Written by Sarah Stubbs; Edited by Cheri Todd Molter
Editor’s Note: The story below has been derived from information gathered from William Sharpe’s Civil War Diary, which included his experiences while a soldier on Sherman’s march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. It was published in the N.C. Military Historical Society’s newsletter “The Recall” Spring/Summer 2017 edition.
William Sharpe, orphaned at age 2, worked his way through early life as an indentured servant. He enlisted in the Union Army on July 22, 1862, with C Co., 70th Indiana, and spent a large portion of his service–nearly three years’ worth–marching with General Sherman through the south. In his diary, written approximately 30 years after his service in the Civil War, he explained the havoc wreaked on Georgia and South Carolina, and the destitution that he and the soldiers around him faced on their eight-week march. The men were starving and exhausted but found hope as they neared Fayetteville. By the time they were camping on the outskirts of Fayetteville on March 10, 1865, foragers were returning with cart loads of unspoiled food. A further boost in morale came by way of the Cape Fear River, as a steamboat was able to deliver mail from home for the first time in quite a while.
As Sharpe’s company continued to recuperate from the long two months on the march, life in Fayetteville, to his eyes, seemed to continue in a normal fashion. He deemed the citizens of Fayetteville, “…pious, Sunday go-to-meeting folks,” and held the North Carolinians in much higher esteem than he held South Carolinians or Georgians, who seemed to earn the ire of Sherman’s entire force. They were rebellious and traitorous, and had too little to forage for an army of over 60,000 ravenous men. Sharpe notes, however, that, “…the destruction of property after passing into North Carolina had diminished greatly.”
On March 15, 1865, Sharpe continued with Sherman across the Cape Fear River, which they forded in pontoons, since the Confederates had burned bridges to prevent easy crossing. A brigade on the far left made the first contact with enemy troops right outside of Averasboro, and it was discovered that General Johnston, noted by Sharpe as “Sherman’s old antagonist,” and later as being, “superior to all of the other Southern generals…” was commanding all of the troops placed in front of the main corps. Until this point, Sharpe had seen little resistance on his journey through the Carolinas and noted that many of the people who had been mustered to fight were either extremely young or extremely old. Averasboro and Bentonville, Sharpe figures, were a final superhuman push to derail Sherman and show the Union that they were tired of being pushed around their own state.
The land around Averasboro was swampy to begin with, and the persistent rain during the battle only added to the muck. Sharpe was put on the skirmish line, and soon realized that he was in a precarious position. Heavy artillery, or a battery, was close by, guarded by infantry and earthworks. To preserve his life, Sharpe flattened himself to the ground as men around him were cut down by the rebels nearby. Unable to move for fear of being shot by the enemy or by his own side, who had begun a fierce retaliation, Sharpe stayed on the ground. He soon heard heavy firing to his right, which he later learned was a flanking movement enacted by Colonel Coburn and Captain Winegar.
Sharpe described the Battle of Averasboro as the worst fight he had been in thus far. He wrote, “I had been in some hot places before, but I firmly believe that show, shell and musketry never fell faster than it did on that that occasion. On that field I saw men’s heads shot off, and cannon shots that had plowed right through men’s bodies, and others with legs and arms shot off. O, what a desperate effusion of human blood flowed on that field that day.”
The Confederate forces who fought at Averasboro fell back to Bentonville once they had been outflanked, and Sharpe met them there on March 19. Grape shot flew through the air, and then suddenly the infamous rebel yell reverberated around Sharpe and his fellow Union soldiers. The rebel soldiers came, “…on the double-quick, apparently several columns deep…,” and were met by fire from Sharpe’s front column. After several failed attempts at a charge the Confederates were few in number, and Sharpe watched the remaining few retreat in a chaotic nature.
William Sharpe continued to serve in the United States Army until June 8, 1865, then he was mustered out after nearly three years of dedicated service.