Diary of Orrin Brown, Smithville, south of Erwin, North Carolina.
We broke up camp at 7 AM. I was very bad and could hardly walk at all but I had to walk bout 1/2 mile before I could get into the Ambulance on account of a bad piece of road, and we had bad roads all day and I had to get out severall times and walk around the mudholes and about three PM all of the Ambulances were ordered to the front to bring in the wounded men and then I heard that our advance had been fighting all day with pretty heavy loss. We passed the 20th Corp. Hospital and I stoped in and saw two men on the tables that had just been having their left legs taken off and the hospital was full of men wounded in every form. The loss of our regt. was light. Our company lost no men but the 1st Lieut was slightly wounded. There was two Divi. of the 14th Corp. and two of the 20th engaged.
Battle of Averasborough
Confederate Gen. Joe Johnston could only hope to pick at portions of Sherman’s army, like a small dog trying to bring down a bear. Operating out of Smithfield in Johnston County, he sent Gen. Hardee to harass and delay Sherman’s left wing, while Gen. Wheeler skirmished with Kilpatrick’s cavalry, slowing the column’s advance out of Fayetteville, and separating Slocum’s Army of Georgia from Howard’s Army of the Tennessee.
While the Union left wing marched between the Cape Fear River and the Black River on the Raleigh plank road (modern NC Highway 82), Johnston concentrated troops for battle south of Averasboro in Harnett County, at Smithville (Smith’s Mill / Smith’s Ferry*), a settlement of three plantations owned by the Smith families. Three battle lines were established, with Confederate Col. Alfred Moore Rhett’s brigade from Charleston dug into a strong position in the rear of an open field, digging breastworks extending from the Cape Fear to the Black River swamp.
About 3pm on the 15th, Kilpatrick and the 9th Michigan Cavalry hit the Rebel skirmish line south of Smithville and traded fire until dark. Col. Rhett, a city boy lost in the fog of war, was captured inadvertently, and he dined that evening with Gen. Sherman in camp with our XIV Corps. On the 16th, action resumed about 6am with the XX Corps reaching the battlefield about 10am, followed by the XIV Corps. (The Civil War Trust has a great battlefield map.) Vandever’s First Brigade of the XIV Corps was placed to extend the Union left to the Cape Fear, as reported in the Official Records:
After crossing a deep and difficult ravine I advanced my line as far as the nature of the gourd would permit. My extreme left rested on the Cape Fear River, with deep ravines running along my front, separating me from the works of the enemy, which extended to the river. I succeeded in pushing across the ravine two companies of the Sixtieth Illinois on my extreme left and three companies of the Seventeenth New York; but they had to remain under cover of the opposite bank, being too close to the enemy’s works to withstand his fire unprotected. The firing all along my line was heavy and protracted. Thus matters reined until near dark, when the fire slackened and almost ceased.
Lt. Col. George W. Grummond reported 22 casualties from the 14th Michigan Infantry. Hardee made a strategic retreat over cover of night. Capt. Thomas Higgins and Lt. Patrick Kelley of the 14th Regiment Michigan Infantry were wounded (Kelley was promoted to captain effective 14 March). The 1834 William T. Smith House, southernmost of the three plantations, served as Union headquarters and hospital. John C. Smith’s historic 1789 Oak Grove plantation and Farquhard Campbell Smith’s 1824 Lebanon plantation home served as Confederate hospitals during the battle. The Oak Grove house was recently moved across the highway.
Historians Angley, Cross and Hill (Sherman’s March Through North Carolina: A Chronology, 2015) note the delaying action doesn’t quite rise to the level of a “battle”, more of an intense skirmish, and prelude to pitched action a few days later. A re-enactment was scheduled over the weekend for the 150th anniversary.
*Smithfield is the county seat of Johnston County. The plantations owned by the extended Smith family here was known as Smithville (I initially confused the two). According to the National Register application for the 4,000 acre Averasboro Battlefield Historic District, Smith’s Ferry was established on the Cape Fear River at this location by Geoffrey Dawson as Dawson’s Ferry prior to 1757, at the mouth of the Little River along Green’s Path. Alexander Smith purchased the site prior to 1761 and it remained in use into the early twentieth century. Other sources tell the story of Averasboro, founded on the Cape Fear in 1740 by John McCalister. The railroad bypassed the town, and it faded away by 1900.