Battle of Monroe's Crossroads (March 10, 1865)

Updated: August 27, 2016

Fought on March 10, 1865, near Fayetteville, North Carolina, the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads was one of the last major cavalry conflicts of the Civil War.

After William T. Sherman captured Savannah, Georgia in December 1864 at the end of his March to the Sea, he began making plans to proceed through the Carolinas to join George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac in Virginia. Just three days after the fall of Savannah, Union General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant instructed Sherman, "Without waiting further directions, than, you may make your preparations to start on your northern expedition without delay. Break up the railroads in South and North Carolina, and join the armies operating against Richmond as soon as you can."

The prospect of Sherman marching his armies north from Savannah and punishing the Carolinas as he had Georgia unsettled many Southerners. Their concerns prompted General Robert E. Lee to deploy General Wade Hampton's cavalry division to South Carolina on January 19, 1865. On February 14, 1865, Confederate officials promoted Hampton to lieutenant general and placed him in command of all cavalry forces in the Department of South Carolina. General P.G.T. Beauregard, who was in charge of the department, instructed Hampton to concentrate his forces to protect the city of Columbia, the capital of South Carolina.

Sherman's impending campaign also eroded Southern confidence in President Jefferson Davis's competency as commander-in-chief of Confederate forces. Opposition to Davis's leadership reached a crescendo on January 23, 1865, when the Confederate Congress enacted legislation creating the post of General-in-Chief of Confederate forces. The same bill contained a resolution stating "That if the President will assign Gen. JOSEPH E. JOHNSTON to the command of the Army of Tennessee, it will, in the opinion of the Congress of the Confederate States, be hailed with joy by the army and receive the approval of the country."

With no recourse available, in late January 1865, Davis nominated Lee for the position of General-in-Chief. On February 1, Samuel Cooper, Adjutant and Inspector General (CSA) informed Lee that the Confederate Senate had confirmed his appointment. On February 6, Cooper issued General Orders, No. 3, announcing that Lee was officially General-in-Chief of the Confederate Armies.

Meanwhile, Sherman departed from Savannah with nearly sixty thousand battle-hardened veterans on February 1, 1865, headed north toward Columbia. He divided his forces into two wings. The Army of the Tennessee, commanded by Major General Oliver O. Howard, was on the right, and the Army of Georgia, commanded by Major General Henry W. Slocum, was on the left.  In just two weeks, Union troops reached the outskirts of the South Carolina capital. Despite Hampton's efforts to block Sherman's progress, the Federals occupied the city on February 17. On the same day, faced with the prospect of being isolated, the Confederate garrison at Charleston evacuated that city as well. That night, much of Columbia went up in flames.

While Sherman's army ravaged South Carolina, Federal forces in North Carolina were in the final stages of completing the Union blockade of the Confederacy's Atlantic seacoast. On February 12, 1865, troops commanded by Major General John M. Schofield began operations against Wilmington, North Carolina, the Confederacy's last open port on the Atlantic. Attempts by Confederate General Braxton Bragg's 6,600 defenders to halt Schofield's twelve thousand soldiers proved fruitless. On the night of February 21-22, Bragg ordered the destruction of Wilmington's stores, and his troops evacuated the city.

On the day after Wilmington fell into Federal hands, Sherman resumed his march towards the North Carolina border but only after destroying anything in Columbia that might be of use to the Confederacy.  On February 22, Lee ordered General Joseph E. Johnston to "Assume command of the Army of Tennessee and all troops in Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida." Lee went on to order Johnston to "Concentrate all available forces and drive back Sherman." On the same day, Johnston advised Lee that "It is too late to expect me to concentrate troops capable of driving back Sherman. The remnant of the Army of Tennessee is much divided."

Johnston's assessment was correct. On March 6, 1865, Confederate officials added the Department of Southern Virginia to Johnston’s command. The general designated his combined force in North Carolina as the Army of the South. In reality, Johnston's army was a paper tiger, as he commanded few fit soldiers.

Outnumbered nearly three-to-one, Johnston determined that his best chance to stop the Federal onslaught was to consolidate his forces and then to attack one wing of Sherman's divided armies before a planned merger at Goldsboro could take place. Johnston chose Smithfield, east of the Cape Fear River, as headquarters for his operations.

In early March 1865, Lieutenant General William J. Hardee was pushing his eight thousand-man Confederate corps east toward the Clarendon Bridge across the Cape Fear River at Fayetteville, North Carolina. Hardee planned to get his corps across the river and then destroy the bridge, thereby buying more time for Johnston to consolidate his forces at Smithfield. Major General Judson Kilpatrick's Third Cavalry Division, at the vanguard of Sherman's army, had designs on the same target. Traveling north, Kilpatrick aimed to swing his division east to reach the river first, securing the bridge for Sherman's main force and preventing Hardee from joining Johnston.

As Kilpatrick moved east toward Fayetteville on March 9, he decided to make camp to reorganize his scattered brigades at Morgan's Crossroads, where Morgantown Road intersects Blue's Rosin Road. To Kilpatrick's rear, Wade Hampton had consolidated his cavalry division with Lieutenant General Joseph Wheeler's cavalry corps and Major General Matthew C. Butler's cavalry division, creating a force of nearly 5,800 mounted troopers. Having learned from captured Rebels that Hampton's force was bearing down on his rear, Kilpatrick decided to block the three roads that provided access to his position from the west.

Despite the fact that Kilpatrick knew that Hampton's force was approaching, he deployed only a single company of pickets on the Morganton Road to guard his rear. During the night, lead elements of Wheeler’s cavalry surprised and captured the Yankees guarding the road unbeknownst to Kilpatrick, who was spending the night with an unidentified woman in a nearby farmhouse. With the road now open to Kilpatrick's camp, Hampton deployed his troops for a surprise attack at daylight.

At dawn, on March 10, the Yankee soldiers were awakened by the sound of thundering hooves as Wheeler's and Butler's troopers stormed their camp. Initially, the panic-stricken Federals retreated to the edge of a nearby swamp. Kilpatrick was aroused by what he later described as "the most formidable cavalry charge I have ever witnessed." He narrowly escaped capture when Confederate soldiers who surrounded the farmhouse in which he had spent the night failed to recognize him. When the Rebels rode off in pursuit of another Yankee who Kilpatrick had falsely identified as himself, the Union general fled and joined his men.

Had the Rebels continued to pursue their foes, they may have earned a stunning victory, but the allure of the bounty that they captured proved too much. When the Confederates broke off their chase to loot the Union camp, Kilpatrick restored order among his soldiers. As pandemonium reigned within the camp, the Union general formed lines and mounted a successful counterattack. The turning point in the battle came when Union artillerists regained possession of one of their canons and began firing canisters into the camp, droving off the Rebels.

Wheeler and Butler organized another charge, but the Federals refused to budge. When Hampton realized the futility of more bloodshed, he ordered Wheeler and Butler to retreat toward Fayetteville.

In what began as a Confederate rout, one of the last large cavalry battles in the Western Theater ended as a Union victory in less than one hour. There are few reliable records regarding casualties at the Battle of Monroe's Crossroads. The best estimates are that the two armies combined lost approximately one hundred soldiers killed and five hundred more injured.

In the aftermath of the battle, Union troops occupied Fayetteville later that afternoon. By that time, all of the Confederates had crossed the Cape Fear River and torched the Clarendon Bridge behind them.

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"Battle of Monroe's Crossroads," Ohio Civil War Central, 2017, Ohio Civil War Central. 16 Dec 2017 <http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1661>

APA Style

"Battle of Monroe's Crossroads." (2017) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved December 16, 2017, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1661

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