Monday, April 06, 2009

Johnston County

Since I have been doing quite a bit of reading on the battle of Bentonville, I thought for our next county study we would look at Johnston County.

Johnston County was formed in 1746 from portions of Craven County. The new county was named for Gabriel Johnston, a Royal Governor of North Carolina from 1743 to 1752. The county seat is Smithfield and was established in 1777. Smithfield, formerly known as Smith’s Ferry, became the county seat in 1771, and was formally chartered in 1777.

In 1860, Johnston County had a population of 15,656 people, including 4,916 slaves and 195 free blacks. Johnston County was a major cotton producing area, and in 1854, the railroad linked the cotton growers to major outlets. In the 1860 presidential election, the men in Johnston County cast 974 votes for Breckenridge, 630 for Bell, and 38 for Douglas. Johnston County’s representative to the 1861 Convention was William A. Smith. Smith was a “Union man” and went on in 1864 to serve in the state legislature. After the war, he served in the State constitutional convention and in the state senate.

Johnston County sent an estimated 1,500 men into Confederate service, serving in these companies and regiments: Company C, 5th NCST; Companies C, E and I, 24th NCT; Companies C and D, 50th NCT; Company C, 53rd NCT; Company g, 55th NCT; and Company B, 56th NCT.

Johnston County’s big moment during the war came almost at the war’s end. In mid-March 1865, the armies of William T. Sherman and Joseph E. Johnston collided near the community of Bentonville. Sherman was continuing his drive through the Southland, having already completed treks through Georgia and South Carolina. He was heading north to join with the Federal forces currently laying siege to Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia. Johnston, in the words of Mark Bradley, chronicler of the battle of Bentonville, “regarded Confederate defeat as inevitable, and believed that a stunning blow to Sherman’s army might give the South greater leverage at the bargaining table.”

It is easy to look at the battle in hindsight. Johnston should have taken control of the railroads, and more of his scattered forces (like Cheatham) could have been brought to bear against the Federals. Johnston should have told Braxton Bragg to take command of McClaw’s Division, which had been sent to strengthen Bragg’s flank, but he did not. And McClaw’s division, the largest in Johnston’s “Army of the South,” remained idle throughout the battle. Bragg, well what do you say about Bragg? He should have been somewhere else doing something else, and his troops turned over to a more competent leader. I think Bragg does have good traits, but being a battlefield commander is not one of them . Regardless, Johnston was able to catch a portion of the Federals unawares, and drive a portion of them back. All in all, there were just too many Federals for Johnston to cope with, and he was forced to retire from the field. Bentonville produced an estimated 4,738 casualties – 1,646 Federal, 3,092 Confederate.

Bentonville was the largest battle fought on North Carolina soil during the war. You can find a really good web site about the battle, and the battlefield, here.

I have been to Bentonville several times or the past decade, and, as many of you know, I am currently working on a book about one of the Confederate regiments that fought at the battle. If you ever get a chance, make sure you visit the area.

If you visit this link, you can get more information on some of the Civil War Trail markers in the area.

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