Within a breath of Wayne and Sampson counties sprawls Bentonville Battlefield, which likely looks much the way it did 150 years ago, when it was the stage for the largest Civil War battle in North Carolina.
It’s farmland far and wide, except for pull-offs for tourists to read historical markers, a scattering of homes and churches and the C.W. Flowers Store, where one can buy a soft drink and a hydraulic hose.
Of the 6,000 acres where fighting took place, the state owns and has preserved about a third; the rest is in private hands, said Donny Taylor, manager of Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site. Late last month, the Civil War Trust, which typically buys land and deeds it to the state, announced an effort to raise money to purchase 75 battlefield acres that have been in the same family since the before the Civil War.
The property is near the corner of Devil’s Racetrack and Harper House roads, next to Ebenezer Methodist Church. According to Johnston County property records, it’s owned by the Jordan B. Flowers irrevocable trust. Taylor declined to comment on negotiations for the land until a deal is done.
The Battle of Bentonville lasted three days, March 19-21, 1865, Taylor said, pitting 60,000 Union troops against 20,000 Confederate soldiers.
“This was the last battle of the war that a Confederate army was able to choose the ground and initiate the battle,” Taylor said. “It occurred because the federal army under (Gen. William T.) Sherman left Savannah and headed north. His objective was Goldsboro because it was the crossing of the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad and the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad.
“Gen. (Joseph) Johnston was ordered by (Gen. Robert E.) Lee to confront the federal army moving into North Carolina.”
Over the three days of battle, both sides suffered substantial casualties, Taylor said, with the Confederate ranks taking the heavier losses. Ultimately, though, the battle had little consequence on the war. Lee’s army was under siege in Petersburg, Va., which is where Sherman was headed, but the war was over a month later, before he reached Virginia.
“Basically it didn’t sway what happened in the war one way or the other,” Taylor said. But he added the battle is significant to North Carolina and important because the Confederate Army initiated it.
The 75 acres sought now by the Civil War Trust are about two miles northeast of the battlefield’s visitors’ center. Taylor said the area saw heavy fighting and is an essential piece of understanding how the battle unfolded.
“It’s very, very significant,” Taylor said. “There was a house there at one time that appeared on battle maps, and there was a lot of federal activity in the area.”
Some amount of battlefield land typically transfers from private hands to preservation each year, Taylor said, adding that most of the work on Bentonville Battlefield has been done in the last 15 years. In addition to pull-offs on the side of the road, the state historic site is adding walking trails this year and developing cellphone-guided tours, Taylor said. Land that isn’t developed for the public is leased to farmers.
“We’re trying to do a lot of preservation in the area,” Taylor said. “The goal is getting it to where people can get out and be in the battlefield and see how things happened. It helps us interpret the battlefield.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson