The army was again put in motion, March 15th, the left wing moving in the direction of Raleigh, and the right wing toward Goldsboro. A brisk engagement took place on the 16th, at Averysboro, between the advance of the left wing and the enemy's rear guard, for the protection of his trains, which were hindered in their progress by the heavy roads. To facilitate our movements, the brigade and supply trains had been left behind, the main body of the army pushing forward with the ordnance train. Hence the enemy was so pressed that he was forced to fight to save his train. The forces engaged sustained severe losses, but the enemy having attained his object, in checking our progress, withdrew from our front, and the pursuit was renewed.
Our Brigade was assigned to duty as train guard, March 15th, and moved on the following morning, (p295) in charge of the entire Corps train, consisting of nearly a thousand wagons. The condition of the roads was such that progress was almost impossible. Rain continued to fall, and the prospect seemed dark before us. It became necessary to corduroy nearly the entire distance traveled during the afternoon and the ensuing night. The pioneers and troops struggled on in their laborious duties, and the train was moved only two miles from noon of the 16th to 8 o'clock the next morning. In the twenty-four hours we had made but eight miles, overcoming obstacles that might be deemed insurmountable. On the 17th, we succeeded in reaching and crossing South River, a distance of five miles. The greatest difficulties had now been overcome, and the roads became better, enabling us to make a distance of twelve miles on the 18th, crossing the Little Cohera on the route. On the 19th, the train moved ten miles, and on the 20th, eight, making an aggregate distance of forty-three miles in five days. On the evening of the 20th, the Brigade was ordered forward, leaving the train in charge of the troops guarding the Seventeenth Corps train.
Distant cannonading had been heard during the 19th, in the direction of the left wing, where a severe battle was in progress on that day. The enemy threw a heavy force upon the First Division of the Fourteenth Corps, pressing it back, and (p296) threatening disaster to the entire army. The Second Division resisted the progress of the advancing foe, and the Third Division of the Twentieth Corps came up as a support, checking the furious assault, and driving the assailants back with heavy loss. The right wing pushed forward to the scene of action, Hazen's Division moving at double quick to the support of the endangered flank, but the tide of battle had turned in our favor before their arrival. This engagement took place near the little town of Bentonville.
On the following day, the right wing met some opposition, which was readily overcome, and the enemy retired from our right toward Bentonville, pressed closely by our forces, deployed as skirmishers. The Second Brigade was again engaged, driving the enemy with ease from one point to another. On our arrival at the front, on the 21st, the troops were ordered into the entrenchments, constructed during the previous night.
Brisk skirmishing continued during the day in our front, while the Seventeenth Corps advanced on the right. Mower's Division drove the enemy from his position, pressing forward his right flank into the town of Bentonville, where Johnston had his headquarters. Had this movement been supported, the only avenue of retreat left open to the enemy, by which he could have saved his trains and artillery, would have been in our possession. (p297)
With the energy of despair, the enemy rallied all the forces he could muster to resist our further advance, by which our flank was not only checked but driven back to its original position. Johnston became alarmed for his safety, and hastily withdrew during the following night, toward Raleigh, crossing the Neuse, and destroying the bridges on his route.
The troops advanced to Bentonville on the morning of the 22nd, where General Sherman issued orders, declaring the campaign ended, and announcing the occupation of Goldsboro by General Schofield, from Newbern, and the arrival of General Terry, from Wilmington. The army was at once put in motion for Goldsboro, where the troops arrived on the 24th of March.
The disposition of the forces for the defense of the place was as follows: General Schofield, with the Twenty-third and a portion of the Tenth Corps, occupied the city and the fortified lines to the west, with the cavalry in his front, several miles distant. The Army of Georgia, under command of Major General Slocum, held the lines north of the city, while the Army of the Tennessee occupied the east, and General Terry, with two Divisions each of the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth Corps, held the line of the Neuse, to the south, the whole force numbering nearly 100,000 men. (p298)
Here the army received the accumulated mail of two months, which was most welcome after so long suspension of all mail facilities. Supplies were also received from Newbern, and active preparations for a new campaign at once began to mark all the camps.
Our past success had inspired unshaken confidence in future triumph, and no name was more applauded than that of General Sherman. His wonderful career from Chattanooga to Atlanta, thence to Savannah, and now to Goldsboro, through the heart of the Carolinas, had made him the idol of his army, and no troops ever loved a leader more than the veterans of the west, in whose estimation "Uncle Billy," as he was familiarly termed, was the ideal of military perfection. When he had fight to do, he could rely on brave men to meet the foe, and when on a flank movement none could excel his army in celerity. In foraging to supply the lack of subsistence, the world never produced the equal of the troops with which "Sherman marched down to the sea."
One characteristic feature of the army has been omitted in the description of the scenes of those campaigns through which we had passed during the winter. This is the genuine "bummer," a name heretofore applied to the genteel sharpers of the California gold region, who make their living upon the labor of others. The application of the (p299) term to the character of a systematic forager is not inappropriate, as he may be said to pursue the same calling with his Pacific prototype, though under cover of military necessity, which legitimatizes numerous irregularities of life, according to the morals of the code belligerent.
The genuine "bummer" is not a detailed forager, collecting provisions for himself and comrades, but a self-constituted collector of choice articles, particularly gold and silver coin, plate, jewelry, watches, etc., things easily conveyed to general rendezvous. Many of the foragers donned the air and habits of the "regulars," and reveled in the possession of numerous precious mementoes, not essential to clothe and feed the hungry soldier. While the army lay in camp at Goldsboro, the practice of foraging, except by detail of regiments, was suspended, cutting off from the exercise of this summary mode of collecting tribute all except the real "bummers." They were not acting under the authority of General Sherman, though belonging to his army, and dressed in Federal uniform. In their peculiar province they required no rations, were indifferent to greenbacks--when gold and silver were accessible--and scorned Confederate notes, except to keep a sufficient amount on hand to pay the citizens for a good dinner each day. These industrious practitioners in their profession kept aloof from camp, during the entire (p300) period that the army spent at Goldsboro, carrying on their business in the surrounding country, beyond the theatre of operations of the rebel cavalry, who formed a protection against intrusion from our lines by less venturous characters. On the advance of the army, they also moved forward always keeping themselves informed of the military situation, and reporting to their commands on the march, when they might resume their pursuits more openly, under the character of foragers. Such were the genuine "bummers" of Sherman's army.
On the 6th of April, the glorious news of the fall of Richmond and Petersburg reached the army from Newbern, and filled our hearts with joy. The report was at first circulated verbally, and was received with distrust by many who had been deceived by previous official dispatches. And, when the telegram of General Schurz, just arrived at Newbern from City Point, was promulgated, some still refused to believe, and were only convinced by the official dispatches of Secretary Stanton, announcing the complete triumph of Grant over Lee and the retreat of the latter, closely pressed by the victorious army.
The effect of this intelligence cannot be described. All saw the doom of the Southern Confederacy, written in blazing lines and glorious deeds of valor. The period of suffering and sacrifice for our country's safety was approaching (p301) its termination, and would soon end in the complete destruction of the two armies of Lee and Johnston. With the entire sea-coast in our possession, and the lines of communication severed between these armies and the Gulf States, and with the splendid combinations of military skill on the part of the leaders of our several armies, the escape of the rebel forces from impending disaster was utterly impossible. Grant in close pursuit of Lee's remnant of any army once powerful, Sherman in close proximity to Johnston, and Thomas advancing into North Carolina from East Tennessee, shut the enemy up to his inevitable fate.
The efficiency of our cavalry was never more manifest. Sheridan had annihilated Early in the glorious campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, sweeping all organized resistance before him in Northern Virginia, and moving rapidly to the north of Richmond, bearing destruction in his course. Crossing the James, and passing to Grant's left flank, he had aided essentially in the accomplishment of the great triumph before Petersburg, and now was vigorously pursuing and harassing the retreating foe, rendering his escape impossible. Stoneman was also moving upon the North Carolina Railroad at Salisbury, while Kilpatrick was watching his antagonist, Wade Hampton, ever ready for the offensive upon our most explosed flank. (p302)