Editors note: This story originally ran in The News & Observer on March 17, 2010.
Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston returned to Bentonville Battlefield on Tuesday, his bronze likeness steeled against modern-day foes: vandals, climbing children and those who believe that erecting memorials to defeated Civil War commanders is a form of racism.
Johnston, politically unpopular during his lifetime, might not be universally welcomed at the state historic site near Four Oaks 145 years hence, either. That’s why the Smithfield Light Infantry, a local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, asked an adjacent property owner to donate land for the memorial and launched a private fundraising effort to pay the $100,000 cost of the statue.
“This is a big investment,” said John M. Booker, project chairman for the SCV. “We wanted to put it on private land so that we could do it the way that we wanted.”
The battle at Bentonville was fought over three cold, rainy days in March 1865 across 6,000 acres of farm and forest. The historic site includes the area where Johnston had his headquarters, and site manager Donny Taylor said he suggested the group install the statue there.
But Booker said approval would have been onerous, if not impossible, at a time when some communities have discussed dismantling their Civil War memorials or moving them to less prominent places.
The Johnston statue is thought to be the first in North Carolina to honor a Civil War general.
Confederate monuments were erected on town squares and courthouse lawns across the state from the 1890s to the 1920s, often paid for by chapters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The memorials generally honor common soldiers and unknown dead.
“If you look at them, a lot of them look just alike,” Booker said, because sculptors would sell copies of the same statue in different communities. It was cheaper that way.
For this statue, the SCV hired Cary sculptor Carl Regutti. He is known for his animal renditions, including a statue of Aristides, winner of the first Kentucky Derby, a centerpiece at Churchill Downs. He also crafted the monument to North Carolina’s fallen firefighters, in downtown Raleigh’s Nash Square.
Regutti said that for the Johnston sculpture, he read as much as he could about the general and the Battle of Bentonville, and he traveled to the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond to view Johnston’s swords and pieces of his uniform.
“To create a statue like this, I really have to understand the personality,” said Regutti, whose first career was as a chemist and bacteriologist.
Beloved by his soldiers
Among Civil War buffs, Johnston is known as a soldier’s general. Trained at the U.S. Military Academy in the same class as Robert E. Lee, Johnston became the highest-ranking Union officer to resign his commission when he left to serve the Confederacy after his native state of Virginia seceded.
He is said to have openly resented the promotions of other officers ahead of him within the Southern army, making him unpopular among some of his peers. But, scholars say, he was beloved by the men who served under his command, because he fought and worked alongside them.
His willingness to be at the front cost him; he was repeatedly wounded in battle.
As a tactician, Johnston was at his best when he was outnumbered, as he was at Bentonville. He is said to have been a master at a particular kind of retreat, in which he would lure enemy forces into pursuing him, then trap the opposing army and attack.
Union leaders had not expected serious trouble at Bentonville as Sherman’s left wing was making its way toward Goldsboro to rest and resupply. Johnston aimed to slow their advance on the one place where the Confederacy still controlled the rail lines.
Skirmishes began March 19 and were followed by all-out assaults in a back-and-forth that required Sherman to make a detour and join the fight. Sherman had 60,000 troops. Johnston had 20,000.
At the end of the third day, Johnston’s troops withdrew to Smithfield and Sherman’s went on to Goldsboro.
On April 26, Johnston would surrender to Sherman at Bennett Place near Durham.
Images of Johnston
Craig Braswell has been portraying Johnston in re-enactments at Bennett Place and elsewhere since 1985. When he started, he had to color his red hair white to resemble Johnston, who was 58 when he fought at Bentonville.
Braswell’s sideburns and goatee are naturally white now, and he looks enough like the general that Regutti asked him to model for the statue.
Regutti was on hand Tuesday afternoon as a crane lifted the bigger-than-life, 400-pound bronze Johnston off a flatbed truck and set him on a slab of granite. The everlasting Johnston is fortified with stainless steel rods and is fastened firmly to his base to deter vandals from trying to swipe his sword or snap off his spurs. He looks into the distance in his frock coat, past the farm across the road, pointing.
Booker, who hopes the statue will bring additional tourists to the battlefield, said the general is trying to hold the line.
“Against the Yankees, and against political correctness.”