"that day, which opened so calmly and beautifully, was to be a day of battle and death."2
Draped in London Fog to protect myself from the elements, I walked across the gravel drive of the Visitors Center toward the cemetery in silence, head hung low against the forty mile an hour winds slowing my advance. I watched my feet as they trod soundless in the howl, and allowed images to scroll through my mind.
It had been overcast at the end, I decided, and like today, the grass and pine straw would have been wet from recent rains that turned nearby creeks and rivers into angry torrents. Confederate escape routes. The flat, sandy field now before me had been torn apart by feet, cannons, horses, bullets. Men, thousands of them, using hastily formed trenches and gangly longleaf pines as shields, wiped sweat and dirt from gaunt faces as they tried to spy strangers through the smoke. Enemies. Monsters who had killed, burned, raped, destroyed and who brought on them a battle that should have been fought only at the gates of hell. Not in Bentonville, North Carolina.
But hell was upon them. And on March 19, 1865, in a small farming village surrounded by pine trees and fields, 20,000 war-ravaged confederate soldiers positioned themselves between General Ulysses S. Grant, waiting in Virginia, and an insurmountable force more than twice their numbers—one wing of General William T. Sherman's 60,000 men—in what became what park literature calls "the final decisive battle" of the War Between the States.
The fighting would rage for three days.
I glanced behind me, past my husband who stood outside the drab Visitors Center, to the white, two-story home that had once belonged to Bentonville residents, John and Amy Harper. It's a handsome home, with white clapboard siding, green shutters, and an inviting porch shaded by a tall portico. Like dozens of other homes along this stretch of NC 1008, it sits peacefully, just miles from where we had lived when we moved to North Carolina. When the wounded began to fall in the hours after the offense began, Federal commanders requested the use of the home as a medical facility. Knowing the enemy would take it anyway, John Harper agreed, resulting in Union officers permitting the Harpers to occupy the upper floor of the house. There, in four rooms, ten members of the family lived while blood flowed on their floorboards below—seeing, smelling, hearing a battle of another kind as doctors tossed bloody amputated arms and legs through the window and onto the ground in the sight of the hundreds of wounded who lay on the front yard awaiting medical treatment.
A tall, disfigured tree stands nearby in the neatly trimmed yard, watching, as it had in those days. The sole witness to General Johnston's futile attempt to break Sherman's army. The last to stand when Johnston retreated in the face of the unbeatable foe. So old its branches twist like arthritic fingers, did this sentinel see the arrival of Sherman's remaining wing? If so, it witnessed the end of the offensive and, essentially, the War Between the States.
Over 4,200 men died.
My husband reached my side and together, we walked across the sandy field. Other than the house, its kitchen and remaining slave quarters, the only remnants of the skirmishes fought here are the Union trench works, and the bullets, belt buckles, and other artifacts on display in the Visitors Center. Several eye-catching monuments placed near the Harper family cemetery mark the spot where 360 confederate soldiers sleep in a mass grave. Those testaments, reenactments held every few years, and the park's guides are all that's left to tell the story of the Gettysburg-like fury once fought on these now obscure lands.
Until those struck by the forgotten history of this small town come along.
Bentonville Battlefield is one of twenty-nine stops on the Battlefield of Bentonville tour, which travels from the Harper House, across NC 1008, up Bentonville Road, and down Devil's Racetrack Road. Bentonville Battlefield is located at 5466 Harper House Road in Four Oaks. For more information, go to www.nchistoricsites.org/bentonvi/
For a timeline and synopsis of the battle, go to:
2. McClurg, Alexander C., The Last Chance of the Confederacy. The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 50, issue 299 (September 1882)--(footnote from Cornell University Library at cdl.library.cornell.edu/moa/browse.author/m.83.html)