One-quarter mile to your front stood the center of the Confederate line on the afternoon of March 20. Shaped like a horseshoe, the center faced south towards the Goldsboro Road. Johnston's decision to remain on the battlefield after his failure the previous day was surprising. The arrival of Sherman's Right Wing, combined with Johnston's reputation for caution, suggested that the Confederates would hastily retreat.
Johnston's explanation for risking his army changed over the years. He initially claimed that he hoped Sherman would attack him in his well-fortified positions, hinting that Confederate morale would be jeopardized by a retreat. A decade later, he explained that "there was no object in remaining...but covering the bearing off of our wounded," indicating his memory may have been affected by his near disaster on March 21.
Johnston was alerted on March 20 that most of the Right Wing would approach from the east, placing them behind the Confederates. "Old Joe" directed his cavalry to delay Sherman's approach, and ordered R.F. Hoke's Division and the North Carolina Junior Reserves to face east and south, respectively. Johnston's right remained in its original position to deter an advance by the Union Left Wing.
[Bentonville] was the last battle of the war the Sixteenth [Illinois] was engaged in, but it was the most terrible of them all.
—A veteran of the regiment
On the morning of the 20th, as the enemy had three of his four corps present and well entrenched, the attack was not renewed. We held our ground in the hope that his greatly superior numbers might encourage him to attack, and to cover the removal of our wounded.
—Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to Gen. Robert E. Lee, March 27, 1865
Realizing the Confederates were withdrawing, Lt. Col. George W. Grummond's 14th Michigan aggressively seized Hoke's abandoned trenches. Buoyed by his success, and reinforced by Capt. Herman Lund's 16th Illinois, Grummond received permission at noon to pursue the southerners north of the road.
After a chase of over half a mile, the Confederate's newly formed center stunned the exhausted Federals with musket and artillery fire. Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill recognized the danger presented by Grummond's assault. Though forbidden to deploy his own corps to repel the Federals, he shattered Grummond's left using the North Carolina Junior Reserve Battalion and Dickson's Battery, units technically belonging to his rival, Gen. Braxton Bragg.
Lund's Illinoisans received the bulk of the fire, but he was not authorized to fall back without permission, which did not arrive because Grummond had already retreated. The 14th Michigan had been on the heels of W.W. Kirkland's North Carolina brigade when, after reaching their new position, the Tar Heels turned on their pursuers, mowing them down with concentrated musketry fire. Heavily outnumbered, and with casualties mounting, Grummond ordered a withdrawal. Realizing he was on his own, Lund finally retreated back to the safety of the abandoned Confederate trenches south of the road.
After I had succeeded in turning six guns on them they retired precipitately.