To your front and left, Confederate forces counterattacked Union forces under Maj. Gen. Joseph Mower on three sides. Leading a counterattack to protect the vital Mill Creek bridge - the only avenue of retreat for Johnston's army - Gen. William Hardee along with Confederate cavalry commanders Wheeler, Hampton, and Allen bought precious time. With the support of Cumming's infantry, they stopped and threw back two veteran brigades of Sherman's boldest division. When Hardee made his way back from the counterattack, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton recalled that Hardee's face was "bright with the light of battle?He turned to me and exclaimed: ?That was Nip and Tuck, and for a time I thought Tuck had it.'" The assault on March 21 came at a high personal cost to General Hardee. His only son, Willie, was mortally wounded during his charge with Terry's Texas Rangers, a unit he joined only that morning.
Expecting another attack, the Confederates extended their lines from the Cole plantation to Mill Creek, and General Johnston continued to brace the Confederate left flank (here) with every available man. Surrounded by Union forces on three sides and no longer holding the advantage of surprise, Johnston led his army on a retreat to Smithfield, thus ending the Battle of Bentonville. Under sporadic artillery and small arms fire, the Confederates began crossing Mill Creek bridge on the rainy night of March 21. At dawn, Wheeler's troopers ripped the flooring from the bridge, but Union forces pursued the retreating Confederates as far as Hannah's Creek (two miles north) before giving up the chase. Content to let Johnston's army escape, Sherman continued his march to Goldsboro on March 22.
Only sixteen years old, Willie Hardee had joined Terry's Rangers despite his father's reluctance. General Hardee directed that his wounded son be transported to Hillsborough. There his wife and daughter were staying with his niece, Susannah Hardee Kirkland, the wife of Brig. Gen. William W. Kirkland. Willie died on March 24 and was buried at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Hillsborough. Before the war, O.O. Howard had tutored Willie Hardee; at Bentonville, Howard was the Federal Right Wing commander.
"We fell back to the edge of a field, where we met General Johnston?We gave him three cheers. He raised his hat and spoke some words that I failed to catch, but some that were nearer him said he told Col. Henderson to compliment the brigade for him; that they had saved the army. That set us on fire again, and we would have charged Old Nick himself if Joe Johnston as ordered us to."
M.J. Davis, Cumming's Brigade.
"I think I made a mistake there, and should rapidly have followed Mower's lead with the whole of the right wing, which would have brought on a general battle, and it could not have resulted other than successfully to us, by reason of our vastly superior numbers."
- Gen. William T. Sherman
Mill Creek near the village of Bentonville was described by a Confederate private during the battle as "a deep creek which runs close to the little town of Bentonville, and owing to the recent rains, is very much swollen, and not fordable any where; therefore it is very important for us to hold the bridge."