You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.
— Gen. William T. Sherman, Sept. 12, 1864
During the afternoon of March 20, 1865, Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman erected his headquarters in the field in front of you, on Stevens family property. Sherman remained near the Right Wing headquarters as he had on the march to Bentonville.
Sherman's Civil War career had an ill-fated beginning, including an 1861 nervous breakdown while commanding Union forces in Kentucky. Accusations of insanity quickly followed from all quarters. A member of Lincoln's administration even pronounced him "off in the head."
A successful partnership with U.S. Grant rehabilitated Sherman's confidence and reputation. When Grant became commander of all Union forces in early 1864, he chose Sherman to command the "Military Division of the Mississippi," or essentially all Union forces in the western theatre. In this capacity, Sherman captured Atlanta and commenced his March to the Sea in late 1864.
Deal as moderately and fairly by the North Carolinians as possible, and fan the flame of discord already subsisting between them and their proud cousins of South
—Gen. William T. Sherman, March 7, 1865
Marching overland through the Carolinas in early 1865, Sherman faced only delaying actions until his isolated Left Wing was attacked at Bentonville. "Uncle Billy," as he was called by his men, was traveling with the Right Wing at the time, causing him to miss most of the battle's first day. On the evening of March 19, a courier desperately seeking help for the Left Wing arrived at Sherman's headquarters to find:
[Sherman] had been lying down in Gen'l [O.O.] Howard's tent and hearing the inquiry for him and being of course anxious to here [sic] the news of the fight rushed out to the camp fire without stopping to put on his clothes. He stood in a bed of ashes up to his ankles, chewing impatiently the stump of a cigar, with his hands clasped behind him and with nothing on but a red flannel undershirt and a pair of drawers.
After hearing the report, Sherman immediately set the Right Wing on the road to Bentonville, where he commanded in person late on March 20 and 21.
Sherman's goal was Goldsboro, not Johnston's entrenched army, and he was willing to allow the Confederates to escape. Thus, his primary action on March 21 was to forbid his army from entering into a full-scale engagement, something he recalled as a "mistake...[I]t could not have resulted but successfully
to us, by reasons of our vastly superior numbers."
I committed an error in not overwhelming Johnston's Army on the 21st of March, 1865. But I was content then to let him go...
—Gen. William T. Sherman, 1875