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History buffs remember Averasboro, Bentonville as Confederacy's last stand

The bloody battles of Averasboro and Bentonville near the end of the Civil War fail to summon the same attention as those at Antietam or Gettysburg.

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Graves of unknown dead in Bentonville
Michael Futch
, Fayetteville Observer staff writer

The bloody battles of Averasboro and Bentonville near the end of the Civil War fail to summon the same attention as those at Antietam or Gettysburg.

Though Averasboro proved to be a prelude to the larger Battle of Bentonville - which is regarded as the last chance for the Confederacy - they were separate engagements fought at winter's end of 1865 in rural eastern North Carolina.

Part of the same Confederate operation, the battles were intended to inflict blows on Gen. William T. Sherman's army during the last stage of the Union commander's unrelenting campaign through the Carolinas.

"Up to that point, Sherman met with very little resistance. From the fall of Atlanta to the Battle of Averasboro, there's little more than skirmishing going on," said Mark Bradley, the author of several books focusing on the Civil War in North Carolina. "I think it's fair to say they're overconfident, especially just before Bentonville. Here's Johnston's scrapped-together army, and suddenly there's the danger he could pose to Sherman's Carolinas campaign."

"Sherman's able to defeat Johnston ... but Sherman's army didn't crush Johnston's army at Bentonville," Bradley said. "His army survived, and he stood toe to toe with a much larger army on the 20th and 21st (of March 1865). Though not a decisive battle, it is still significant."

Technically a Federal tactical win, the preamble Averasboro was actually a Confederate strategic victory. The South, outnumbered 3 to 1, accomplished a primary goal of delaying the advance of the left wing of Sherman's troops for at least one day.

Donny Taylor, who is historic site manager at Bentonville Battleground State Historic Site, said visitors are often surprised by the size of the showdown at Bentonville, some 25 miles from Averasboro in Johnston County.

"It was one, if not the last, where the Confederates actually chose the battle and were the aggressor," he said. "As far as a change in any outcome of the war, it did not do that. The men in the ranks did not know the war was about over. It still showed the efforts the Confederates were making to do their duty as soldiers and stop the presence of what they considered an invading army."

This month, the 150th anniversaries of these two Civil War conflicts are being recognized.

It appears few descendants of the original families who lived in the vicinity of the sprawling Averasboro and Bentonville battlefields are still around. But there are some, including Gene Smith and Nelson Rose, who have passed-down stories to share from the war and its aftermath.

Then there are the re-enactors who long for the weekends and the opportunity to dress in the wool army uniforms of the day, playing roles in re-created field battles of the 1860s.

"I just think it's one of the most interesting times in our history," said W.S. Jackson, a 57-year-old re-enactor who lives near Spivey's Corner. "It's not taught and studied that much in school, and a lot of folks don't care."

While he can portray both sides, Jackson will dress as a Confederate during the anniversary commemoration at Bentonville, where about 3,000 re-enactors are expected.

"They're interested in history. The Civil War was a turning point in the history of this country," Taylor said. "A lot of them had ancestors fight on either side, which was brother against brother. There's a definite camaraderie there. You make a lot of friends from all over the country.

"You relate to the history of that time - manners, dress. You relate that to today's public."

Times have changed since the reverberations from artillery and gunfire shook the ground during the Battle of Averasboro.

Only one of the three antebellum homes from the once 8,300-acre Smithville plantation - Lebanon - remains in the ownership of the original family. A U.S. flag flies outside a contemporary home built on part of the battlefield, in front of where the Oak Grove plantation home originally stood off Burnett Road.

"Tourists and people come all the time. If I didn't stop them, they'd come right through the front door," said Ron Lewis, who bought the Oak Grove home about six years ago before having it moved across Burnett Road.

This rural pocket at the Cumberland-Harnett county line remains well preserved, and well away from development.

"It's a wonderful place," said Wade Sokolosky, who co-wrote the book "No Such Army Since the Days of Julius Caesar - Sherman's Carolina Campaign: From Fayetteville to Averasboro."

"People can go out there on a calm morning, and you can feel the battle," he said.

Remnants of the clash remain.

Not far from the battlefield museum is Chicora Cemetery, the final resting place for 56 Confederate soldiers.

Cannon ball holes and places where stray bullets pierced the heart pine of the Oak Grove plantation house are still visible. The structural damage - including part of a hand-hewn beam in the attic's wainscoting that was cut away by a cannon ball and a near perfect circle from a second cannon ball on an opposite wall - remains from the Battle of Averasboro on March 15 and 16, 1865.

The battle was fought along three lines in northern Cumberland County and southern Harnett County, at a bottleneck formed by the Cape Fear and Black rivers. Accounts vary, but the North suffered 682 losses at Averasboro, including 533 soldiers who were wounded; the South tallied 500 losses, with no record of how many were wounded.

In a letter dated April 12, 1865, nearly a month after the conflict, 18-year-old Jamie Smith wrote to a schoolmate: "All nature is gay and beautiful, but every Southern breeze is loaded with a terrible scent from the battle field, which renders my home very disagreeable at times."

The young woman lived on the Smithville plantation, better known today as Lebanon.

Gene Smith, the retired senior editorial writer for The Fayetteville Observer, has lived much of his life in the Lebanon house. It is an early example of Greek Revival architecture and the first Harnett County property placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Smith family has owned and occupied the home since its construction in 1824 as a wedding gift.

Some of Gene Smith's ancestors were witnesses to the horrors of Civil War conflict, as the extended Smith family huddled in an upstairs room of the house after it had been turned into a hospital for the Confederate wounded. Barns, outbuildings and sheds were used for the injured.

Tables set up under shade trees were used for amputating limbs.

"A lot of people died here," said Smith, 67, and a keeper of his family history. "It was an infirmary, and they did the surgery outdoors under the outbuildings. They had the sick people indoors."

Lewis recalls driving along N.C. 82 just outside Godwin and seeing the stately Oak Grove, at the time standing about 200 yards from the road. He loves history, and he fell in love with this remote area and its link to U.S. history.

"To have a home that was an important part of the Civil War - it's actually an honor to own something like this," said Lewis, 49, who lives in nearby Eastover and plans to turn the empty Oak Grove into a museum. "This house was an operating room during the Civil War. People's blood was all over this wooden floor."

Stains remain on the rough-hewn hardwood floor downstairs in one of Oak Grove's dozen rooms. Two rooms were used to perform surgeries during the battle, and the stains are from the blood of the wounded and dying, Lewis said he was told.

While Lebanon was transformed into a Confederate field hospital and the 1865 home of William T. Smith served as a Federal field hospital, Oak Grove was used as a Confederate hospital where the wounded from both sides were treated briefly, according to recorded sources.

"Sherman and his troops came to this house," Lewis said. "The family was kicked out and stayed in a ravine before going to (Lebanon). They ransacked everything. Then they burned the furniture."

The Battle of Averasboro, as Smith pointed out, was not fought in Averasboro.

The battle took place on the Smithville plantation, which was made up of three smaller plantations that had all been owned by John Smith.

Averasboro (often spelled Averasborough), once the third-largest town on the Cape Fear River behind Wilmington and Fayetteville, no longer exists. Founded before the Revolutionary War, it served as a key stopping point for Stage Road travelers and boatmen.

Chicora Golf Course has been built where the town once thrived.

"It was large enough to have been considered for a possible site as the (state) capital," Smith said.

The Confederates staged the Battle of Averasboro to stall the Union troops, and it proved to be well-planned and well-executed. However, some longstanding accounts question whether the conflict can even be considered a battle. It has been dismissed as a tactical skirmish, a delaying action.

It also has a number of names, such as the Battle of Black River and the Battle for Smithville.

"It's not well understood," said Smith, who lives with his wife, Sherry, in the Lebanon home on the northern end of the battlefield. "If you judge a battle by what they were attempting to do, the Rebs did that. If it's judged by the number of casualties, this was certainly a battle. There was well over 1,000 killed here, not including the injured and missing in action."

The fight at Averasboro led, three days later, to the Battle of Bentonville, one of the last major battles of the Civil War and the largest battle ever fought on North Carolina soil.

"The Battle of Averasboro was a significant play in this. It was not simply some sort of happenstance occurrence as the Union troops came up," said Walt Smith, a former vice president of the Averasboro Battlefield Commission whose ancestors lived in the William T. Smith plantation home.

Technically, Smith recounted, the fighting got underway around the William T. Smith home at the southern end of the battlefield. That's more than two miles south of the Lebanon estate.

"It was wet, cold and rainy," he said. "They were mired in mud."

Southern troops led by Gen. William G. Hardee - soldiers from South Carolina, Georgia and Florida - fell under the overall command of Gen. Joseph Johnston by the time of the Averasboro conflict. Johnston had been looking for a place to strike Sherman's army during the Union general's Carolinas campaign.

Following the skirmish at Monroe's Crossroads on what is now Fort Bragg, and after the fall of Fayetteville to Sherman's troops, Hardee's Confederates burned the Clarendon Bridge on the way out of Fayetteville before setting up a defensive arrangement on the Smithville plantation.

It was there, just south of Averasboro, that Johnston saw an opportunity.

He learned that Sherman's 60,000 troop-strong army was traveling in two wings, with a good day's march between them. And he saw that he could delay the left wing at Averasboro. Johnston wanted Hardee's troops to hold back Sherman's advance so he could concentrate his total available forces of about 20,000 men and boys at Bentonville.

From a Confederate's perspective, Averasboro is important for where Hardee decided to make a stand, said Sokolosky, the writer and expert.

"His army had basically been shadowing Sherman's army coming up through South Carolina," he said. "Originally, Hardee's army started with about 12,000 troops. By the time Hardee reaches Fayetteville, his army is down to about 6,500 to 7,000."

Despite the odds, Averasboro allowed Johnston time to organize his strategic attack for the battle at Bentonville, where he surprised Sherman's 14th Corps.

It gave the Confederates "kind of a morale boost," Sokolosky said, while - more important - giving Johnston's and Hardee's combined forces a fighting chance at Bentonville.

"Without Averasboro," Civil War writer and historian Bradley said, "Bentonville really isn't going to be possible."

Sherman and Johnston's armies had met before on the battlefield - at Shiloh, Vicksburg and Atlanta.

Veterans of the Battle of Bentonville would later say the fighting was as intense, fierce and devastating as the battles at Gettysburg or around Atlanta, according to information posted at Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site.

About 4,100 men were killed, wounded or went missing during the battle, staged March 19-21, 1865. Gunfire was said to be so intense it stripped several feet of bark from the pine trees. Survivors opened haversacks to find their flour salted with shrapnel.

At Bentonville, the Rebels suffered the heaviest casualties as the Confederacy was collapsing and the war was nearing an end. Historically, it was the only major attempt to arrest the progress of Sherman's army after the fall of Savannah.

"Here we are three weeks before the South surrenders, and we have men fighting for their lives at Bentonville," said Bradley, author of "Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville."

"Like the game is not up yet. Like the Confederates have not lost," he said. "It's amazing to me men are still fighting as if the war is still in doubt. That's what I find so fascinating about that battle. They still fought with the same determination and dedication as if this was an early battle that could determine the outcome of the war.

"Appomattox Court House takes place just three weeks later."

Nelson Rose and his wife, Ann, live in a two-story farmhouse on 8 acres of the Bentonville battlefield. The first day of the battle took place on their land, and what's left of a line of overgrown Confederate earthworks is still on the property.

"When we got married, he used to carry me across the branch," Ann Rose said from their living room. "That was the actual trench. They were the original breastworks, pristine from the Civil War."

She recalled how Rose's father, Charlie Nelson Rose, would tell their eldest son, the late Barrett Rose, that when you went out to that hallowed ground, you could hear the soldiers talking.

"He was just messin' with him," Nelson Rose said.

Rose came of age on the battlefield, knowledgeable of what had taken place at Bentonville during the war. Two of his ancestors, William Bright Cole and William Nicholas Rose, fought for the South.

By his father's side, this retired Employment Security Commission manager is directly connected to the plantation of Willis Cole, which Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton selected as the ideal location to halt the Union advance.

Cole is his great-great-great-grandfather.

"Growing up on the battlefield in the '50s and '60s, when you were hoeing and weeding, you would find artifacts on top of the ground," he said. "As the ground was cultivated and it rained, they would work themselves up and be sitting there."

Over the years, the elder Rose has accumulated a small display cabinet worth of war artifacts from his farmland, including U.S. and Confederate buckles, bullets, Minie balls, buttons, coins and shards of rifles.

His family has sold about 250 acres to the Civil War Preservation Trust, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the places where North fought South. In turn, the property is transferred to the state.

"The land is never going to be sold. This is history," his wife said. "We're sitting on history."

The Battle of Bentonville lasted three days, after which Johnston conceded to Sherman's army. He withdrew his downtrodden troops and retreated to Smithfield.

"Most said it was a last-ditch effort by Johnston to get all the Confederates together and try to stop Sherman," Rose said. "To put together a depleted army like that against a seasoned, well-supplied logistics force like Sherman's was sort of a last-ditch effort. That's why they went on to Smithfield, Raleigh, Bennett Place and surrendered right after Lee surrendered to Grant."

Staff writer Michael Futch can be reached at futchm@fayobserver.com or 486-3529.

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