On the eve of the battle, Confederate General Joseph Johnston established his headquarters in the field in front of you on property belonging to John Benton, Bentonville's namesake. Summoned from retirement by Gen. Robert E. Lee only a month before, Johnston commanded a hodgepodge army consisting of the diminished Army of Tennessee, combined with all troops in the Departments of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. Though a large force on paper, in reality Johnston's army at Bentonville consisted of fewer than 20,000 soldiers.
Once one of the Confederacy's brightest stars, Johnston had previously commanded Confederate forces in Virginia, until he was wounded in May 1862 and superseded by Lee. After recovering, Johnston spent most of the war in the Western Theatre, but was dismissed by Pres. Jefferson Davis for retreating from Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman to the gates of Atlanta in July 1864. Johnston's tumultuous relationship with Davis did little to help his career, finally ensuring that he was out of the war effort altogether during a critical time for the Confederacy. It was over Davis's objections that Lee recalled Johnston to command in February 1865.
Johnston had been given orders by Lee to "concentrate forces to drive back Sherman," but "not to engage in battle without a reasonable prospect
for success." Johnston's cavalry commander, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton, presented him with a plan to pounce on Sherman's isolated Left Wing near the village of Bentonville, before the Federals could reach Goldsboro and reinforcements. Johnston moved his army into position blocking the Goldsboro Road on March 18. He surprised but failed to destroy the Federal Left Wing on March 19, and clashed with Sherman's combined army on the following two days.
On March 21, men from the 64th Illinois and other units overran Johnston's headquarters, causing him and his staff to flee on foot toward Mill Creek Bridge. Johnston's personal belongings, including his sash, sword, and private correspondence, along with horses of his staff officers were captured by members of the 39th Ohio and 64th Illinois.
The Twenty-seventh and Thirty-ninth Ohio reached far to the rear of the Confederate Army, to the headquarters of the Confederate Army Commander, General Joseph E. Johnston. Over the door of an old log house, which he had occupied, was nailed the general headquarters sign. The General with his staff and Cavalry Escort stampeded, leaving their horses tied to fences.
—Charles H. Smith, The History of Fuller's Ohio Brigade