A couple of years ago, I took a tour of Civil War battlefields in North Carolina put together by my friend Teej Smith. We visited Monroe’s Crossroads with Eric Wittenberg, Averasboro with Mark Smith and Wade Sokolosky, and Forts Fisher (Bull Run thread #1) and Anderson with Chris Fonvielle. We also spent a long, hot day at Bentonville with Mark Bradely, author of the definitive study of the battle, Last Stand in the Carolinas. It was there I was able to put a “face” to one of the most poignant stories of the war, that of General William J. Hardee and his young son, Willie.
Born in Georgia in 1815, “Old Reliable” William Hardee was an 1838 graduate of West Point, winner of two brevets in Mexico, one time commandant of cadets at his alma mater, and the author of the standard U. S. Army manual Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and Manoeuvres of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen (Bull Run thread #2). A Lieutenant Colonel before the war, he resigned his commission when Georgia seceded. He served at high levels in the Confederate armies in Kentucky and Tennessee, but when offered command of the Army of Tennessee after Chattanooga, Hardee demurred. He served under Joe Johnston (Bull Run thread #3) and John Hood through the Atlanta Campaign; after the battle of Jonesboro he requested a transfer out from under Hood’s command. He was in command of the forces that surrendered Savannah and Charleston to William T. Sherman (Bull Run thread #4). As the war wound to a close, Hardee found himself once again under Johnston’s command, in an army group that boasted an officer corps reminiscent of a Confederate Old Home week. General officers present at the climactic Battle of Bentonville included blasts from the past Braxton Bragg, D. H. Hill, LaFayette McLaws, William Loring, and William Taliaferro.
I won’t get into the details of the Battle of Bentonville. It was a hard fought affair that lasted three days, March 19, 20, & 21, 1865, and is perhaps most famous for what didn’t happen at its close. On the 22nd Sherman, in command of two armies, turned away from Johnston knowing his old foe was significantly outnumbered and backed up to a stream (Mill Creek) with only one crossing, to march east toward his original objective, Goldsboro. There Sherman intended to add the forces of generals John Schofield and Alfred Terry (Bull Run thread #5) and commence the final march to join Grant at Petersburg. But earlier, on the 21st, Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower led his division of Frank Blair’s 17th Corps of Oliver Howard’s (Bull Run thread #6) Army of the Tennessee against the Confederate left in an effort to cut the rebels off from their escape route over the Mill Creek Bridge.
Mower’s advance slammed into the Confederate left, overrunning Johnston’s headquarters, forcing the General to flee on foot. Johnston had charged Hardee, in command on the right, with gathering troops to mount a defense of the bridge. “Old Reliable” scraped together a force consisting of infantry and cavalry. One of these units was the 8th Texas Cavalry, aka Terry’s Texas Rangers (Bull Run thread #7).
In the ranks of the 8th Texas that day was the General’s 16 year old son, Willie. Young Hardee had first joined the Rangers in the first half of 1864, but the regiment sent the boy, who had run away from a Georgia school to sign up, to his father. In order to keep better watch over him, the General gave his son a position on his staff. Except for a brief stint with a battery, Willie served on his father’s staff up until the march toward Bentonville. Reunited with the Rangers on the march, the boy pleaded with his father for permission to serve with them. After an enticement of an officer’s rank and a position on Johnston’s staff was resisted by the son, the father relented. He told Capt. Kyle of the regiment, “Swear him into service in your company, as nothing else will satisfy.”
As Mower’s attack reached a climax, Hardee assembled the Rangers and the 4th TN cavalry of Col. Baxter Smith’s command. One eyewitness reported that the General and his son tipped hats in salute to each other as the line formed. “Old Reliable” personally led the assault with drawn sword. The cavalry attack pushed the Union skirmishers back on their main line, and the rebel infantry followed. Mower’s assault came to a halt. Sherman, who was not happy that Mower’s action was started in the first place, ordered Blair’s corps to disengage, much to the chagrin of army commander Howard (who as a professor of mathematics at West Point before the war had been entrusted with tutoring the son of the commandant of cadets, William J. Hardee).
Hardee was pleased with the performance of the troops in dealing with the threat to the Mill Creek bridge. As he headed to the rear he joked with Wade Hampton (Bull Run Thread #8), but his high spirits were dashed by the sight of of young Willie’s limp body being supported in his saddle by another Ranger riding behind. He had received a mortal chest wound in the field (pictured below) in front of the Federal line.
The General directed his son be taken to Hillsboro to the home of his niece, Susannah Hardee Kirkland, wife of Brig. Gen. William W. Kirkland, one of Bragg’s brigade commanders (Bull Run thread #9). It was there that Willie Hardee died three days later on March 24. In a small military ceremony which his father attended, he was buried in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church cemetery.
As my friend Mike and I travelled back to Pittsburgh from Wilmington after the last of our tours, we decided to make a little detour to Bennett Place (the site of Johnston’s surrender to Sherman is one stop all enthusiasts should make). Checking with the staff at the site we learned that Hillsboro is not far away and decided to go a little out of our way to find Willie’s grave. It took quite a bit of searching. Once we found the cemetery we still had no idea what the marker looked like. But we found it; actually, I think Mike found it, and it required the brushing away of quite a few leaves. My camera batteries were out of juice, and Mike’s were dying, but with the last photo on his camera we recorded the image below (I’m not sure why the marker says he was 17 – everything I’ve read says he was 16).
I can’t imagine what the General must have felt while standing on that same spot so long ago. Surely he second guessed his decision to allow Willie to join the Rangers. But did he question the cause that had led him, his family, and his countrymen to this state of affairs? Hardee survived the war to become president of the Selma and Meridian Railroad and coauthor of The Irish in America. He passed away on Nov. 6, 1873 in Wytheville, VA and is buried in Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, AL. But I have to believe a big part of him died that day in that churchyard outside Raleigh.
Bull Run Threads
1 – This fort was named for the commander of the 6th NC, Col. C. F. Fisher, killed at First Bull Run.
2 – This manual describes tactics that would have been employed during First Bull Run.
3 - Johnston commanded the Confederate forces at First Bull Run.
4 - Sherman commanded a brigade in Daniel Tyler’s federal division at First Bull Run.
5 - Terry commanded the 2nd CT Infantry in Keyes’s brigade of Tyler’s division at First Bull Run.
6 – Howard commanded a brigade in Heintzelman’s Federal division at First Bull Run.
7 – The 8th TX Cavalry was recruited by Benjamin Franklin Terry and Thomas Lubbock, who both served on the staff of James Longstreet, a brigade commander in Beauregard’s Army of the Potomac at First Bull Run.
8 – Hampton commanded the Hampton Legion at First Bull Run, and was wounded in the battle.
9 – Kirkland commanded the 11th NC Volunteers (later the 21st NC Infantry) of Milledge L. Bonham’s brigade of the Army of the Potomac at First Bull Run.
Bradley, M. L., Last Stand in the Carolinas: The Battle of Bentonville
Eicher & Eicher, Civil War High Commands
Hughes, Jr., N. C., Bentonville: The Final Battle of Sherman & Johnston
Hughes, Jr., N. C., General William J. Hardee, Old Reliable
Moore, M. A., Moore’s Historical Guide to the Battle of Bentonville
Warner, E. J., Generals in Gray