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Setting the Stage


After the fall of Atlanta on September 2, 1864, 60,000 Union soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman marched more than 1,000 miles through the South. By March 1865, they were in the middle of North Carolina, heading north with the intention of joining forces with Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Grant's men, now besieging the Confederate capital of Richmond, were just 75 miles away. As part of his attempt to defend Richmond and nearby Petersburg, Gen. Robert E. Lee assigned Gen. Joseph E. Johnston to stop Sherman's forces from entering Virginia.

In central North Carolina Johnston managed to piece together a rag­tag army of 20,000 men. He maneuvered to take advantage of Sherman's decision to divide his army into two columns to increase its mobility. On the morning of March 19, just south of the village of Bentonville, Johnston attacked Sherman's Left Wing, which had fallen half a day behind the Right. Although this offensive made considerable progress, Union troops staged a resolute defense that afternoon to prevent a Confederate breakthrough. The other half of Sherman's army arrived the next afternoon, and the battle continued until Johnston withdrew from the field on the night of March 21. The three days of fighting involved more than 90,000 men and ranged across nearly 6,000 acres of land. General Johnston's attack, which took place just three weeks before General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, was the only major attempt to stop Sherman's army after Atlanta and the last Confederate offensive.

The Battle of Bentonville, as it became known, resulted in more than 4,000 casualties. Many of the wounded found themselves in a field hospital set up by Sherman's Fourteenth Army Corps. Its surgeons, searching for a safe location, chose the modest two-story farm home of John and Amy Harper, and wounded began streaming to this makeshift medical facility within minutes of its establishment a mile from the chaotic front lines. Throughout March 19 and 20, Federal surgeons at the Harper House treated a total of 554 men, both Union and Confederate. Without the benefit of antibiotics to stop infection, doctors amputated shattered arms and legs to prevent gangrene from claiming their patients' lives. Despite the screams of the wounded, the piles of severed limbs, and the stench of blood and chloroform (an anesthetic used by Union surgeons) that pervaded the Harper House, the family refused to leave their home during this time.

 

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