three-day battle resulted in 4,133 casualties. Confederate losses totaled 2,606, with 239 killed, 1,694 wounded, and 673 missing. Union casualties were 1,527, with 194 killed, 1,112 wounded, and 221 missing.
360 unknown Confederates were buried in a mass grave next to the Harper family cemetery.
Visiting the Battlefield
Bentonville Battlefield is more than just a historical site; it’s a window into a defining chapter of North Carolina history.
Visiting the battlefield allows us to pay homage to the soldiers who fought and died there – and to better understand the complex dynamics and sacrifices of this pivotal period in our history.
North Carolina recognized the historical significance of Bentonville Battlefield in 1957 when the state purchased 31 acres, including Harper House. The visitor center was dedicated eight years later on the centennial anniversary of the battle.
From 1990 to 2023, the American Battlefield Trust and its partners acquired and preserved 2,063 acres of the battlefield. About 1/3 of the original field is owned by North Carolina.
Bentonville was named a National Historic Landmark in 1996.
The site features a visitors center, Harper House, outbuildings, monuments, a Confederate cemetery, guided tours, a driving tour, and 5 miles of hiking trails. Activities include hiking, birding, and picnicking.
Located at 5466 Harper House Rd. in Four Oaks, the battlefield is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. They are closed for most major holidays. Admission is free.