Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table

Education and Preservation


To Prepare for Sherman’s Coming: The Battle of Wise Forks, March 1865

MAJ (ret) Mark Smith and COL (ret) Wade Sokolosky, Savas Beatie LLC, El Dorado Hills, CA, 2015 270 pages, $27.95 

In March 1865, the War Between the States had about six weeks left. The Confederate Army was not beaten however. In a series of tactical actions, the understrength and depleted Confederates bloodied the nose of advancing Federal forces. One of those places was at Wise’s Forks, southeast of Goldsboro. 

“To Prepare for Sherman’s Coming: The Battle of Wise’s Forks, March 1865” by MAJ (ret) Mark Smith and COL (ret) Wade Sokolosky (former USACGSC faculty member) is a well-documented and researched study. This is the authors’ second book and an outstanding addition to “No Such Army Since the Days of Julius Caesar: Sherman’s Carolina’s Campaign from Fayetteville to Averasboro”. 

Wise’s Forks lies just off the Atlantic and North Carolina Rail Road that runs from New Bern to Goldsboro. Near the town of Kinston, the Confederate army under General Bragg made a stand to delay Federal forces moving from the coast to Goldsboro. The rail line was key to Sherman’s advance into the interior of North Carolina. Union control of the rail line would allow Federal logistical support to Sherman’s army. It thus became the focus of a major operation to clear the line to Goldsboro. 

The dilemmas faced by Confederate General Johnston in the allocation and positioning of forces was that his armies faced threats from multiple axes. The Union Army corps commander, Maj Gen Jacob Cox, was thrown into the fight with a “Provisional” army corps. This ad hoc unit of both veteran and untried units was tasked by the Department of North Carolina commander with making junction with Sherman’s Army and facilitating the opening of the rail logistics line to Goldsboro. 

With a tie to the problems faced with current expeditionary force doctrine and modularity; what happens to the Federal Army demonstrates leadership issues with units that have not trained together. By dint of heroism and luck, they do not suffer a major defeat at the country crossroads known as Wise’s Forks. 

Written by Army veterans and military historians, this story exudes a level of understanding of the intricacies that those who have not worn combat boots do not normally grasp. Illustrated with excellent tactical maps; rare images of participants never before published; and superlative footnotes, this book does much to add to the history of the campaign in the Carolinas. An outstanding bibliography belies the excellent research conducted by the authors. 

Smith and Sokolosky have made a readable history that ties tactics, logistics and “face of battle” leadership issues together that both novice and seasoned historians can enjoy. The analysis at the end of the book is outstanding in regards to relating exactly what we teach our military students today about the link between the tactical, operational, and strategic “ends-ways-means”. This is an excellent addition to professional officers’ book cases for these reasons. 

LtCol (ret) Edwin Kennedy, Jr is a retired infantry officer and former history department and tactics department instructor at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, and currently the President of the Tennessee Valley Civil War Round Table. 

No Such Army Since the Days of Julius Caesar: Sherman’s Carolinas Campaign from Fayetteville to Averasboro, March 1865

When first published in 2006, this book was almost the sole recent battlefield study of the Carolinas Campaign and has long been out-of-print. However, it remains the only tactical-level account of the Battle of Averasboro. This reprint contains excellent new maps, newer photos, a battlefield driving tour guide, and additional appendixes concerning including one concerning “The Lost Gunner’s Quadrant.” Savas Beatie publishers have created a more useful and attractive volume, aimed at the general as well as the specialist reader.

Both Mark Smith and Wade Sokolosky were career Army officers, now retired and continuing their research into the events of the Carolinas Campaign. Well regarded as writers and battlefield tour guides, another of their collaborations is “To Prepare for Sherman’s Coming, The Battle of Wise’s Forks, March 1865,” which is also a Savas Beatie publication.

The title of this reprint quotes Joseph Johnston, who marveled at the agility and endurance of Sherman’s men as they rapidly marched from Savannah through South Carolina in February and March, 1865. The Federal Army successfully negotiated the twenty-two miles of thick swamp and rainfall-flooded streams of the Salkehatchie River basin, advancing between two Confederate armies to race through central South Carolina. Corduroying roads to permit their wagons to keep pace, Sherman’s men continued to forage liberally and destroy public property; as in the March to the Sea, they left ruined cities and a devastated civilian population in their wake.

Solokosky and Smith begin their narrative as Sherman’s men entered North Carolina and approach the city and arsenal of Fayetteville on the Cape Fear River. Opposing the Federals was an outnumbered force of veteran infantry and recently evacuated coastal garrison artillerists under General William Hardee. He was operating under General Johnston’s orders to delay the Federal march and allow the Confederates time to gather their scattered forces for a counterattack against Sherman. Hardee realized that he’d not enough men or cannon to hold all bridges or crossing sites along the Cape Fear. He also suspected that Sherman’s men were marching on the fortified Federal-held river port of Goldsboro. Abandoning the river line but risking a battle, Hardee chose as his position a “choke point,” along the one route that Sherman’s men would be restricted to by adverse terrain once across the Cape Fear River. To block the narrowest point along this route the Confederates fortified three lines of defense, one behind the other, from which to oppose the Federals.

The Confederate general succeeded in delaying the Federals for an entire day and then retreated after dark from the final of the three positions. While Sherman’s men successfully seized the first two positions without heavy casualties, they were stymied by the swampy terrain fronting the third Confederate position, and unable to outflank it because of a deep ravine on one flank and deep woods on the other.

The authors point out that Hardee correctly divined Federal intentions and carefully adjusted his defense to best employ his largely untried and ill-equipped army. While I think that the author’s speculation that Hardee designed his battle plan with the Revolutionary Battle of Cowpens in mind is overemphasized, they clearly show that Averasboro was one of William Hardee’s better-fought battles. While Sherman’s armies were not seriously hurt, they were delayed long enough for Joe Johnston to organize enough of an army to attack the Federals at Bentonville as they continued to march toward Goldsboro.

In addition to their well-reasoned narrative, the authors also include a number of interesting appendixes devoted to Sherman’s logistic concept for the march through the Carolinas, the Averasboro Field Hospitals, and the experience of doctors and civilians providing medical treatment for wounded soldiers following the battle. Finally, the driving tour guide is clear and well-illustrated, permitting a complete review of the modern battlefield by both readers and the battlefield tour participants. This book is recommended to all readers interested in “Uncle Billy” Sherman, “Old Reliable” Hardee, and the Civil War in North Carolina.


Reviewed by David Lady

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