On March 15, at
the community of Smithville (not to be confused with Smithfield) below Averasboro, NC, General Hardee--with approximately 6,455
effectives--deployed his command in three lines in a well-chosen defensive
position. Here the Cape Fear and Black Rivers were only about two miles
apart, and Hardee's command spanned the distance between them, blocking
the Federal Left Wing's advance on the Raleigh Plank Road. The first two
lines constituted Gen. William B. Taliaferro's division of untried
garrison troops: A. M. Rhett's Brigade in front, followed by Stephen
Elliott's. Some 600 yards in rear of Elliott's line lay Hardee's more
experienced command: the four brigades of combat veterans and one brigade
of reserves constituting Gen. Lafayette
About 3:00 p.m. on March 15 the 9th Michigan Cavalry, followed by the rest
of Smith D. Atkins' Federal horsemen, made contact with Taliaferro's
skirmishers. Finding the road blocked, Atkins deployed astride the Raleigh
Plank Road, and sharp skirmishing occurred throughout the afternoon. As
night fell a heavy rain set in, and the aristocratic Col. Alfred M. Rhett,
having been captured by a party of Federal scouts, was mortified to find
himself a prisoner in the hands of Capt. Theo Northrop. By 12:30 a.m. on
March 16, the first Union infantry reinforcements were arriving in the
vicinity of Smithville. Colonel William Hawley's brigade of the XX Corps,
departing Bluff Church, had marched a dismal five miles in a thunderstorm
to relieve Atkins's troopers at the front.
By 9:00 a.m. the Federals were preparing to brush Hardee's Corps out of
the way. The XX Corps divisions of William Ward and Nathaniel Jackson
joined Hawley's brigade at the front, Ward moving to the left while the
remainder of Jackson's division joined on the right of Hawley's line. The
Union battle line soon advanced to within 500 yards of Rhett's Confederate
brigade, which was deployed astride the road just north of the John Smith
house ("Oak Grove").
At 10:30 a.m. the engagement began in earnest when Gen. H. W. Slocum
ordered Col. Henry Case's brigade to flank the Confederate line and clear
the road. Moving well to the left, Case's men crossed a large ravine and
attacked squarely upon the right flank of Rhett's Brigade. At the same
time, Col. Daniel Dustin's brigade advanced in front. Though Rhett's men
had stood well thus far in their first taste of combat, the Union assault
was too great to bear and the Confederate line was sent reeling backward
toward Elliott's position to the north. Three field pieces on Rhett's line
were captured, and two of them were turned and fired at their former
owners as they scampered toward the rear.
Around 1:00 p.m. the Federals advanced on Elliott's line, while Judson
Kilpatrick's troopers attempted to flank the Confederate left.
Kilpatrick's maneuver was thwarted, however, by the 32nd Georgia and 1st
Georgia Regulars, which had been sent forward from McLaws's line in an
effort to stem the Federal advance. The 2nd South Carolina (Conner's
Brigade) was also sent forward to anchor Elliott's right flank, but the
Union infantry advance was too great to withstand. Taliaferro's second
line crumbled, and retreated toward the relative safety of McLaws's
As the afternoon wore on Gen. James D. Morgan's Federal XIV Corps division
moved in on the left of the XX Corps. Skirmishing remained sharp, with the
opposing lines in close proximity, but the Federal advance stopped at
Hardee's third line. The day's light rain had given way to a downpour in
the afternoon, worsening the muddy terrain and hampering troop deployment.
Having been delayed by muddy roads rendered nearly impassable by the
recent rains, Carlin's XIV Corps division arrived around dusk and formed
in reserve of the main Federal line. Sherman then postponed any further
attack until the next morning.
Late in the afternoon General Hardee sent word to Joe Johnston that he had
checked Sherman's advance, and that he would retire toward Smithfield
after dark. At nightfall the Confederate artillery pulled out, followed
around 8:00 p.m. by the infantry (which had built campfires to help
disguise the retreat).
The engagement at Averasboro cost
Hardee's Corps about 500 casualties. Slocum's Federal Left Wing lost 682,
bringing the total to approximately 1,182.