Book Review: This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place, by Mark Bradley, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2000, $34.95.

 

Jefferson Davis and his caravan of cabinet and family members escaped the fall of Richmond and fled through Lee’s disintegrating and doomed Army of Northern Virginia into the safety of Confederate territory farther south. He took up residence temporarily in Greensboro, North Carolina. About 60 miles to the east, General Joseph E. Johnston’s newly reconstituted and reorganized Army of Tennessee was manning the fast-shrinking Confederate frontier, which was then located near Raleigh, the state capital. The Army of Tennessee had been battered less than a month earlier at Bentonville, but actually had more men in the ranks than it had prior to the battle. Beyond the Confederate army, William T. Sherman and his indomitable legions lay in wait, resting and refitting to the southeast at Goldsboro, and preparing to march to the aid of Grant at Petersburg.

In This Astounding Close: The Road to Bennett Place (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2000, $34.95), author Mark Bradley argues that the following campaign saw Sherman characteristically hesitate at a decisive moment, and Johnston maneuver with unusual foresight and alacrity while firmly handling the reins of the Confederacy’s military demise.

The last campaign between Johnston’s and Sherman’s armies occurred after the fall of Richmond and Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and a climactic clash between the two western forces could very well have resulted. Instead, Johnston surrendered the last major Confederate army to Sherman at James Bennett’s modest homestead near present-day Durham, N.C. Although at Appomattox Lee had relinquished the Confederacy’s premier army, Johnston’s surrender was the largest capitulation of territory and troops of the Civil War, encompassing the entire Department of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and perhaps 60,000 more troops than Lee surrendered. Biographers of Johnston and Sherman have touched on the surrender outside Durham, but their interest has primarily been in the political implications of the capitulation terms.

No author, until now, has tackled the military campaign that preceded the surrender. Mark Bradley, an independent scholar and author of Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville, gives us the first monograph devoted to the campaign in This Astounding Close.

Bradley contends that Jefferson Davis wanted to fight on, but Johnston coolly assessed the military situation as hopeless. The author further posits that Johnston foresaw the end more clearly than Davis and worked to conclude the conflict without further bloodshed. To accomplish this, he consolidated and maintained his force beyond Sherman’s reach, thus avoiding being surrounded, as was Lee’s fate. The strategy gave Johnston leverage when parleying with his Federal counterpart, and he gained the most generous terms possible.

Beginning on April 10, 1865, Johnston had rapidly withdrawn his forces westward from Sherman’s front and toward the rail centers of Greensboro and Salisbury. Sherman and his army followed, but they moved slowly. Before long, the Confederates had put 70 miles between themselves and their pursuers. Judson Kilpatrick’s troopers clashed with Joe Wheeler’s rear guard along the road between Raleigh and Hillsboro. Following a clash on April 13 at Morrisville, equidistant to Raleigh and Durham’s Station, Johnston first offered a flag of truce and entreated Sherman to enter negotiations.

Bradley contends that Sherman’s hesitation to go for the kill after Bentonville, often cited as a sign of humanitarian restraint at a moment of inevitable victory, was an unfortunate tactical decision that allowed Johnston to escape while Lee was still in the field. Sherman’s hesitation then permitted the war to drag on for weeks after the surrender at Appomattox and allowed Johnston to enter peace negotiations with his army in a threatening posture.

During their first meeting on April 17, Sherman revealed to Johnston the startling news of Lincoln’s assassination. Later in the day, as the news spread through the ranks of Sherman’s army at Raleigh, the blue-coated veterans nearly torched the city. Only the efforts of Federal officers saved the Old North State’s capital. Sherman had last seen Lincoln just weeks earlier in Virginia. The president apparently had given him no specific instructions regarding surrender terms, but “Cump” had left the meeting convinced that the commander in chief desired a lenient and conciliatory return of the Confederate states to the Union.

Thus, he offered Johnston terms far more generous than Grant had offered Lee, but which also laid the groundwork for the retention of state Confederate governments within the fold of the union. Sherman obviously overstepped his bounds by engaging in political discussions. His terms sparked a startling public condemnation of Sherman. His superiors in Washington, incensed by Lincoln’s murder and unbound by the Great Emancipator’s moderation, tactlessly attacked him in Northern newspapers and incited a feeling of disappointment with the nation’s newest conquering hero. Sherman relented and, in a subsequent meeting with Johnston on April 26, submitted new terms more closely based on those offered at Appomattox, which Johnston reluctantly accepted.

Meanwhile, Johnston’s army barely held together in the western North Carolina Piedmont. Bradley measures the Army of Tennessee’s strength at 28,000. While this number may have been present within the Department of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, one wonders if Johnston could have mustered that number for a final clash with Sherman if necessary. Bradley also suggests that the cohesion of the idle Confederate forces in Greensboro and Salisbury remained relatively high, but plummeted suddenly when news and parolees from Appomattox began streaming through their camps. Entire regiments and brigades began to disintegrate and return home while the Bennett Place negotiations were going on. Meanwhile, bands of parolees, deserters and civilian refugees desperate for food and clothing attacked and looted Confederate stores at stations along the North Carolina Railroad.

Bradley clearly and concisely examines the unusual presence of politics in this military campaign without losing the focus of his central concern: the movement of the armies. Davis, Lincoln and Andrew Johnson are frequent players, who alternately encourage and hinder their commanders. The pathetic helplessness of North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance, who was caught between the competing interests of Davis, Johnston and their respective staffs, is particularly touching.

The author provides standard observations of the march and firing line by the common soldier. Thankfully, he does not dwell on, or unduly romanticize, tired old stories associated with the campaign, such as the anonymous Texas cavalryman captured in Raleigh and hung by Federals for violating the cease-fire, or the whirlwind courtship and marriage of Federal General Smith Atkins and Ellie Swain, daughter of University of North Carolina President David Swain.

Unfortunately, he only questions, but does not condemn, the improbable tale of Confederate Secretary of War John C. Breckinridge’s desperate plea to Sherman for a refill of his liquor glass. It’s a great story, but very likely untrue.

The narrative of Sherman’s political and military missteps is clearly drawn, and Bradley has ample space to fully explain the general’s flawed reading of the landscape in April 1865. Meanwhile, Joe Johnston’s historiographical reputation continues to rise. Bradley’s Johnston deftly consolidated and transported his weary command after Bentonville. The true viability of Johnston’s army after that battle remains questionable, but that he moved it beyond Sherman’s reach is the critical and relevant fact. From the position he held in the western Piedmont, Johnston could have fought another battle, escaped with his troops farther south or dispersed his army into the hills.

But the Confederate general did none of the above, instead taking steps to bring peace to the South. At a time when better-known campaigns are continuously refought and rethought in books and articles, it is a pleasure to read about this previously “undiscovered” but highly important campaign. This Astounding Close is a welcome addition to the military history bookshelf.

Christopher A. Graham
Bahama, N.C.